A Struggle for Arab Public Opinion

GIVEN the stakes in terms of US national interests and credibility, President Bush had to come to the aid of friends in the Gulf and draw a line against further aggression. But Americans may wonder why more Arabs did not denounce the invasion or rush to the support of Kuwait. The US public needs to be aware that in a stalemate, or the event of a drawn-out boycott, Washington may be faced with a larger and more intangible struggle for Arab public opinion.

The US has focused on the invasion of a small, sovereign state by its larger, more aggressive neighbor. This is clearly understood - and feared - in much of the Arab world, especially the Gulf. But it may not be the most important issue for Arab public opinion. Arab attitudes toward the conflict are influenced by other considerations not clearly understood by Americans.

Most Arabs, particularly those with education, understand the heavy-handed nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. These feelings are attested by the tens of thousands of Iraqi exiles living in Arab countries and the West.

Many Arabs will also criticize Saddam's invasion of Kuwait as an act that has divided the Arab world and distracted attention from the Palestine problem. For eight years, the Iran-Iraq war drew Arab attention and resources away from the Arab-Israeli conflict. Now, with the intifadah struggling to stay alive; with waves of Soviet Jewry entering Israel, and with the peace process in abeyance, the Arabs, in this view, need a unified front.

Instead, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait has faced them with a new division of monumental proportions. The action also seems likely to rupture the recently formed Arab Cooperation Council, consisting of Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen, a step in the direction of Arab unity. Saddam's action has also, in one stroke, revived the longstanding rivalry between Egypt and Iraq for leadership of the Arab world. By assuring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that he would not invade Kuwait, and then doing so, Saddam has treated his rival with a public contempt which will not be soon forgotten. These factors will work against Saddam.

But much of the Arab population may have scant sympathy for the Kuwaitis, and a number of Arabs will support Saddam's move, for two different reasons. First is the newly emerging ``politics of envy.'' The Arab world faces its own ``north-south'' problem. A wealthy ``south'' - the Gulf Cooperative Council states, with thin populations, vast oil wealth, and a recent history of underdevelopment - faces a northern rim with exploding populations, strapped economies, and a relatively well-educated but impecunious middle class. Per capita income in Kuwait is about $11,000 compared to $500 for Egypt, $1,800 for Jordan, and $2,000 for relatively well-to-do Iraq. The populations of these resource poor countries are expected to double by the year 2010, with over half below the age of 15. Pressure on resources for education, jobs, and improved standards of living is already becoming an explosive political issue in these countries.

While Kuwait and other Gulf countries have contributed marginally to the economies of their northern neighbors, their affluence is resented. Iraq's ruler, with a relatively equitable distribution of wealth at home, may be given some credit by this group for having fended off Iranian aggression for eight years at great expense and deserving of some financial consideration. Meanwhile, maldistribution of wealth in the region has dampened sympathy for the plight of the Kuwaitis.

Others will support Saddam as the only leader capable of confronting Israel and standing up to the West. His claim that a strong Iraq, capable of unifying Arabs, is being weakened by the West resonates among Palestinians, Jordanians, and Lebanese who are tired of being humiliated by Israel and its Western supporters. These Arabs are already asking why over 20 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, or even Syrian occupation of Lebanon, have not been met with international embargoes, blockades, or, in the case of Israel, a reduction of aid.

As it attempts to build support for its actions, the US needs to keep its ear to the ground and to understand the various voices it hears. It must avoid the perception that the conflict is one of the West against the Arabs by being prepared to address legitimate Arab concerns. Chief among these, the US must assure its Arab supporters that its military build-up is in their behalf and that it is temporary. Second, to maintain US credibility, Arabs must be assured of some serious progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process and the Palestinian problem.

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