Arab states vent rising wrath

The Mideast crisis has prompted varied steps against Israel and US. A regional roundup.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Iraq won't sell oil to "the enemy." Egypt has cancelled all flights to Israel.

Arab groups are starting to boycott American companies.

Driven by a rising anger in Middle Eastern streets, leaders of Arab states and Iran are trying out new – and old – strategies to show their opposition to the US and its support for Israel.

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"Arab countries are throwing their collective back at these two nations," says Bahgat Korany, an Egyptian professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo.

Arab states, say political analysts, are seeing evidence of their worst fear: Israel's Ariel Sharon and US President George Bush increasingly seeing the world through the same "war on terror" lens. It's a perspective that deepens Israel's diplomatic isolation, and makes it difficult for the US to count on its Arab allies for a future strike against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. These concerns were reinforced, they say, last Thursday when Mr. Bush referred to the Israeli leader, whom many Arabs consider a war criminal, as "a man of peace."

Clearly, Iraq is the greatest beneficiary of the current regional coalescing of support for Palestinians. But most Arab leaders have limited options when it comes to striking back at the US or Israel. So far, a survey of the region shows that most Arab leaders are expressing their dissatisfaction largely as a means of controlling and channeling the growing militancy in their own back yards.

Iraq and Iran

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is perhaps the one Arab leader who can smile with satisfaction at the crisis gripping the Middle East. Washington's plans to topple the Iraqi leader have been undermined by swelling resentment in the Arab world against the administration's pro-Israel stance.

Although Arab leaders distrust the Iraqi leader, they are in no mood to support a US-led drive to oust him. Iraq has made an effort to improve its ties with neighboring Arab states. At the Arab summit in Beirut last month, for example, Iraq made a public commitment to respect the sovereignty of Kuwait, which it invaded in 1990, and both countries pledged to improve bilateral relations.

Egypt and Bahrain moved last week to improve commercial ties with Iraq, while a Yemeni envoy delivered a "letter of support" to Mr. Hussein..

Boosting his pro-Palestinian credentials and irritating Washington, Hussein has donated up to $25,000 to relatives of Palestinian suicide bombers. On Friday, Baghdad pledged an additional $8.7 million to support the Palestinians in addition to some 6,000 tons of aid, which has already been delivered. Earlier this month, Hussein introduced a 30-day embargo on Iraqi oil exports, a move that has helped raise oil prices worldwide.

Although Iran (not an Arab state, but a big player in the region) has also called on all Muslim oil producing states to use the "oil weapon" in support of the Palestinian cause, it has not followed Iraq's lead. In fact, Iran, which along with Iraq and North Korea make up President Bush's "Axis of Evil," played a significant role in easing recent tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border. With Iranian-backed Hizbullah fighters attacking Israeli troops on an almost daily basis, Iran's foreign minister, Kamel Kharrazi, flew to Beirut and delivered a surprise call for restraint. The fighting ended two days later. Mr. Kharrazi's intervention in Lebanon provoked uproar in Tehran. Hardliners condemned the move, while moderates applauded Kharrazi's diplomacy.

"It was the Iranian moderates saying to the US 'we are the people in charge,' " says Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.

Egypt and Jordan

An announcement early this month that Egypt would sever all ties with Israel except those dealing with "helping the Palestinians," has had little real impact on relations. And when Syrian officials cried foul that Egypt, unlike its Arab brothers, still keeps a functioning Israeli embassy in its midst, Mr. Mubarak's rabidly loyal state press snapped that Syria's "boy president" – the tall, lanky 36-year-old Bashar Assad, who replaced his father as head of state in 2000 – shouldn't pretend to know anything about serious diplomacy.

Analysts here say that Mubarak may have needed to snub US Secretary of State Colin Powell during his Mideast diplomatic mission last week in order to shore up his reputation as a leading statesmen for an Arab world increasingly hostile toward the US. More concretely, Egypt's cancellation this month of regular flights to Israel by the semi-official airline Air Sinai may be one of the most significant moves against Israel to date.

In addition to the pressure posed by growing calls in Egyptian streets for concerted military action against Israel,President Mubarak is now facing mounting losses in his tourism industry, exacerbated by the Middle East crisis.

But the regimes of Egypt and Jordan have left the decades-old idea of economic boycotts in the hands of private citizens and nongovernmental organizations, and many Arab analysts are scoffing at the efforts as damaging to local economies and unlikely to bring about real change. If Israel's closest ally was anyone but the US, it might be easier.

"The foreign policies of Arab states are subject to serious constraints," says Dr. Korany, the professor of international relations. "The US is still the big guy in the region and many countries – like Egypt and Jordan – count on Washington for help and aid."

In addition to being the region's biggest consumer - in terms of oil supplies - the US is also its biggest arms dealer. Moderate and radical Arab states have built of large arsenals in recent decades with Washington's help.

Last Friday, the US Defense Department explained in a memo to Congress that a sale of an advanced long-range radar to Jordan was due to that country being threatened by Iraq, a "hostile neighbor with credible air and land forces.

