Middle East

The Arab Press and the Iraq Crisis

Middle East: Axis of Paralysis

Flag of the Arab League
The flag of the Arab League

The past week has seen a series of dramatic and unexpected developments in Middle Eastern diplomacy. As each passing day further constricts Middle Eastern countries’ options, inter-Arab tensions and frustrations are reaching their boiling points. Arab and Islamic efforts to stave off the impending U.S. attack on Iraq have been stymied by the perception that the decision for war has already been made in Washington and nothing can be done to reverse it as well as by a lack of consensus on any constructive plan that would actually be able to prevent the war. The month of March is proving to be a critical test for the ideals and institutions of Arab unity. As Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi defined this historic moment in his opening remarks to the Arab Summit, the current Iraq impasse is the equivalent of an Arab “Bay of Pigs Crisis” (the actual term was “Gulf of Pigs Crisis”—a barb at the support Gulf states have offered the United States).

Convening at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, leaders from 22 Arab countries met on Saturday, March 1, for the 15th summit of the Arab League. The summit was controversial even before it opened, as some Arab leaders signaled they thought the meeting was unnecessary and that the resolution from the League’s March 2002 summit in Beirut voiced sufficiently united opposition to a war on Iraq. The Beirut summit had also been the scene of astounding conciliatory gestures between representatives of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Yet it seems that during his trip to Europe in February 2003, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was inspired by France and Germany’s position to organize a unified Arab stance more effectively. He may have also been stung by criticism in the press and on the “Arab street” that European leaders had supplanted Arab leaders in championing Arab causes. In any case, Mubarak returned to Egypt determined to convene a new Arab League summit.

But unlike the Beirut summit, this latest meeting was the scene of vitriolic language and a near-collapse of the institution. During his speech to the summit members broadcast live on television, al-Qaddafi interrupted his prepared text to make a seemingly impromptu analogy to the 1991 Gulf War, in which Saudi Arabia had hosted the coalition forces attacking Iraq. Referring to an alleged phone conversation in 1991 with Saudi King Fahd, al-Qaddafi claimed Fahd “told me that his country was threatened and that he would even cooperate with the Devil to protect it.”

The Saudi response was immediate and caustic. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah interrupted al-Qaddafi, accusing him of being an agent of colonialism and concluding with a verbal assault heard round the Arab world: “You, who brought you to power? Don’t talk about issues that you fail to prove. Your lies precede you while the grave lies ahead of you.”

A shouting match ensued and the live television feed was cut. Initially, both the Libyan and Saudi delegations began to leave, but Mubarak and other Arab leaders prevailed upon them to stay. Though the concluding resolution of the summit espoused a unified Arab stance against an attack on Iraq, in reality relations had been irreparably damaged. Within hours, thousands of protestors in the Libyan capital of Tripoli marched on the Saudi Embassy, only dispersing when riot police used tear gas and batons on the crowd. The Libyan ambassador was recalled from Riyadh and al-Qaddafi held a press conference the next day in Cairo reiterating his longstanding intention to withdraw Libya from the Arab League.

These events and their ramifications have engaged the Arab press for days. The overwhelming opinion is that despite the final resolution, the Arab League has demonstrated once again the lack of Arab unity. Its resolutions are seen as ineffectual and member states often act unilaterally anyway. Writing in Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly on March 6, veteran columnist Salama Ahmed Salama summed up the general frustration: “[The Arab leaders] come, they meet, they talk, they eat and drink, they issue statements, then they go their separate ways as if nothing had taken place. As a consequence, no one gives much weight or attention to these summit-level meetings.”

Rafiq Khouri, in a March 2 editorial for Beirut’s independent Al-Anwar, echoed similar sentiments. “Heading off the oncoming storm requires more than announcements from a hotel…or digging trenches,” he wrote.

The March 5 editorial in Algeria’s independent Al-Khabar focused on the incongruity between summit resolutions and national interests: “Before the ink had dried on this resolution disavowing any military action against Iraq, Kuwait’s ruling House of al-Sabah announced that country’s willingness to accept the very American troops that the Turkish Parliament had refused to accommodate on Turkish soil, which means that the House of al-Sabah doesn’t believe in its commitments at the latest summit.”

Furthermore, the temporary breakdown at the summit betrays a fundamental rift, described by many as “the inter-Arab conflict.” Writing in the Palestinian Al-Quds on March 5, Hatim Abu Shaban, a member of the Palestinian National Assembly, discerned a widening breach. Some Arab nations are in “a camp dead set against aggression and any American dictates. They consider an attack on Iraq as the starting point of aggressive policies vis-à-vis the rest of the Arab world. The other camp, described as moderate and practical, perhaps favors the idea of the removal of Saddam Hussein as a means of preventing war.”

