Anger in the Arab world

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Anti-American sentiments run deep among the Arab people, but their governments fail to stand united against the U.S. war plan.

in Bahrain

AS the United States prepares to attack Iraq, anger, helplessness and, most prominently, a deep sense of frustration make up the dominant mood in the Arab world. Arabs have come to realise that the war is not simply to accomplish a "regime change" in Baghdad but is part of an Anglo-American geopolitical plot to redefine West Asia's political map behind their backs.

The development revolving around Iraq has therefore a familiar ring and finds a distinct echo in the Arab world's not-too-distant past.

The first political realignment in the region in the 20th century took place when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated in the wake of the First World War. In 1916 itself, the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot pact laid the broad contours of dividing the spoils of war in Iraq, then Mesopotamia, between London and Paris. Under this arrangement the French were to acquire a hold over Mosul, which was recorded as a potentially oil-rich area.

The First World War had also driven home the importance of oil among the colonial powers, and the British soon found the Sykes-Picot pact unpalatable, especially as they had captured Baghdad in 1917. The whole arrangement, therefore, had to be reworked under the Treaty of San Remo. Under this 1920 pact, the British took full control of Iraq under a League of Nations mandate, while France obtained the right to acquire a 25 per cent share of Iraqi oil that was still being discovered. The invention of the internal combustion engine and the switch of the British navy from coal-fired to oil-driven ships had already brought the United Kingdom prominently into the hunt for oil in the region. The British had identified Persia (Iran) as the bedrock of its operations and this led to the creation of the Anglo-Persian oil company. The company's refinery in Abadan fuelled British imperial ambitions for several decades.

The smell of oil and the love for the automobile had brought the United States into West Asia. Oil, mainly the result of excursions of Major Frank Holmes, was first tapped in the tiny emirate of Bahrain. The Americans subsequently tapped the massive oil wealth of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, mainly under the patronage of the Saudi monarch Ibn Saud. The U.S. also established a significant presence in Kuwait in the mid-1930s.

As war clouds hover over Iraq, the dominant sentiment in the Arab street, therefore, is that it is all about Iraqi oil, and the U.S. wants to grab it. According to this view, U.S. attempts to invade Iraq have a twofold purpose. First, to cut Saudi Arabia to size, as the Kingdom is perceived to be a breeding ground for terrorism, which found its ugliest expression in the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. This, they feel, can be partially achieved by an increased use of Iraqi oil and a reduction of the dependence on Saudi Arabian oil. Secondly, by bringing Iraqi oil into the market, the clout of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries can be somewhat undermined, giving the U.S. a better chance to manoeuvre international prices of oil and rescue its flagging economy.

Most Arab scholars agree that oil is a major factor in the U.S. drive to invade Iraq. But they hasten to add that the U.S. activism is driven by factors that go far beyond oil. The U.S., they say, is now in a state of "permanent war", and the Iraqi invasion will be a first step in a chain of events to change the geopolitical map of the region. Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been the most apprehensive about the U.S.' long-term intentions in the region. Syria fears that after the Iraq war, while Israel will continue to breathe down its neck, U.S. troops would also be sitting along its eastern borders. Most countries in the region are convinced that U.S. troops are likely to be present in Iraq for at least a decade following the removal of President Saddam Hussein. Lebanon, to a lesser extent, also shares Syria's views.

Saudi Arabia, some Arab intellectuals say, fears its three-way partition according to the Woolsey Plan, named after James Woolsey, the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Under this plan, the Kingdom could be divided into three separate states: Hejaz, Najd and the oil-rich eastern province of Ihsa. Since Ihsa has most of the oil and would be too small to defend itself, it could become a virtual U.S. protectorate on the lines of Kuwait.

Iran may be on Washington's firing line, but the U.S. is still grappling with the country's complexity, making an early intervention in Teheran doubtful.

Most Arab countries, which find war distasteful, have been trying to push for Iraq's disarmament and a peaceful "regime change". Consequently, the Arab countries have been urging Saddam Hussein to go into voluntary exile, possibly in Libya, and disarm. But, with Saddam Hussien showing no inclination to step down, most Arab countries, with the notable exception of Syria and Lebanon, have begun to line up behind the U.S. Kuwait is hosting around 120,000 U.S. troops and will become the main launch-pad for an invasion of Iraq from the south. Bahrain is hosting the U.S.' Fifth Fleet, while Qatar will serve as the advanced command post for the U.S. Central Command, which will execute the war.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already sent some of their forces for the defence of Kuwait under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Egypt, a close ally of the U.S., has expressed its helplessness to stem the tide of war. Syria and Lebanon are now firmly in the "peace camp" and are holding discussions with France in an effort to create a broad, even though fragmented, Euro-Arab anti-war front. Torn between their external loyalties and the demand for peace among the people, Arab countries are currently a deeply divided and unhappy lot. These divisions showed up recently when their Foreign Ministers failed to agree on holding an emergency Arab summit on Iraq.

Notwithstanding the disposition of the Arab regimes, anti-American sentiments among the Arab people are running deep and the possible war against Iraq is adding new dimensions to it. In some quarters, it is seen as the first manifestation of the impending clash of civilisations where Christians and Jews, represented through Israel, on one side, and Muslims, on the other, are pitted against each other.

Arab commentators have picked up President George Bush's use of the phrase "crusade" to describe the fight against international terrorism post-September 11 as a reflection of Washington's deep-seated inclination to target Muslims in the name of counter-terrorism. The alleged influence of Christian preachers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham on the Bush administration has also come in for detailed comment and interpretation in the region.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment