The Washington Post
An Arab House, Openly Divided
By Shafeeq Ghabra
Sunday, March 9, 2003

Even in the annals of contentious Arab diplomacy, it is unusual for the vice
president of one country to tell the foreign minister of another, "Shut up,
you minion, you agent, you monkey." Or for a Saudi crown prince to tell the
leader of Libya, "You are a liar and your grave awaits you." But these and
other embarrassing televised moments of high-level quarreling have taken
place at two summit meetings over the past nine days, and one can only
wonder what comedian decided to call the second of those two meetings a
"unity" summit.

By some measures, the Arab world has been through a period of relative
stability over the past decade or two. Assassinations, coups and social
unrest have virtually disappeared. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the
Palestinian uprising were glaring exceptions to that stability, but even
they have failed to result in any change in Arab leadership.

Beneath the surface, however, the Arab condition is not well. Regimes that
appear stable may be merely arthritic. Bombastic leaders are actually
anxious, popular opinion is in flux. And the massing of U.S. troops in the
Persian Gulf waters and states, poised to impose a change of regime in
Baghdad, has created paralysis in the Arab world by dividing it into those
who support U.S.-led action against Iraq and those who reject it.

The first of the two meetings, the Arab League summit held in Sharm
el-Sheik, Egypt, on March 1, was a stunning failure. In a rare public
confrontation, which took place in front of millions of Arabs thanks to new
Arab satellite television channels, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi accused
Saudi Arabia of having made "an alliance with the devil" when it asked U.S.
troops to protect it from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Saudi Crown Prince
Abdullah replied in an intemperate fashion, calling Gaddafi "an agent for
colonizers." Any chance the Arab League would reach agreement on how to deal
 with the most pressing issue of the day was lost.

A similar dispute took place during the Organization of the Islamic
Conference meeting last Wednesday. Iraq's vice president, Izat Ibrahim, and
Kuwait's minister of state for foreign affairs, Muhammad al Sabah, clashed
over Kuwait's endorsement of the United Arab Emirates' call for Saddam
Hussein's resignation. Kuwait believes that Hussein and his regime are the
cause of the crisis in the region. Ibrahim, reflecting Iraq's uncompromising
logic, used a traditional taunt: "May Allah curse your mustache," he told al
Sabah. A Kuwaiti delegate called the Iraqi vice president's insults "the
words of an infidel and a charlatan." The truth is that the Arab world is
more divided than ever, and the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has
exposed the differing motives, fears and interests across the Arab world.
It's not hard to figure out those divisions from listening to the Arab
leaders at the two conferences.

Bashar Assad, in his speech at the Arab League summit, took the clearest
position: The Syrian president urged Arab countries not to provide any
support or facilities to the United States for its possible war with Iraq.
After all, the Iraqi regime, like Syria's, is run by Baathists, and it is
hard for Syria to support the demise of its fellow party. Assad also
indirectly targeted America's strongest supporters -- Kuwait, Qatar,
Bahrain, Jordan, Oman and the UAE. That position has a logic behind it. It
maintains Syria's traditional pan-Arab ideological stand and connects with
the Arab street's populist attitudes, allowing Assad to repeat to Syrians
what they have been hearing for years. The language of Assad was that of the
old guard and it dominated both the Arab and Islamic summits.

Syria is also aware that the end of the Hussein regime will be the beginning
of an emphasis on issues that Damascus would rather not confront: Syria's
role in Lebanon, its support for Hezbollah and some Palestinian
organizations, and one-party rule in Syria. Furthermore Syria has been
profiting from economic cooperation with Baghdad, both through trade and
from fees from the pipeline that goes across Syria from Iraq. There is no
guarantee the new regime in Iraq will be as cozy with Syria.

>From Syria's perspective, the best tactic is to create tactical
distractions, delay the American action in Iraq and keep international focus
on non-Syrian issues. The hope is to avoid regime change in Iraq. If this
proves unavoidable, Syria hopes for a quagmire in Iraq that will force the
United States to call on the services of Syria in Iraq and in the region.
Preserving the status quo within its own borders and bypassing the reform
agenda is on top of Syria's list.

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia share similar logic though from different
positions. By nature, the Saudis are not adventurists. They will not openly
back the U.S. effort to change the regime in Iraq by force, an attempt to
maintain internal national unity. That's why, notwithstanding Abdullah's
outburst at the Arab League, the Saudis have taken care not to align
themselves with the Kuwaitis or the UAE. But their attitude remains
ambiguous. The splits between rejectionists and supporters, younger and
older members of the elite, and between religious and more secular
establishments have complicated the crown prince's position. (One example of
the crown prince's struggles: His efforts to open up Saudi natural gas
fields to foreign investment have been stymied by rivals and entrenched
bureaucrats.) Regarding the war, some Westernized Saudis want to endorse the
U.S. position so the kingdom can have a voice in postwar Iraq. But refusal
to join the U.S. effort has become a mechanism to help the Saudi crown
prince avoid serious internal conflicts. Many Saudis cite internal conflict
as the cause for the demise of the first and second Saudi states in the 19th
century -- a history they would rather not repeat.