Abu Shaban put his finger on a serious point of contention. Those nations completely opposed to any form of U.S. interference in the region see other Arab nations that cooperate with the United States or allow U.S. bases on their soil—primarily the Gulf states—as hypocrites. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad delivered a forceful speech at the summit, in which he emphasized that verbal opposition to the war must be followed by concrete steps to curtail the increasing U.S. military buildup in the Gulf. Al-Asad equated facilitating a U.S. offensive against Iraq to actual aggression.

But, as Abd al-Rahman Ahmad Uthman pointed out in his March 7 editorial for Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khaleej, policy-making is not so simple. Uthman agreed with Al-Asad’s argument in principle, but he argued that “the integration of official Arab policy with the systematic demands of the United States…has led to a [necessary compromise] and the opening of Arab lands to U.S. bases and troops.”

In the March 4 edition of the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, Ghasan al-Imam glossed over the contradictions inherent in the Gulf states’ stances on Iraq, but insisted, “Rejecting the attack on Iraq is an honest consensus even for those Gulf Arabs who were occupied, threatened, and irritated by Saddam.”

Jarir Murqah perhaps hit the crux of the matter in the March 2 edition of Amman’s pro-government Al-Ra’i: “The biggest crisis that the summit faced is a loss of clear channels of communication with Baghdad whereas this is not the case with Washington. The United States maintains a significant military, political, and economic presence in most Arab countries, having previously established agreements, mutual interests, and strategic alliances.”

Inherent in this type of argument is a feeling of helplessness in the face of the onslaught of the U.S. military and political juggernaut. As the summit was convening on March 1, Sultan al-Khatab wrote in Al-Ra’i that the big question was, “If this summit is not able to prevent war, will its member states be able to take a position of neutrality and non-participation?…Isn’t that the reason for fear among Arabs in general? Doesn’t that explain their doubts about a resolution resulting in any productive results?…If Arab summits have been unable to do anything tangible for the Palestinian question or effectively respond to [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon’s provocations, how would this summit be able to affect the Iraqi situation and respond to Bush’s provocations?”

These feelings of helplessness and disunity have been causing various Arab countries to reassess not only their relationship to the U.S. military buildup but also the value of inter-Arab cooperation. As best described by Shamlan Yusuf al-Isa in his March 2 column in Kuwait’s political daily Al-Seyassah, what has been emerging in the Middle East is an “Arab Cold War that will revolve around gaining American political support in the region and progressing toward democratic reform, also desired by Washington….After the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, Arabs will be facing American pressures calling for reform.” If any readers harbored doubts about this oncoming “Arab Cold War” or the fears some Arab governments have of a newly invigorated United States after the fall of the Soviet Union, Sept. 11, 2001, and a successful outcome in Iraq, Shamlan points to Syria. Even though Damascus and Baghdad are ruled by rival factions of the Baath Party, and Syria had previously supported first Iran, and then the U.S.-led coalition in wars against Iraq, Syria now is rallying behind an antiwar position. Shamlan suggests Syria, like other Arab states, is scrambling to take any position that could stave off future U.S. interference in its own domestic affairs. In the case of Syria, its military presence in Lebanon and its support of Hezbollah could make it the next target. This, according to Shamlan, fuels the “Arab Cold War” because, in light of increasing U.S. interference in the region, “every Arab state views its own interests as taking precedence over the interests of others.” This would also explain the current political gambit played by Arab Gulf governments as they voice opposition to the war but simultaneously accept U.S. troops.

While still despondent over the acrimonious exchanges, some Arab writers saw the summit resolution as an important symbolic statement. Trying to put a positive spin on the meeting, Abdullah al-Ashal wrote in March 7 edition of the Egyptian government’s flagship daily, Al-Ahram, “I suppose the summit, commensurate with its limited ability, can be considered successful in achieving its goal. The summit’s stance fulfilled the lowest common denominator [of Arab unity], even if its resolution will not have a direct influence on American decision-making.”

Ahmad al-Hariri, writing in the March 8 edition of Libya’s government-owned weekly Al-Jamahiriya, responded to such sentiments with dry sarcasm. “Indeed, the Sharm al-Sheikh summit has netted an unexpected success,” he sneered, “because it was previously expected that the Arabs would not succeed in making any resolution in the interests of the Greater Arab World because of their continual differences….So ultimately, the summit’s ‘success’ can only be gauged by how far it goes to further the interests of the new U.S. imperialism.”

