Arabian Changes
The long road ahead.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a six-part series on Iraq after Saddam Hussein.

The run-up to the second Gulf War made it clear: When the dust had settled, neither Iraq nor the Middle East would be the same. Even in the unlikely event Saddam Hussein or his Baath party had retained power, radical change was in the air.

A new Middle Eastern order was launched March 20, with crucial shifts in the political situation in Iraq and the region. Iraq’s relations with the United States and the rest of the world are still in development; however, change they will, as will Iraqi-Arab relations and other inter-Arab ties. As a prime example, the Arab League in its current form and structure, is poised to disappear, and there will be other significant political, security and economic changes, region-wide.

The war’s aftermath will depend largely on Washington’s ongoing strategy regarding Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. Apart from eliminating both the Saddam regime and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the next steps remain to be revealed in the coming months.

U.S. promises of a freely chosen, democratic government appear genuine but will be met with sharp challenges from the various contending political factions, as well as diehard elements of Iraq’s ancien regime. It will take time to clarify the genuine will of the people, the best intentions of the victorious armies notwithstanding.

The United States must act promptly and unambiguously to fulfill the Coalition’s declarations that the war’s aim was not to colonize but to free the Iraqi people from Saddam’s dictatorship, once weapons of mass destruction have been eliminated. Despite undoubted challenges, if Washington and London manifestly help Iraqis build a democratic, unified and independent state, they will greatly strengthen their strategic interests, particularly if coupled with decisive U.S.-led efforts to achieving Palestinian-Israeli peace and creation of an independent, stable Palestinian state.

As U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell projected prior to hostilities, the Iraqis gaining democracy will result in a restructuring of the Middle East that can genuinely serve the interests of the people in the region as well as the United States, very possibly contributing to settling the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. On the other hand, were Washington perceived as not having met its promised objectives, chaos would prevail, with grave damage to U.S., British, and Israeli interests throughout the region.

Besides undertaking a major effort to settle the tortured Palestinian-Israeli situation, the issue of the autocratic and unrepresentative governments throughout the region must be addressed. As the war against Iraq approached, many Arab governments took Saddam’s presumed departure as a fait accompli, with privately or publicly stated support. Iraqi authorities, notably supported by Libya and Syria, lashed at Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, accusing them of cooperation and collaboration with the United States and Britain. The lack of a united Arab position was painfully clear.

Most striking was the chaotic Cairo meeting of Arab League foreign ministers, where an open split erupted, between those wanting Saddam to remain and those seeking his exile. Coming only months after a similarly divisive heads of state meeting in Beirut over support for Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s formula for a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, the Arab League appears damaged beyond repair in anything approaching present form.

The disarray in what was formerly referred to optimistically as the Arab nation reflects widely diverging political and economic outlooks, which in turn provides an opportunity for genuinely popular regime changes. Years of corrupt, autocratic, corrupt rule have created huge anti-regime popular support. The result is revolutionary divisions in the Palestinian community, in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as across the Gulf in non-Arab Iran.

Most Arab governments privately dread a democratic Iraq next door and have lately reacted by expressing doubt for U.S. intentions. For them, the Baath party remaining in power is preferable to it being replaced by a government antithetical to their regimes.

In Syria, the nominally Baathist regime is noticeably worried, having squashed young Syrian President Bashar Assad’s reform-based attempts to maintain the party’s dictatorship. In the past few weeks, Damascus has switched from support for removal of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to outspoken opposition to the U.S.-led Coalition.

Syria is not alone, with autocratic governments in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia clearly concerned that a precedent-setting democratic regime could come to power in Baghdad. Many observers contend the popular antiwar protests that swept most Arab countries, with almost daily clashes between the masses and authorities, were not pro-Saddam so much as protests against their own governments.

The stage in fact is set for a reversal of the heretofore steadily increasing negative view of the United States in the Arab street. Continued emphasis by Washington on political liberalism and settlement of the Palestinian crisis are the keys to what can be a radical change for the better in popular attitudes toward the United States.

Iran’s government also fears a democratic Iraq in its backyard, especially since it thwarted popular will and failed to introduce political reforms for which millions have been demonstrating for more than a year. Even democratic Turkey and Israel are concerned that a democratic Iraq will confront their expansionist aspirations-in northern Iraq for Ankara, and in the Arab territories captured in 1967 for Jerusalem.

Arab countries bordering the Gulf are at best wary of a democratic Iraq due to the very limited steps taken to liberalize their political systems, especially in Saudi Arabia the leading member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. These regimes benefited for years from common opposition to the Iraqi regimes and adventures of Baath activists. There has been a sympathetic attitude toward the Iraqi people in the Gulf countries, whose residents generally view Iraq’s history of cultural, political, and educational achievement with admiration and respect.

In a recent study in the United Arab Emirates, Gulf intellectuals strongly criticized their regimes, particularly their obvious fear of public pressure for democratic freedoms following the anticipated war and Saddam’s ouster. One key Gulf personality went as far as saying that Gulf peoples care about Iraq more than any other country in the world, including their own.

An article in the Kuwait daily Al-Siyassa said the Arab Gulf countries will soon face the need to accept political plurality as a result of a representative regime in Iraq “that will place the Gulf countries under pressure to accept democracy.”

Several Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, have taken tentative steps toward introducing representative elements in their political systems. Saudi Arabia has called for change in the Arab political order but has done nothing tangible to implement reform at home.

Parallel to the anticipated move toward democracy, the 22-member Arab League appears on the verge of withering away or at least changing drastically. Having descended into open name calling, it has lost any semblance of consensus or ability to act. As one retired diplomat noted ironically, “The league has no credibility. It has become merely a source of employment for unwanted Arab officials and retired diplomats … like me.”

With establishment of non-dictatorial regimes taking root, it is possible to envision a multi-country association to include Iraq and the Gulf states, plus Yemen, Turkey, and Iran. Such a grouping could have political, economic, and military dimensions and might eventually include Israel, provided a peace settlement is achieved that creates an independent Palestine.

As peace and reform take hold in Iraq, there will be significant change in the political structures of virtually every country in the Middle East. The process will not be rapid, easy, or in some cases, necessarily peaceful. Moreover, protracted patience and skilled diplomacy by the United States, Great Britain, and other interested powers, if the changes are to be positive for everyone concerned.

Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War. This series was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.


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