CAIRO – It was certainly great theater. With a backdrop of anti-war demonstrations all over the Muslim world, leaders of the 22 member countries of the Arab League gathered an Saturday at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh – developed by Israelis – to exchange their usual elaborate courtesies in an “ordinary” summit.

But then they sat down in their plush cream leather chairs just to watch Syria’s President Bashar Assad passionately denounce American colonialism and say, “After Iraq, we’re next.” Then followed a call by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for Saddam Hussein to step down; a threat by the Iraqi delegation to leave the summit; Libya’s flamboyant Muammar Gaddaffi and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah almost come to blows; and the Saudis then also threaten to leave.

After so much adrenaline, they couldn’t do better than settle for a bland resolution condemning war, but with a face-saving provision for the Gulf states – all of them bound by defense pacts with the US: in the event of war, these mini-monarchies can always say that they are not participating directly, and that US military operations on their soil are legitimized by a UN mandate.

Furthermore, an Arab committee this week will explain the Arab position (which is no more than attached to the Franco-German-Russian position) to “international parties” before going to Baghdad for a last-second talk with Saddam Hussein. Too little, too late.

Everybody knew in advance that the summit would be a failure because it was a meeting initiated by fear. Jordan entirely depends on Iraq for its oil. Syria fears an influx of Kurdish refugees. Lebanon and Jordan fear a mass “transfer” of Palestinians masterminded by an Ariel Sharon run amok. Egypt fears a loss of revenues in tourism and the Suez Canal. Countries with a Sunni majority fear increased Iranian influence with a larger role to play for Iraqi Shi’ites in the post-Saddam era.

Gaddaffi, clad in a fabulous reddish-orange robe and clutching a red ballpoint pen, certainly remains a show-stealer. In the middle of the discussions, he chose to remind everyone how, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the American military arrived in Saudi Arabia. “I told King Fahd that American forces are moving into Saudi Arabia. He then replied ‘America is a big country and we cannot prevent it and it can come’. I told him, ‘How can this happen to Saudi Arabia, which is an independent country’? After that, in a telephone conversation, the king told me that Iraq had the intention to invade the kingdom. I asked him how he knew. He said, ‘We have seen the Iraqi forces deployed on the front. That means the Iraqi threat was a source of concern and threat for the kingdom and all the Gulf states. America has pledged to protect this region because it is an important source of energy.'”

This was enough to send Crown Prince Abdullah into a fit of rage. The prince cut Gaddaffi short and fired back, “Saudi Arabia is a frontline country for the Muslim nation. It is not a colonial agent. Colonialists are for you and others. Who exactly brought you to power? Don’t say anything and don’t interfere in matters in which you don’t have any role. You are a liar. Your grave awaits you.”

All of this live on Egyptian TV, whose directors scrambled like mad to cut off the feed. The Saudis were so furious that they started to leave the meeting. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Syria’s Assad and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud did everything they could to calm the Saudis down. The session only resumed after a very tense 20-minute interruption. A key Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian plan discussed at the summit called for the formation of an Iraqi national unity government, with Saddam as a sort of figurehead, and with representatives of all ethnic and religious Iraqi groups. It’s obvious that Saddam and the Ba’ath Party leadership will never agree to such an arrangement. Saddam has repeatedly said that he would rather die like the last Abbasid Caliph (facing the Mongols in the 13th century) than go to exile.

In London, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, reinforced the idea that even with a second United Nations resolution, Arab countries will keep trying to convince Saddam to step down. But much more important was what he said concerning the American presence in Saudi Arabia. According to Turki, Saudi Arabia will open talks on US troop withdrawal immediately after the war. “If there is no longer any need for a no-fly zone in Iraq, then the discussions would take place between us and the US about the removal of those forces from the kingdom.”

This is extremely significant because it comes from none other than the man who sent Osama bin Laden to fight a jihad in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. And this development – American forces leaving the “land of the two mosques” – is exactly what bin Laden had wanted all along.

After the Gaddaffi-Abdullah exchange and before the release of the final summit declaration in Sharm el-Sheikh, some Arab diplomats and commentators – who insisted on remaining anonymous, and obviously fired by Gaddaffi’s intervention – went into back to the future mode, trying to shed some light on recent history. All agree that Saddam invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 after misinterpreting a series of dubious American signals. Saddam thought that he would be able to get away with it. All remember the 1980s when the Arabs – ostensibly – and the US – more or less discreetly – supported Saddam in the bloody eight-year-war against Iran. The Saudis thanked Iraq for defending the eastern flank of the Arab nation from the Persians with cold hard cash. And the Americans praised Saddam for doing the dirty work of containing the armies of the Islamic revolution- selling loads of military equipment and chemical and biological material to Iraq in the process.

But when Saddam invaded Kuwait, King Fahd was tricked by US intelligence into believing that he was next in line after the emir of Kuwait – although Iraq had explicitly promised that it would not attack Saudi Arabia. Diplomats remember George Bush senior called Fahd on August 3, 1990, and telling him that the Iraqis were about to invade Riyadh – while Jordan’s King Hussein was trying everything he could to solve the crisis peacefully among the Arabs themselves. The Arab League met in Cairo on August 3, and bowing to relentless American pressure it passed a resolution, with a feeble majority, condemning the invasion. On August 5, Saddam said that he agreed to withdraw his troops and negotiate. But Bush senior said it’s a lie, and was about to order American forces to rush to the Gulf.

