DUBAI – There are few more privileged places to gauge popular opinion on the American jihad against Iraq than this gargantuan emporium – one of the world’s definitive crossroads. Lebanese still dream of their golden days, but after the devastating Lebanese civil war, it was Dubai that eventually prevailed as the late 20th century, and now 21st century, high-tech equivalent of Venice in the 15th, or Amsterdam in the 17th.

Fly and buy. Anything. Universal commerce. A WTO dream come true. This is a vortex that feeds a much larger region than the whole Middle East – from the former Soviet Empire to the Maghreb and the whole Indian subcontinent, and at the same time provides the oil-rich of the Arab peninsula all the luxury items they crave. Cohiba cigars, Bentley convertibles, Chanel parfum, Sony Vaio computers, Mediterranean fusion cuisine: from the archaic to the hyper-post-modern, Dubai has it all. And if you are an Indian or Pakistani with info-tech savvy, you can make a killing.

Dubai is all about ultra-high-tech urban design superimposed over a timeless world of bedouins and pearl catchers. The glorious ancient cities of Palmyra (now in Syria) and Petra (now in Jordan) were not much different. They turbocharged into history after a few years of commercial prosperity. They copied the urban tissue of Rome and Athens, they copied their rules of urban design, they increased their populations with a majority of go-betweens and slaves with no civil rights whatsoever, and they were prosperous for centuries.

The modern slaves in Dubai are Pakistani construction workers. Karachi is only two hours away by plane – and for the homesick, a mini-Karachi is cloned in the Deira district of Dubai anyway. They work day and night under the floodlights. They have no right to strike and no social protection. They make around US$300 a month. Half is sent back to Pakistan. They survive on the other half, paying the rent and living on a strict diet of rice, cooking oil, tea and sugar. In overpopulated Pakistan they would be jobless, or mere madrassa fodder recruited by smart ulemas.

In this Las Vegas with Arab subtitles but no topless bars, everywhere there’s an array of clocks showing local time next to the time in New York, London, Moscow, Baku, Mecca, Teheran, Tashkent, Bangkok, Hong Kong and beyond. Discos ooze with Uzbek, Caucasian, Filipino or Bengali hostesses. Romanians trying a few words of Spanish man the reception desks of five-star hotels. Arabs from all over the peninsula sit in California-style cafes smoking cigarettes, drinking whisky in their dishdash – the long traditional white robe. According to the way they wear their turban or keffiah, it’s possible to determine whether they are from Saudi, Oman, the Emirates, Bharain or Qatar.

The commercial flux through the Persian Gulf is non-stop, still operated by the famous dhows of the Pirates Coast – as the British called the region to better justify its conquest, according to a historical book published by the emir of Sharjah. Today the dhows are manned by Iranian and Pakistani crews. Huge boxes are filled with second-rate merchandise baking in the sun traverse the Gulf – old air-conditioners, old vaccum cleaners, beat-up cars; everything the new rich from Arabia get rid of is immediately recycled to the poorer societies on the other side of the warm waters. Sometimes the boats are attacked by Baluchi or Persian pirates. But the real action is really at Dubai airport – where an endless stream of Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Algerian, Indian and Pakistani planes, like wild electrons in rotation, transport merchandise at unbeatable prices. The Taliban were hip: all their customized, machine-gun-friendly Toyota Hi-Lux had a blue or white Emirates license plate.

The Burj Al Arab – designed to resemble the extremely graceful sails of an Arabian dhow – is arguably the only seven-star hotel in the world. In this mega-luxurious vertical boat made of steel and glass it’s possible to find the creme de la creme of the Arab world. They come from all over the Emirates – and beyond. They are successful businessmen. They enjoy very good ties with Saudi Arabia. They’ve been many times to the West. They speak at least one Western language. They are not exactly practising Wahhabis. But they are definitely not anti-American. They love gold Rolex watches and they love smoking Cohibas. Their wives clicking their sexy high-heeled Gucci sandals may spend fortunes on golden bracelets and luxury Western goods at the City Center megamall, but they are still covered head-to-toe by a black chador. And they are not allowed to work.

After a sumptuous seafood dinner in one of the Burj’s sub-aquatic restaurants – under the curious gaze of a baby shark named Wally – by dessert it’s time to talk seriously about Iraq and the Arab world. Our interlocutors obviously do not want their names disclosed – but they are willing to talk freely. As one of them puts it in a juicy metaphor, for the Americans “Iraq is like a ripe fruit just waiting to be plucked.”

