Analysis: The great Arab void

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  Feb. 11, 2003 at 3:14 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) -- The noticeable absence from the international political scene in the months since the Bush administration started actively planning the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has been a strong voice emanating from the Arab world.

During this time of grave crisis, a number of voices have made themselves heard as the debate whether to attack Iraq or not has gathered momentum. From the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the United Nations, as well as from Paris, London, Berlin, Moscow and Brussels, many are those who articulated the pros and cons of going to war with Iraq.

Yet the Arab world seems to have gone mute.

It's quite disconcerting that as more than 100,000 American combat troops, hundreds of fighter aircrafts and several naval battle groups converge on the Arabian Gulf in preparation for war, not a single Arab leader has tried to introduce a comprehensive initiative to avoid a U.S. invasion of an Arab country -- a move that is bound to bring renewed havoc to the Middle East for years to come.

"This will be an Arab crisis that will have traumatic repercussions on the whole region," Hassan Hassouna, the Arab League representative in Washington, told United Press International.

During the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the United States led a coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait, King Hussein of Jordan played a major role in trying to convince Saddam to avoid a military confrontation with the United States. The Jordanian monarch and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt were especially active in their efforts to avoid a war. While ultimately they failed, and the coalition put together by President George Bush père went to war in January 1991, at least there was some Arab effort at mediation.

Today, besides some lip service from Syria, and some meek efforts from the Arab League, there appears to be complete Arab inertia.

It is true there have been some low-level and behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts by some Arab League members, but those would appear to be too little, and too late.

Hassouna told UPI a meeting of Arab foreign ministers is scheduled to convene in Cairo on Feb.16 to discuss the situation.

"Out of this meeting something could happen," said Hassouna. A summit meeting "could happen beginning of March," the Arab League diplomat said.

But by then, U.S. forces may well be on their way to Baghdad.

Why then are the Arabs so quiet this time, as opposed to the Gulf War that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990?

"It's a different case," explained Hassouna. "At the time it was a clear case of aggression. That was the focus. This time it is different. Whatever the Arab leaders do will depend on the report of U.N. weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammad ElBaradei."

The inspectors are scheduled to report back to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 14.

Hassouna also pointed to a mini-summit held on Sunday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that Mubarak hosted for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

And then there was an earlier meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, last month when foreign minister from Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia met, some analysts believe, in an effort to try and convince Saddam to seek asylum in a friendly country and thus avoid a war.

Egypt, however, said Sunday that the upcoming summit of Arab League states -- if it happens -- will not ask Saddam to resign. Saddam's resignation would avoid a war.

"I don't think any Arab country would interfere in Iraq's internal affairs," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher told reporters in Sharm el-Sheikh after the mini-summit. "It is the Iraqi people who should decide who rules over their country."

Of course, but so long as Saddam remains in power, the Iraqi people will not have much of a say in running their country, and they, unfortunately, will be the last ones to decide who rules them.

Regardless, these low-level gatherings of Arab leaders have attracted little attention and produced even less of a political impact. What is needed is an immediate summit meeting of Arab heads of state that could present a comprehensive initiative, offering a viable alternative to an American invasion of Iraq.

But that is highly unlikely to occur for a number of reasons.

First, the Arab world as a whole is leaderless. Many of the older, more astute leaders who have ruled the Arab world in since the post-World War II, post-colonization era, have died and been replaced by their younger, and far less experienced progeny.

With the exception of Egypt's Mubarak, the doyen of the Arab world's leaders, the rest of the Arab world is ruled by a new crop of leaders, still unaccustomed to dealing with the complexity of inter-regional intricacies. And even Mubarak has been largely removed from the Iraqi debacle, as he remains preoccupied with his own internal concerns.

Saudi Arabia, the one-time oil-rich powerhouse of Arab world politics is disadvantaged by King Fahd's invalidity and plagued by the harsh reality that it, too, faces internal dissent. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

Syria, the other traditional leader in the Arab world, is governed by Bashar Assad, a young and inexperienced man who saw himself propelled into the top job after the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000. Bashar, by training an ophthalmologist who never had political vision, lacks the charisma and the ambition to emerge as the new pan-Arab leader.

Jordan's charismatic King Hussein died in 1999, leaving control of the Hashemite kingdom to his untried son, Abdullah. The same holds true in Morocco, where King Mohamed VI ascended to the throne upon the death of his father, King Hassan II, also in 1999.

These recent changes in leadership have left the Middle East orphan of viable leadership capable of any real influence beyond their individual borders.

Additionally, today, no Arab country is in a position to openly defy the United States.

(Claude Salhani is a senior editor at United Press International. Comments may be sent to

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