Saudis are also aware that their country's religious laws and character,
though central to the regime's legitimacy, are also under attack by a United
States that is intimating it will shake up the Middle East. Bush said at his
news conference Thursday night that change in Iraq could be a "catalyst for
change, positive change" in "that troubled part of the world." Many Saudis
wonder what that means. They fear that after a war in Iraq, the issues of
religion and politics, fundamentalist wahhabism and democratic changes will
go to the top of the U.S. agenda. In this context, Saudi Arabia has a vested
interest in delaying war in Iraq and will only cooperate with the United
States in a reluctant spirit. It may hope to play a stabilizing role in
postwar Iraq. Or it may hope that there will be just enough problems with
post-Saddam nation-building to force the United States to give up talk of
wider democratic reform in the region.

Egypt, the largest of the Arab states, is concerned with its regional
stature, as well as its own internal succession. Once preeminent in the Arab
world, Egypt has lost its leadership role to smaller countries such as
Qatar, the UAE and even Syria. (Egypt wasn't enthusiastic about having the
Arab League meeting at all.) This stands in contrast to 1990-91, when Egypt
was able to lead. A new Iraq, integrated with a more influential Gulf
Cooperation Council and bolstered by a partnership with Jordan, could
further diminish Egypt's regional role.

In many ways Egypt is hoping for the maintenance of the status quo in Iraq,
that is to say containment without a change of regime because it is
difficult to predict the reactions Egyptians will have to a new regime in
Baghdad. Popular opposition to war was expressed by half a million people at
a peaceful demonstration organized by the ruling party in Egypt last

The smaller states of the Persian Gulf are more comfortable with the United
States, and their leaders have proven more nimble than many of those from
larger countries. While the Arab summit was dominated by the language of the
Arab street, the call for Hussein's resignation by the UAE's Sheik Zayed bin
Sultan Nahayan was the most significant statement made. It was a call for
peace through a change of regime in Iraq. According to Zayed, the only way
to avoid war is through the resignation of Hussein and his associates.
Unfortunately, the Arab summit shuffled the UAE initiative under the table
and the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, ignored it. The UAE call
gained momentum with the endorsement of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, but only
after the summit's final insignificant communiqué. This is proof that the
summit did not represent all Arabs and did not accommodate all views. In
addition to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, it is clear that Jordan,
Oman and Morocco support the U.S. effort to change the regime in Iraq.

The Arab League summit created a committee of foreign ministers to deal with
the war issue, but left the group open for voluntary membership. The
committee is supposed to go to the U.N. Security Council to voice Arab
concerns over the coming war. It could also have dealt with Baghdad. Yet the
committee is too divided to have any impact. It is chaired by Bahrain, which
supports the UAE call for Hussein's resignation, while its members also
include Egypt and Syria, who make it difficult to carry out that mission.
What does such a committee mean without tools and without any impact in
Washington or in Baghdad?

The Arab world, especially the larger Arab states, has invested heavily in
trying to stop a war and prevent regime change in Iraq. Yet if the region
(along with the French and the Germans) had invested similar energy into
persuading Hussein to leave power, the Arab world (along with the French and
Germans) would have a better reception in Washington and more influence
during the next stage of events, both in the rebuilding of Iraq and on the
Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab leaders could have invited the Iraqi
opposition to the Sharm el-Sheik summit. They did not. Nor did they hold out
a vision of Iraq's reintegration with its neighbors after a change of
regime. Events are moving fast, and the summit was behind on every issue.

The Arab summit was the latest indication of a lack of leadership in the
Arab world, where dissension has become the rule rather than the exception.
It has produced discord between rulers as the recent summits have
demonstrated. It has also caused conflict between elites within the Arab
states, between religion and politics, development and stagnation, tradition
and modernity. Our region is passing through one of its most fluid times. No
one knows how it will all look when it's over. It is clear it will look
different. Maybe when Arab leaders meet at the next summit, they ought to
discuss how the deterioration in education, science and technology,
creativity, research, privatization, economy, the rule of law, and freedom
have contributed to the broader failure of the Arab world.

Shafeeq Ghabra is a professor of political science and president of the
American University of Kuwait, which is due to open in the fall of 2004.

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