No matter the spin, every grain of sand in not only the Arabian desert but the whole planet now knows “regime change” in Baghdad is all about oil. “And this is really why Saudis are opposed to an American invasion. Saudi does not want to lose such a good client. Don’t forget that the Americans in Washington who are urging an attack against Iraq are the same ones who are delivering the most vicious attacks against Saudi Arabia – its government, its culture. But this is all a smokescreen. What the Americans really cannot stand is that relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are now much better. And they cannot stand Saudi Arabia’s interest in really solving the Palestinian problem.”

Jordan will not be a problem for America: “The Americans know that most of the Jordanian population supports the Palestinian intifada. And most of the Jordanian population supports Iraq. The Americans also know that Iraq is a big economic help to Jordan. Jordan can be a barrier between Iraq and Palestine, but Jordan can also be a communication link between Iraq and Palestine. The Americans know that if things change in Baghdad, Jordan will have to follow whatever the Americans want to do with Palestine. The solution for the Palestinian problem in the end will be an American-Israeli solution. And Jordan will have to accept it.”

Asia Times Online readers may remember how a few months ago the Bush administration was tinkering with the idea of making some concessions regarding Palestine – as long as Arab regimes would give a green light for America to attack Iraq. But in the end the dreadful escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Ariel Sharon’s wasteland “policies” have in fact facilitated the conditions for an attack against Iraq. Our interlocutors fall silent on the fact that “the Arab street” – and their governments – were absolutely ineffective to confront the Israeli offensive.

Next on the menu is Iran: “The Americans have waged their war against terror with some help from Iran. But then they tried to exclude Iran and they even named it as part of the Axis of Evil. They don’t want Iran to have a role in the Middle East.” Everybody agrees that an attack against Iraq would reach the American goal of having Iran totally encircled – and this is exactly what Teheran fears. The extremely complex battle between conservatives and reformists has reached a crucial stage in Iran. Washington hawks think that under pressure the whole structure will collapse. “So to get Iraq would be a first step for the Americans to finish once and for all with the Islamic revolution in Iran.”

Our interlocutors also agree that America will try its best to cut communication between Iran and Syria – and then try to provoke a “regime change” in Damascus as well. “The Americans don’t like relations between Iraq and Syria. Now they both work more or less in tandem: Syria is able to breathe economically because of Iraq, and Iraq has some sort of political life thanks to Syria.” Both regimes are led by two incompatible branches of the Baath Party. “If the Americans try to change things in Syria, Lebanon would be in trouble. It would not be an asset to Syria anymore, but a liability. And the Americans could easily manipulate the deep Lebanese resentment in certain quarters against Syria.”

Our interlocutors worryingly agree that this Brave New Middle East will breed an isolated Egypt – and would give Israel a free hand to do anything it wants. The Americans may tolerate some chaos in the periphery of Iraq. “But what they really want is to control the central government in Baghdad, and control all its decisions regarding oil.” Although America will remain in Central Asia – implanted in a cluster of military bases – our interlocutors don’t believe the Americans will be able to control Afghanistan. “Nobody can control Afghanistan. They always expel any of their invaders.” But they all agree America’s ultimate aim is to get its hands on all crucial oil reserves in both the Middle East and Central Asia.

The main piece of the puzzle is undoubtedly Saudi Arabia. It´s fascinating to hear our interlocutors talk about the birth of what we know today as Saudi Arabia. The crucial year was 1774. That is when a warlord and a religious reformer became allies in the Arabian peninsula. The warrior was Muhamad bin Saud – the founder of the still-ruling Saud dynasty. The imam itching to restore the purity of Islam was Muhamad bin Abdulwahab – the founder of Wahhabism.

Wahhabism is essentially a warrior-like, strict and literal reading of the Holy Koran. The soldier and the servant of Allah both desperately needed each other to reinforce and extend their own power. The whole political-religious history of Saudi Arabia revolves around this meeting of the minds.

For more than two centuries, this warrior version of Islam – which openly preached hate of Christians and Jews and comdemned Muslims who were not as strict – flourished only inside Saudi Arabia’s walls. You could wage jihad, but only with government authorization. So Saudi Arabia was “respectable” in the eyes of the world. The West did a lot of business with it: large industrial contracts, hugely lucrative weapons sales. The West’s bogeyman at the time was Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. Americans feared that the Iranian Shi’ite Revolution could be exported. Wahhabism was a revolution as well – but only for internal Arab consumption.

One day this cozy arrangement exploded with a big bang. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan and America re-invented jihad – to present the Soviets with their own Vietnam. The most radical Wahhabis ran wild. After the victory against the mighty Red Army, many Wahhabis thought they could win against the US as well. But then came the Gulf War. The Saud dynasty allowed American troops – or “infidel armies” – onto Saudi soil. Wahhabi doctors of law were in panic. For the ulemas, faithful to the throne, this decision was absolutely impossible to justify. Others decided to totally comdemn it – like one Osama bin Laden.