Saudi Arabia and the gulf states

Saudi Arabia is regarded as Washington's strongest Arab ally in the Middle East. But that relationship grew strained when it emerged that 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks were Saudi nationals. The kingdom's reputation in Washington sank further with a Saudi government telethon, which raised more than $100 million for the families of Palestinians – including suicide bombers – killed in the intifada. In a sermon on Friday carried by Arab satellite television networks, a leading Saudi cleric asked God to "terminate" the Jews and called for an end to peace efforts with Israel. Saudi leaders have warned the US that it must take a stronger stand against Israel or face losing Arab support, a message Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, will relay to Bush this week.

"The Gulf regimes have been put on the defensive by the reaction from their people," says Nizar Hamzeh, head of the political science department at the American University of Beirut. "The Gulf rulers are having a tough time explaining why they should continue to support American policy."

However, the Saudis have confirmed that there will be no repeat of the 1973 Arab ban on oil sales.

"This is like cutting off your nose to spite your face," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Friday.

Crown Prince Abdullah has attempted to reposition Saudi Arabia as a key peace-maker by offering Israel full normalization with the Arab world for full Israeli withdrawal from occupied land. Washington has lent tentative support for the offer, which was adopted by the Arab League last month, even though Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected it.

Some of the most violent demonstrations in support of the Palestinians in the Gulf have occurred in the island of Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. The capital, Manama, has witnessed almost daily clashes between demonstrators and police, leaving one Bahraini dead and hundreds wounded.

Several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have sent millions of dollars to the beleaguered Palestinians. On Friday, Oman transferred $6.6 million to the Palestinian Authority, part of a $330 million donation pledged by the Arab League. Just two days earlier, the Defense Department said it was ready to sell up to $42 million worth of bombs and bullets for F-16 fighter jets to Oman. An Kuwait appears prepared to plunk down 1.2 billion on US-built Apache gunships.

Syria and Lebanon

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said that "the Arabs cannot make war without Egypt, or peace without Syria." The lasting truth of that observation was demonstrated recently with a two-week flurry of Syrian-sanctioned guerrilla attacks along the Lebanon-Israel border, sparking fears of a second front opening in the Middle East conflict.

Analysts say the escalation was Syria's way of saying that its interests should not be forgotten while international concerns focus on Israel-Palestinian violence. It was also an expression of Syria's opposition to a Saudi peace initiative, offering Israel full normalization with the Arab world in exchange for a full withdrawal from occupied Arab territory. "I don't see the Syrians trying to fundamentally shift the balance of power with Israel, but they will keep up tensions," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst and commentator. "Syria is a hard-line country, but that doesn't mean much when its strength is limited."

Despite unease in neighboring Lebanon over the impact on its fragile economy of further instability along the southern border with Israel, Beirut is expected to continue following the lead of Damascus, its political master. Lebanon's moderate and pragmatic prime minister, Rafik Hariri, announced Friday that his country would join Syria in boycotting a meeting of European Union foreign ministers and their Mediterranean rim counterparts this week in protest at Israel's attendance. The decision means that Lebanon will have to postpone the signing of a landmark economic and political agreement with the European Union.

Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya

In Tunisia, a similarly "moderate" Arab state, which has struggled to contain its own Islamic militancy for decades, investigators are probing the death of 16 people – including eleven Germans – in what German officials believe was a suicide at- tack on an ancient Jewish synagogue last week.

Initially, Tunisia's government described the synagogue blast as a "tragic accident'' but acknowledged this week that investigators are now pursuing other leads. Meanwhile, the Tunisian government, which entertains several million Western tourists annually, has remained largely distant from the rising tide of anger being expressed elsewhere in the Arab world toward the US and Israel.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi has been keen to both organize demonstrations against Israel, and to participate in them. Mr. Qaddafi has stressed his country's backing for Palestine in tough language for years.

"Mass annihilation of the Palestinian people" and "Zionist terrorism" are two of the most common descriptions by Libyan officials of the recent Israeli offensive in the West Bank. Libya's Ali Abdul Salaam al-Tureiki, the chief of the Committee for African Unity, Qaddafi's brainchild, has called for a full boycott of Israel.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco will meet with President Bush on Tuesday at the White House. On the first leg of US Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East, the young king asked Mr. Powell – upon his arrival in Morocco – if he didn't think he should have gone to Israel first. Such suggestions from moderate Arab states would have been mostly unheard of in years past. King Mohammed is expected to press the US president to continue an active role in the Middle East and think about backing an international peacekeeping force for the region, which Washington has – so far – refused to contemplate.

Neighboring Algeria remains embroiled in a full-scale civil war that witnesses brutal attacks and counterattacks week in and week out. The official news agency APS reported over the weekend that Islamic rebels had killed seven family members and wounded four others in western Algeria.

Internal conflict has kept a potentially oil-rich nation both from prospering and voicing its opinions on the Middle East crisis in any meaningful way, say many analysts.

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