How Saddam Is Dividing the Arab World

When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, he cynically did so in the name of Arabism and of all “zealous Arabs who believe the Arab nation is one nation.” He justified his grab for Kuwait’s oil resources and financial assets as a means of restoring “Arab” wealth to its supposedly true owners, the entire Arab people. His Revolutionary Command Council equated any attack on Iraq with an attack on “the Arab nation.”

Once American troops landed in Saudi Arabia, Saddam coupled this appeal to pan-Arab sentiments with an appeal to Islamic ones. The American military presence on Saudi soil, he said, was a desecration of the holy places in Mecca and Medina. The tomb of the Prophet, he charged, was under the control of “unbelievers and Jews.” He sought to justify the invasion of Kuwait by appealing to resentment among poorer Arabs against the oil-rich Arab states. The Palestine issue received only passing mention in his initial post-invasion pronouncements. But faced with worldwide condemnation, he made a bid for Palestinian support as well, saying that any discussion of Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait must be linked to a prior withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and Gaza. By questioning the legitimacy of the borders drawn in the Persian Gulf by the British after World War I, Saddam implicitly called into question the legitimacy of virtually all the Middle Eastern Arab states, ironically including his own.

This combination of appeals—to pan-Arab, Islamic, and Palestinian constituencies, to the Arab poor, to Arab resentments rooted in a colonial past when Britain dominated the region—is in keeping with the style of a leader who, since he seized supreme power in Iraq a decade ago, has sought to be all things to his own people and to the Arabs in general. Huge posters throughout Iraq show Saddam Hussein in a variety of poses: as soldier, statesman, family man, Arab, Kurd, religious penitent, and humble pilgrim. For each role, he is shown in appropriate dress. Following the invasion of Kuwait, he appeared in a new guise—the flowing long shirt and headdress worn by Kuwaitis.

Saddam’s appeal to a variety of often incompatible Arab constituencies is also consistent with the confused attempt by Iraq’s Baath party over the past decade to provide a national identity for the Iraqi people.1 The party’s notion of Iraq also turns out to be something of a grab bag. The pan-Arab rhetoric which is a staple of the regime’s propaganda competes with a fierce Iraqi nationalism; the primacy Baghdad accords to the Iraqi national interest is hardly disguised. In all the talk of Arab unity, pride of place is reserved for Iraq and its leader. The Iraqis are “the pearl of the Arab’s crown, symbol of their might and pride.” Saddam is “the knight of the Arabs,” “the shield of the [Arab nation],” and “the safe haven for the Arab masses.” On the assumption that what is good for Iraq is good for the Arabs, Saddam routinely equates…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.