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Moderate Arabs Shudder, Denounce U.S. as Gulf 'Bully'
Published on Wednesday, January 22, 2003 by the Chicago Tribune
Moderate Arabs Shudder, Denounce U.S. as Gulf 'Bully'
by Evan Osnos

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- With a vacation home in California and three degrees from American universities, Saudi businessman Ghassan Al-Sulaiman might seem the perfect voice to explain U.S. interests to an Arab world that is increasingly anti-American.

And that, says Al-Sulaiman, is what is so troubling.

"Five years ago I never would have imagined the U.S. acting like this, like a bully," said Al-Sulaiman. "And if people like me feel this way, then you have to imagine how other Arabs are feeling."

There is perhaps no clearer gauge of the intensifying hostility throughout the Middle East to the U.S. and its threat of a war in Iraq than the fierce resentment from moderate Arabs.

For years, the U.S. has counted on supportive Muslim business leaders, scholars, analysts and politicians--many of them educated in the West--to act as informal envoys to the Arab world.

But now, many of those same influential voices in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan and other Arab states are openly suspicious of American ambitions in the Middle East and pessimistic about the effect of an Iraq war on stability, security and economic growth.

Some Arab centrists fear that a U.S.-led war, combined with America's steadfast support of Israel, will fuel Islamic extremists who challenge moderate regimes.

Others worry that the U.S. intends to undermine the oil-based coalition of Arab states and refashion uncooperative regimes. But the most seemingly widespread concern is that war could redraw the regional map, igniting religious, ethnic and tribal rivalries that would pull neighboring countries into a clamor for power, land and oil.

"We believe that any military operation would have more negative than positive results," said Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi minister of intelligence.

"The breakup of Iraq would definitely have consequences on neighboring countries. All of them: Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia], Kuwait, Egypt. The area will remain in turmoil for a long time to come," he said.

Arab anti-Americanism is nothing new.

In the last 18 months, however, several factors have sparked far broader resentment. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted an immigration clampdown on Arab students and business people, and cast scrutiny on charities and political groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of which are U.S. allies. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has maintained firm support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose handling of the second Palestinian intifada is reviled among Arabs.

Now, the U.S. preparation for a war with Iraq has convinced many Arabs that the U.S. intends to oust governments not only in Baghdad but eventually in Damascus, Tehran and elsewhere, while sapping the strength of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. That basic distrust of American goals, once common among extremists, has moved squarely to the political mainstream.

`Iraq is only Act 1'

"There is a deep, solid, widespread belief right now that Iraq is only Act 1 of American plans," said Hussein Shobokshi, a prominent Jiddah businessman and writer who often receives visiting U.S. officials.

Opinion polls indicate growing opposition to the United States in Arab nations with close strategic and economic ties. A December survey by the Pew Research Center indicated that 75 percent of Jordanians hold an unfavorable view of the United States, as do 69 percent of Egyptians and 59 percent of Lebanese.

"Unfortunately the Americans are very blind with their power, and they do not read our culture," said Mohammed Ali Musfir, an American-educated political science professor in Qatar's capital, Doha, and the former editor of a leading newspaper. "They--the Americans--read intelligence reports, but there is a difference between intelligence reports and the man in the street."

That man in street, according to Musfir, is decidedly opposed to the U.S. threat of war in Iraq. "Everybody likes America, but regarding their politics, nobody likes them," he said.

A dozen years after U.S. forces liberated Kuwait from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Kuwait still holds strong affinity for U.S. visitors and products. But there also is widespread skepticism of American strategic goals, according to political observers.

"Nobody believes the U.S. is genuinely interested in democratizing the Arab region, because it has not democratized Egypt or Saudi Arabia," said Abdullah Nibari, a leading liberal in Kuwait's National Assembly. Like many, Nibari echoes the belief that Americans are motivated chiefly by a desire for regional power and control of the Iraq's oil reserves.

Domino effect feared

But what many Arab business leaders and analysts fear most is chaos. Saudi government adviser Abdulrahman Al-Zamil, a businessman with deep roots in the U.S., sees steps toward Arab development slipping through his fingers.

"We have spent 30 years pacifying this region, but because of the Palestinian issue and Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the whole region is radicalized again," he said, his voice cracking with emotion at his office in Riyadh. "If it keeps up, the Egyptian [government], the Jordanians, they will all be in trouble."

Like many Saudis, Al-Zamil also fears what a democratic Iraq could bring: a Shiite Muslim state. Free elections, he argues, would effectively hand control from the country's Sunni ruling minority to Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the Iraqi population. That could embolden Shiite-run Iran, upset regional power balances and stir unrest among Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other neighbors.

"Every state will start blaming the others, every populace will be blaming the other. It will be hell for everybody," he said.

For all the anti-U.S. feeling among Arabs, Western diplomats are divided over its importance. Many U.S. security analysts used to argue that Arab anger can be a benign pressure valve--as long as governments remain allied with Washington. But that view has been challenged ever since 19 Muslim hijackers carried out the Sept. 11 attacks.

More immediately, the tide of anti-Americanism is forcing Arab governments to downplay cooperation with the U.S. military buildup. Busloads of American troops arriving in Kuwait have been shuttled quietly to remote bases, without press coverage or official comment. Saudi leaders have refused for weeks to say whether American forces would be permitted to attack Iraq with the benefit of the Prince Sultan Air Base, home to about 4,000 American military personnel.

The change of heart among Arabs is not confined to intellectuals.

From the safety of a nearby balcony in 1991, laborer Hemdan Suleiman, 51, watched through his gas mask as an Iraqi Scud missile tore into a Saudi government building in Riyadh. Today, all that remains is an acre of tangled rebar and concrete where the building once stood, and Suleiman's gratitude for America's past protection. But none of that stops him from denouncing a U.S. effort to depose Hussein.

"This is not for the U.S. to do. It should be up to the Arab people," said Suleiman, a native of Egypt.

"War is no good for all Arab people. It will make the Arab countries very weak for the future."

Tribune staff reporter Stephen Franklin contributed to this report from Qatar.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune


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