Ahmad al-Ruba’i likewise displayed a lackluster enthusiasm in his March 3 op-ed in Asharq al-Awsat, calling the resolution “a declaration without color, taste, or smell. It was formulated in a way to not say anything, and it allowed for a multitude of contradictions which can be read in a thousand different ways.” Al-Ashal did add in a rejoinder: “The summit attended to the condition and its manifestations, but it didn’t address the roots of the problem that have been amassing since the mid-1980s.”

But in discussing the summit, Arab writers were abuzz with another event that was not seen on television: a proposal circulated by Sheikh Zayid ibn Sultan al-Nahayan, the president of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which urged Iraq’s leadership to go into self-imposed exile. Zayid’s plan designated the Arab League and United Nations to step in to govern Iraq in the interim until a new, post-Saddam Hussein government could be formed. When word of this proposal began to circulate the halls, reaction was mixed. Reportedly, some representatives received it positively while others opposed it as a violation of the Arab League’s mandate not to interfere in the internal politics of a member state. Regardless, Zayid’s plan was shelved after Iraqi representatives threatened to withdraw from the summit.

Two days after the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, Arab Gulf states met on March 3 for the Gulf Cooperation Council in Doha, Qatar, where Zayid’s proposal was apparently received with cautious and unofficial acceptance. Kuwaiti officials, in particular, were reportedly quite enthusiastic about it. Two days later, the representatives of 54 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conference convened in Doha to formulate their stance on the impending war on Iraq. During opening remarks, the Kuwaiti representative, Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, made reference to Zayid’s proposal, which was not intended for debate. In response, Izzat Ibrahim, the vice chairman of Iraq’s Baath party, later used his allotted time to lambaste the Kuwaiti representative. The session descended into a storm of mutual recriminations of “agents of imperialism,” “cowards,” and “liars.” Qatari officials quickly attempted to mediate and cool passions, eventually bringing together the Iraqi and UAE delegations to deflate tensions further.

Echoing the positive reception of Zayid’s initiative by Kuwaiti representatives, Ahmad al-Jarullah called it an “ingenious proposal” in Kuwait's March 2 Al-Seyassah. “Zayid’s proposal will extricate the Arabs, America, and the whole world from this predicament.” Ahmad al-Ruba’i seconded this sentiment in his March 3 op-ed for Al-Ra’i: “The most important result of the Arab summit was that which was not issued, and that is the realistic and brave proposal of the UAE president Sheikh Zayid.” Disappointed by the Arab League’s refusal to openly debate Zayid’s proposal, Faysal al-Qana’i fumed in the March 4 edition of Al-Seyassah, “If the Arabs at Sharm al-Sheikh were really serious about resolving the situation in Iraq and averting the coming devastation of war on the Iraqi people…Sheikh Zayid’s initiative is the only option to prevent war…there is no third solution.”

Anger also was vented at Amr Musa, the secretary general of the Arab League, who was instrumental in shelving Zayid’s plan before it could be discussed. Writing in Al-Seyassah on March 4, Ibrahim Rashid al-Da’ina concluded that Musa is compromised by his personal connections in Iraq and that his quashing of Zayid’s “brave proposal” indicates that “the condition of the Arab League will not be reformed as long as Musa is present as secretary general….” Writing in Asharq al-Awsat on March 4, Muhammad al-Hasan Ahmad echoed this criticism: “Some have said that merely the submission [of the proposal] supports resignation and schisms, yet the refusal to even discuss it in reality supports the inevitability of war.”

As expected, Iraq reacted strongly against Zayid’s proposal, with the March 2 headlines of Iraq’s primary government daily Babil characterizing the UAE as “an American agent with an Arab face.” In a press conference held immediately after the Arab summit, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri Ahmad viewed it as successfully reiterating the League's antiwar stance as well as “its rejection of any form of interference in the domestic affairs of another Arab nation.” This was an obvious reference to Zayid’s proposal.

Other Arab writers, perhaps somewhat ambivalent about the proposal, pointed out that aside from the proposal’s merits, it still “serves U.S. interests,” as a March 5 editorial in Algeria’s Al-Khabar described it. Al-Quds’ Abu Shaban, writing within walking distance of Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat's beseiged headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, was perhaps in the best position to understand the general reluctance of Arab leaders to vigorously discuss Zayid’s proposal: “It is probably their wish to reject the UAE initiative, as it could be considered a dangerous precedent to support the call for the exile of an Arab leader and change his government.”