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The Arab world sees a wide window of opportunity opening

By Franz Schurmann Pacific News Service
Saturday February 10, 2001

There is a widespread sense in the Arab world that this is an important transition period – based in part on the view that the West, especially America, has messed up in the Middle East. 

Many think this could be a window of opportunity in the “Arab world” – some 200 million people in 28 countries bound together by their common Arabic language. 

Underlying this sense of transition are a number of events in the wider world. 

One is the new administration in Washington. The Arabic press makes no secret about its belief that the Clinton administration was too closely tied to Israel to succeed in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, even though most Arab papers supported those efforts. 

They also made it clear that the new president has already sent signals to several Arab states that his administration wants to work with them on Middle East issues. A commentary in the Jan. 24 issue of the Saudi-financed newspaper As-Sharq al-Ausat noted that the Bush administration has far fewer top-level Jewish- Americans than the Clinton administration. 

There is a widespread sense in the region that Bush is downgrading the Israel-Palestinian conflict to lesser urgency. 

As for the new Israeli government, many if not most Arabs see little difference between Sharon and his predecessor, the peace-seeking Ehud Barak. Barak built more settlements in the Occupied Territories than Benyamin Netanyahu, and under Barak the military have killed more Palestinians than the earlier Rabin and Netanyahu governments. 

Clearly the most important elements of change, from the viewpoint of American global interests, are tied to the fact that the Middle East remains the world's main source of oil, and also – with the Caspian and Central Asian regions, both predominantly Muslim – potentially the main source of natural gas. 

Ten years ago, the Bush Sr. administration not only won a military victory that forced Saddam Hussein to pull out completely from Kuwait, it won a political victory that made America the dominant power in the Middle East and gave it great influence in the Caspian and Central Asian 

regions. 

This political victory came about even before Desert Storm. Then Secretary of State James Baker III succeeded in organizing a coalition to fight the war that included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria as well as Britain and France. 

When the coalition asked Security Council permission to use military force to dislodge Saddam from Kuwait the Soviet Union voted yes and China abstained. The stunning military victory consolidated the coalition, and later in 1991, Baker organized the Madrid conference that launched the Arab-Israeli peace process. 

Now the coalition is in shambles. 

It started to weaken in June, 1993 when the then-new Clinton administration excluded Saudi Arabia from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It became clear that, despite “progress,” Israel only wanted peace on its own terms and Arafat's Palestinian Authority was unable to 

deliver on any accord. 

The Palestinian al-Aqsa Intifada finally doomed the coalition. Syria dropped out, Egypt pulled back and Jordan, especially after King Hussein died and the Intifada erupted, started inching backwards. 

The balance of power in the Middle East has suddenly changed quite radically. 

Russia's new young leader, Vladimir Putin, ardently believes Russia is a military superpower – and that if America were not so arrogant it would concede it is an empire like Russia. Putin is leading Russia into a new Middle Eastern role in a way that has turned America's dual containment policy into a farce. 

Iran and Iraq have de-contained themselves. Russia is arming Iran and helping it build nuclear reactors, and UN sanctions against Iraq have become irrelevant – with Russia in the lead a growing roster of countries has ignored the UN air embargo against Iraq. 

Indeed, Syria and Iraq, once sworn enemies, are now busy visiting each other. And, more significantly, foreign oil companies last year built a pipeline linking Iraq's oil rich north with Banyas, a Syrian port on the Mediterranean and netting Iraq a million or two US dollars every day. 

Saddam has even announced he is going to try again to get back Kuwait, Iraq's alleged “19th province.” And to irk his American enemies he has converted all his wealth from dollars into euros. 

The Gulf War coalition is not dead. A lengthy commentary by a noted writer, Ghassan al-Imam, published in As-Sharq al-Ausat, which has an intense dislike of Saddam Hussein, argues that neither Sharon nor Saddam will able to shake the alliance between Egypt, Syria, and the Saudis. 

His most telling point is that the rulers of all three countries have had a long and profitable association with the Bush family going back to the Reagan days when George Sr. was Reagan's vice- president. These contacts helped raise oil prices from a disastrous low of $10 a barrel during the 1980's and stabilizing the price at $25. When Bush chose fellow Texan Dick Cheney to be his vice- presidential candidate the media noted their common links to the oil industry. And when James Baker III became the chief lawyer for Bush in the Florida vote dispute another link to the oil industry was revealed. 

It was clear that Middle East issues played a key part in those nominations. Not only in the super-rich USA but in most parts of the world – oil and gas are the global economy's lifeline. 

Ghassan al-Imam believes that almost two decades of personal contacts between the Bush family and various ruling Arab clans could give the Arab world a window of opportunity they have never had since the 1950s. 

 

 

PNS editor Franz Schurmann, professor emeritus of history and sociology at UC-Berkeley, has traveled widely in the Middle East and reads the Arab- and Farsi-language press.