Fahd at this point still does not want American troops on Saudi soil because he views his role as a mediator capable of solving the crisis. But the US shows him doctored satellite photos as evidence that Iraqi armies are massing at the gates of the country. According to diplomats, Fahd says “yes” on the same day that Saddam guarantees to an American charge de affaires that Iraq will respect Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty. On August 6, American forces start disembarking in Saudi Arabia to mount operation Desert Shield.

That’s where bin Laden comes in. Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait, he sent a message to the Saudi royal family. He would be able to raise a force of at least 10,000 mujahideen to confront Saddam’s Republican Guard in the event that the Iraqi leader had some ideas. Bin Laden deeply believed a Muslim army should defend its homeland if attacked. He thought that Riyadh was considering his offer. But on August 7, bin Laden finally learned that American troops would be in charge of the security of Saudi Arabia’s oil. He was assured that the Americans would leave after Kuwait was “liberated.” They didn’t. So bin Laden broke with the Saudi royal family. Later, he said, “They had betrayed Muslims, had become dependent on Christians and Jews and couldn’t be the custodians of the holy places any more.” He was ordered to leave Saudi Arabia – so he went to develop al-Qaeda in exile in Sudan and Afghanistan.

Back to the summit. As far as the UAE proposal was concerned, UAE President Sheikh Zayed ibn Sultan al-Nahayan sent a message asking for the entire “Iraqi leadership to step down and leave Iraq … within two weeks of adopting this Arab initiative.” Iraq then should be governed jointly by the Arab League and the UN and return to “its normal situation in accordance with the will of the brotherly Iraqi people”. Zayed was careful to add that the Iraqi leadership should be given legal guarantees that it would not face prosecution.

On hearing this, furious Iraqis, led by vice president Izzat Ibrahim, threatened to leave the summit. But this time it was Mubarak and Gaddaffi’s turn to calm down the Iraqis, and the proposal was formally withdrawn. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri described the proposal as “US-inspired bilge”. The UAE were dejected. According to their Information Minister, Sheikh Abdullah ibn Zayed, Gulf states are in favor of the arrangement because it “could spare Iraq the torment of war.” After the summit, Kuwait and Bahrain – hosts to the awesome American military machine – officially supported the proposal.

Politically, Gulf states are worried about the consequences of an armed and dangerous US in their vicinity, while in economic terms regime change couldn’t be a more popular arrangement. Small Gulf nations are already profiting from a war that has not even started. With oil prices shooting up to almost US$40 a barrel, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have nothing to lose. They also have their eyes set on the endless golden opportunities in terms of economic reconstruction and long-term foreign investment in the post-Saddam era. Businesses in the Gulf are already planning for a mini-boom starting on the second half or the end of 2003, and accelerating in 2004 towards 2005. Iraq’s reconstruction will be financed not only by Iraq’s oil revenues, but most of all by a mix of international aid and soft loans from Arab nations. There will be a construction boom for Gulf-based contractors, suppliers and consultants. Much will be financed by Gulf banks. Kuwaiti traders have been praying for Saddam to bow out for more than two decades. But the economic hub of the UAE, Dubai – which will become the gateway to Iraq – will probably be the biggest winner.

Where does this all leave the Arab street? Moroccan sociologist Mohamed Tozy offers an explanation, “People in the Arab world simply don’t accept the US linkage of Islamism-terrorism-Iraq. They can’t stand this kind of confusion. Anti-American sentiment at the same time is comforted by the anti-Americanism of non-Arab societies: this is not merely an Arab or Muslim sentiment any more. Now, many pin their hopes in a sort of global conscience incarnated by mass movements in different capitals. There’s a feeling that the Arab world is being reinserted back into the world. We are not the only ones concerned about what’s happening. We see this paradoxical mix: on one side, the despair and impotence of an Arab world which cannot trust a summit any more, nor any Arab resolution; on the other side, a real hope carried through by this alternative globalization, this global civil society who says ‘no’ to the United States.”

Even the not-exactly-free Arab press mirrors these feelings. The point is made by an editorial of the Saudi English-language daily Arab News, “Bush is one of America’s least traveled presidents. It seems that he only knows of the Middle East that which is whispered in his ears by his largely Zionist-influenced advisers. The subtleties and complex history of our region are entirely beyond his ken. He thinks in terms of the good guys and the bad guys. Saddam is the bad guy and the Iraqi people need to be bombed into liberation and freedom from his clutches. Pax Americana will afterward be delivered to the wreckage, on Washington’s terms. Every item on this potentially catastrophic agenda entirely ignores the wishes and concerns of every other country in the region. A US-occupied and destabilized Iraq will become a breeding ground for the botulism of terrorism, far more deadly in nature than anything that the world has yet encountered.”

Which leaves Arab intellectuals in a terrible impasse. In Sharm el-Sheikh, many posed three crucial questions. Is Arab nationalism really dead? Or if it means the defense of a status quo which allows dictators like Saddam to remain in power, what is it good for? And how is it possible to subscribe to a democratic project supposedly entertained by the Americans, when their attitude towards the Palestinian tragedy and their support of repulsive dictatorships around the world for decades totally destroys American credibility?

Gaddaffi may have blamed Saudi Arabia for the Arab world’s current predicament, but that may have been just the tip of the iceberg – or the sand dune. The crisis of the Arab world is now so severe because there are no political or social institutions capable of framing the terms of the debacle. There’s nothing for the Arab masses apart from engaging themselves in what for many is a very remote idea, the global anti-war movement. It may not be enough as too much Arab repressed anger and frustration is about to explode.

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