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In the Wake of ‘Desert Storm’

Amman, Jordan

Never had I felt so gloomy about the Middle East as I did recently after I spent an evening with King Hussein. The King probably knows the region, and certainly the Arabs, as well as anyone else, and he carries the burden of being conceivably the last of the Hashemite rulers. Until the Saudis took over the Hijaz, the region that includes Mecca and Medina, the King’s clan was custodian of the Islamic holy places there for hundreds of years. His great-grandfather was the sharif of Mecca. Abdullah, his grandfather, helped lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and was rewarded by Britain with a new kingdom east of the Jordan River. Hussein, as a teen-ager, was at Abdullah’s side when he was assassinated in 1951 at the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem by a disaffected Palestinian. In 1958, a cousin, King Faisal of Iraq, was overthrown and murdered.

The King, who has led Jordan through many shaky periods for nearly forty years, is doing nothing to discourage the feeling that the entire region is headed for something dreadful. A week after American planes began bombing Iraq, Fouad Ayoub, a palace press officer I have known for many years, telephoned me at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman. The King and Queen Noor, he said, would be giving an informal dinner that evening for a few cabinet ministers and some foreign journalists. Although the King is unhappy with much of the press coverage he receives, no other Arab leader makes as great an effort to deal with reporters personally, especially during times of crisis.

Hussein’s palace is a collection of ordinary cream-colored villas and office buildings on top of one of Amman’s many steep hills. Inside, in a reception room with old Damascene mashrabiyah panelling, we were offered fresh fruit juices, served in Hebron blown-glass tumblers. The King, when he finally appeared with his wife, was wearing a blazer over a dark turtleneck sweater. As we entered the dining room, we were told of reports that Iraqi Scud missiles were flying over Jordan on their way to Tel Aviv.

After a simple supper of Arabic mezze, the King invited us to ask questions. He looked sad and frustrated, although he never lost his temper as he gave us his long and measured replies. He expected a long war, he told us. He assumed that the might of the allied forces was capable of dislodging Iraqi troops from Kuwait, but at a terrible cost. He was concerned about what Israel might do, but he seemed equally worried about an eruption of political unrest that would bring down Arab governments. When a British journalist pointed out that he had said nothing hopeful the entire evening, the King seemed to wince.

Saddam Hussein’s confrontation with the US, which is how many Arabs view Operation Desert Storm, is tearing violently at the connections among nations and groups in the Arab world. Saddam has proved himself to be a radical seeking to destroy the status quo. Whatever the outcome of the war, his invasion of Kuwait and his refusal to yield to the immense power opposing him have deeply changed Arab politics. Shifts have already taken place in relations between Arab states, as well as in relations between the rulers and citizens in Arab states.

Current Jordanian politics provide some glimpse of what the consequences of the war may be, and, to me, they do not look very hopeful. Trends I have observed in Jordan and other parts of the Middle East during the last six months suggest that militancy and extremism will pose increasingly serious threats to moderation. Islamic fundamentalism seems to be gaining strength at the expense of the secular forces and ideologies that have until now prevailed in most Arab countries. As a result the prospects seem bleak that the war will eventually lead to peaceful settlements of the various disputes in the region.

Saddam Hussein is very popular in Jordan. This is one of the reasons why the King has increasingly supported Iraq against the allies. For several months Jordanian officials had claimed that Jordan was neutral and had more or less abided by the UN sanctions against Iraq. But on February 6, the King bitterly condemned the attack on Iraq and charged that it was a “war against all Arabs and Muslims,” intended to put the region under foreign domination. He gives his subjects the clear impression that he regards Saddam as a close Arab brother. Everywhere you go in Amman you come across posters showing Saddam alone or with the King. One widely displayed poster shows the King ceremoniously presenting Saddam with a gun. In the cafĂŠs men listening to Amman Radio cheer when the newscaster reports an Iraqi Scud missile attack on Israel or an allied plane shot down by Iraqi fire. I can’t think of a single one of my dozens of Jordanian friends, including those who have lived for years in the US or Europe, who does not support Saddam. Hateful as he seems throughout the West and to the rulers in the Gulf themselves, Saddam, like no other leader since Nasser, speaks directly to the despair and powerlessness that many Arabs feel. That is particularly true now that he is seen in some Arab countries as standing up to the attacks of the United States and Europe in defense of Arab pride. His brutal invasion of Kuwait, for many Arabs, was forgotten on the day that American troops began arriving in Saudi Arabia.

Few Arabs in the richer Gulf states have any sympathy for Saddam, but a great many in poorer countries like Jordan do. In North Africa, anti-Western feelings set off by the Gulf showdown seem explosive, particularly in Algeria and Morocco. In Rabat, the capital of Morocco, on February 3 an estimated 300,000 people took part in the city’s biggest political demonstration since the Suez crisis in 1956. Many of them displayed pictures of Saddam, despite the fact that their king, Hassan II, has sent about 5,000 Moroccan troops to join the alliance. Well-in-formed recent visitors to Syria tell me that Saddam has a fair amount of popular backing there, despite President Hafiz al-Asad’s decision to join the alliance.