In 1998 Osama bin Laden issued his now famous fatwa against Christians and Jews. Osama thought that if the US could fall, states that only held on because they were American client states would fall as well. Foremost among theses states, according to Osama, were Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Our interlocutors suggest it is crucial to examine what Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardhawi thinks about all this. The sheikh is the host of a hugely popular TV program, “Al Sharia wa-l Hayat” (“Islamic Law and Life”). This program – broadcast by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera cable network – is the ne plus ultra of Sunni Islam in Arabic language in the whole world. The sheikh is a former member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. He was imprisoned by Nasser in Egypt, fled to Qatar and got Qatari nationality – an extremley rare distinction. He has been a spiritual guide to everybody – from Egyptian Islamist students under Anwar Sadat’s regime to young militants in Western Europe. He is a member of the Sharia board of the most important Islamic commercial banks (the Sharia board is their council of religious surveillance, charged to verify that financial operations are in accordance with the sacred texts. The intellectual pedigree of the ulemas on the board is essential to attract important clients). And to top it all the sheikh is of course a huge TV personality – a Super-Preacher in a sacred talk-show. He is a cold-booded ulema – and has a precise answer for absolutely anything.

The system is fascinatingly simple. People ask the sheikh’s TV program and his Internet site questions about a given individual or social practice, and “Islam answers” – like in ancient times when a pilgrim would consult a doctor of the law in his mosque. The ulema then issues a fatwa – a juridical advice based on the sacred texts. These juridical-religious consultations can be about anything: contracts, labor relations, war matters, leisure matters, specific rites. The sheikh may ruffle a lot of feathers, like once when he declared – live, on Al-Jazeera – that cunnilingus and fellatio were admitted by Islam.

It’s crucial to learn what this supreme Islamic eminence thinks of Osama bin Laden. The sheikh thinks Osama is nothing but a wa’ez – a sermonizer, the lowest rank in the hierachy of preachers. Osama is not a doctor of the law, so he is not authorized to issue any fatwa. He then made a fundamental mistake by launching a jihad against the West. For the sheikh, this is meaningless in the age of Internet and satellite TV. The sheikh says that the expansion of Islam can and should proceed without violence.

But the sheikh at the same time is an ardent believer in the concept of “defensive jihad”. Mullah Omar was right in Afghanistan to call for a jihad against American bombing. But the Taliban could never have called a jihad to defend themselves against their fellow Muslims fighting for the Northern Alliance. The sheikh points to Kashmir (Muslims against Indians), Chechnya (Muslims against Russians) and Palestine (Muslims against Israelis) as prime examples of defensive jihad.

The massacre of innocent civilians on September 11 is radically condemned. But Hamas-sponsored suicide bombings in Palestine are legitimate. Bombs in urban areas in Israel are legitimate. The sheikh says Israel is a militarized society; as there are no innocent civilians, everybody is a legitimate target of the jihad.

Most crucially, the sheikh thinks that Islam has been devastated by two big blows. First when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and then on September 11. These big blows deeply divided the umma – the community of the faithful – and have reinforced the power of the enemies of Islam.

The sheikh would say there is a direct link between the Wahhabi doctrine and Osama bin Laden. But it gets much more complicated than that. Our interlocutors stress that practically all the leaders of most hardcore Islamist movements have three things in common: they studied in Saudi Arabian universities; they received a lot of Saudi financial support, public or private; and they became military leaders by training in Afghanistan. And now the New Jihadi – brought about by al-Qaeda – is a new hybrid, a lethal cocktail: he has had first-hand experience of the West, and he has been radically re-Islamicized. Our interlocutors agree: there is now a profound crisis in Saudi Arabia between religious power and the power of the Saud dynasty.

From Dubai’s sweaty mini-Karachi souk to its air-conditioned American-style megamalls, the Iraq issue is the chronicle of a war foretold. The consensus is inevitable: America wants to scrap Saudi Arabian oil reserves and get its hands on Iraqi’s oil reserves. “There used to be a marriage of money and convenience between the US and Saudi Arabia. Now they are heading for divorce.” Without its 8 million barrels of oil a day, Saudi Arabia long ago would have been branded by America as a “rogue state”, subjected to heavy sanctions, international isolation, bombing, or, who knows, even “regime change”. There are absolutely no common values between freewheeling America and the land of a universal, uninterrupted jihad. But our interlocutors stress that after the inevitable replay of Desert Storm, there may be even more turbulence. Faithful to its universal missionary tradition, America – sitting on Iraqi oil – will certainly try to “reform” Saudi Arabia. Iraq may turn out to be just a means to a – higher? – end.

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