Politics & Policy

Survival of The Skittish

Is the Arab world on board?

So much for Arab unity. Despite the repeated and emphatic declarations of unity with Iraq, the recent televised brawl between Arab leaders at the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Qatar showed that the Arab world is actually anything but unified. As it turns out, much of the Arab world will now back the imminent U.S. invasion.

Of course, we should all be thankful of Arab support. Indeed, we should take note that a solid number of Arab states are proving to be better allies than the French or the Germans. It’s also important to note, however, that a familiar reality has emerged — one of every Arab nation for itself. Syria, Yemen, and Egypt are standing together in opposition, but many other Arab nations have decided that Saddam can burn.

The Iraqis, of course, are upset with the Kuwaitis for allowing more than 75,000 U.S. troops on Kuwaiti soil, with another 40,000 on ships offshore — all in preparation for the coming war. The Kuwaitis, for their part, are justified. They remember very clearly the seven-month Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in Gulf War I. When his troops were finally ousted, Saddam set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells. Today, plenty of Kuwaitis would be happy to see him roast.

For cooperating with the U.S., the Iraqi vice president went so far as to say, “Damn your mustache!” to the Kuwaiti representative. Whatever that means.

But Kuwait is not alone. The tiny peninsula state of Qatar is also quietly supporting the U.S. invasion, but for different reasons. To begin with, of course, Qatar would be happy to see the most power-hungry despot in the Gulf get what’s coming to him. But it goes beyond that. In 2000, Qatar offered the American military a state-of-the-art airbase called Al-Udeid, correctly calculating that an American presence on their soil would help ensure security in their dangerous neighborhood. They also reasoned that the U.S. presence would postpone a costly overhaul to their feeble military.

The deal with the U.S. military was also a very effective way for Qatar to thumb its nose at the Saudis, their major Persian Gulf foe. Because the Saudis have rejected American demands to be allowed to attack Iraq from Saudi soil, Qatar will now be the headquarters of the U.S. central command for the entire war.

Even the Saudis have reconsidered their position in recent days. After initially denying access to Iraq from the Prince Sultan Airbase, they recently agreed to allow for “defensive” U.S. air operations from Saudi territory, should war erupt. This would not include bombing raids, but would allow for refueling missions, AWACS surveillance, and the interception of Iraqi jets illegally entering the southern “no-fly” zone. The Saudis evidently don’t want to be left out of the decision-making process when Iraq is rebuilt.

And don’t forget the United Arab Emirates. In a move that utterly destroyed the façade of Arab unity, the UAE recently proposed sending Saddam into exile, as a way of sparing the region from war. The UAE was backed by Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait. None of the leaders in these small countries feel powerful enough to endure the stresses that a war would place on their corrupt governments. And none of them want Saddam around.

Jordan is another interesting case. Last fall, King Abdullah launched a campaign called al-Urdun Awalan, or “Jordan First,” stressing Jordanian nationalism above Arab nationalism. Abdullah’s stated goal was to “promote loyalty to [the] homeland.” The campaign was a response to brewing domestic tensions sparked by the looming war in Iraq. In essence, he told his subjects — and the Arab world — that in the event of a war, Jordan would do what it needed to do to protect itself, irrespective of calls for Arab solidarity.

Today, while calling for peace, Jordan is simultaneously allowing for a clandestine but substantial U.S. presence — including troops, antimissile batteries, and radar. In exchange, Jordan will be compensated with thousands of barrels of free oil, increased foreign aid, and lots of new military gadgetry.

So as it turns out, American interests and Arab interests seem to have more in common than previously believed.

For its part, the U.S. should no longer operate under the delusion that the Arab world is interested in larger Arab ideals. It should also ignore ominous warnings of the so-called Arab street. These concerns and ideals inevitably yielded to the Arabs’ hatred for Saddam and their common interest in shaping in Iraq’s future. Arab leaders also know that cooperation with the U.S. is likely to pay dividends in the long run.

In fact, history shows that when it comes to U.S. military action in the Gulf, while Arab states will kick and scream, they will eventually come on board. In a part of the world where self-preservation is the rule, call it survival of the skittish.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


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