Among the poorer Arabs, only the Egyptians seem ambivalent about Saddam. That is probably because they are preoccupied with their own serious economic problems and, in any case, they have never been enthusiastic about an Arab leader who is not an Egyptian. Tens of thousands of Egyptians who recently returned from working in Iraq have no illusions about his regime. Even so, two and a half weeks after the war began, Egyptian opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and various leftist political parties, issued a statement condemning the “brutal attack launched by the American and Allied Forces,” which includes 45,000 Egyptian troops. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 Egyptians are reported to have been conscripted into Iraqi military service.

When no one else has been able to do so, Saddam offers many Arabs dreams of unity, with which they could finally achieve a respected place in the world; of prosperity, which could be brought about by an equitable distribution of Arab oil wealth;* of Israel’s defeat, which would enable the Palestinians to have justice.

Shortly before January 16, I had dinner in Amman with Daoud Kuttab, a well-known Palestinian journalist who was visiting from Jerusalem. He recalled the powerful effect that Saddam, before the Kuwait crisis, had on Palestinians in the occupied territories when he threatened to “burn half of Israel.” Throughout the intifada, Kuttab said, Palestinians watched as Israelis managed to carry on their everyday lives, going apparently unperturbed to the beach or to concerts. “Then this guy six hundred miles away makes a statement,” Kuttab said, “and all of a sudden we see Israelis rushing out to get gas masks.”

The desperation for change of some sort runs deep. Since the end of the Second World War, when most of the twenty-one Arab states became independent, not a single one has developed a stable working democracy, although there have been increasingly free elections in countries like Algeria and Jordan and some degree of press freedom in these and a few other Arab countries. Having been dominated by Turkish and then European governors for hundreds of years, Arab societies were susceptible to military dictatorship. Widespread popular demands for the destruction of Israel helped to give an element of popular legitimacy to dictatorships that otherwise would have enjoyed little or none. The central planning accompanying authoritarian rule has helped to produce economic stagnation in the poorer Arab countries.

To the West, Saddam’s rule has been appalling. To ordinary Arabs, especially those who do not have to live in Iraq, his authoritarian style and his ruthless treatment of dissidents are not unusual. In any case, these Arabs don’t look to Saddam as a model for government, but they are drawn to him by the way he addresses grievances over Israel or “Western imperialism” that are widely viewed by Arabs as being responsible for the retarded political development of their societies.

What gives Saddam his popularity, moreover, is not so much what he says as what he does. Like Nasser, he is a charismatic leader, but unlike Nasser, he does something besides talk. Arabs who have grown used to the fruitless wrangling over disputes involving, say, the Palestinians or Lebanon were deeply impressed with how Saddam, after Kuwait’s leaders refused to consider his various demands concerning oil, simply snatched the country in a matter of hours. “I have always hated Saddam because I am a liberal,” a Palestinian friend told me. “But he brings out the ‘dictator’ in me. Now I am all the way for Saddam. We Palestinians are drowning, and he is throwing us a rope.”

Significantly, Saddam’s popularity is at its highest now since the outbreak of war with the US-led coalition. In view of the powerful forces arrayed against Iraq, many Arabs had assumed that Saddam would back down before the UN’s January 15 deadline for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait. The missile attacks on Israel convinced many Arabs that his efforts to link the Palestinian issue with Kuwait amounted to more than just talk.

In six short months, Saddam’s moves have strongly influenced Jordanian politics, and not for the better. For one thing, there is the phenomenon of “intellectual terrorism,” as a Jordanian intellectual I know calls it. The intensity and dogmatism of sympathy for Saddam frequently silence anybody who has a contrary opinion.

The West Bank and Gaza Palestinians involved in the intifada were among the first to back Saddam. Palestinians in Jordan and elsewhere tended to be confused about whom to support, but they soon fell in with the sentiment of the intifada. Jordanians of Bedouin origin, the so-called “East Bankers,” also quickly backed Saddam. They have always considered Iraq a friendly country, and have long harbored hostile feelings toward Gulf leaders, especially King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Kuwait, whom they view as having frequently humiliated their own, less wealthy monarch. Palestinians working in Kuwait came home to Jordan filled with bitterness toward Saddam. But it seems that most of them, partly as the result of the pervasive social pressure, reversed their view, at least in public.

  1. *

    Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, largely because of their natural oil resources, have had GNPs comparable with those of the US and Western European countries. Countries like Jordan, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, on the other hand, have had GNPs more closely resembling those of Eastern European countries.

    Iraq, with a smaller GNP per capita than Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, is nonetheless a major oil-producing state that has done relatively little to share its wealth with poorer countries.

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