Arab foreign ministers huddled in emergency session throughout the day Thursday at a plush hotel next to the Nile, debating how to respond to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's brazen invasion of Kuwait earlier in the day.
They broke for lunch. They phoned home. They plunged in again at dusk, calling for more coffee. But by mid-evening, the only thing they had agreed on was to meet again today.
Even a prominent Egyptian diplomat was embarrassed. "The Arab world," he sighed. "They're all walking around this afternoon the same way they were this morning. 'What to be done? What to be done?' "
Such is the Arab world's dilemma in confronting the brash Iraqi president who has emerged at once as its most prominent leader and its most savage dictator, the new standard-bearer for Arab unity and the single greatest threat to his neighbors anywhere in the world.
Even Saudi Arabia, whose famed multibillion-dollar defense budget has built one of the most technologically sophisticated arsenals in the region, appears to have found itself powerless to stop Iraq's decisive march into Kuwait. It is a march in defiance of regional cooperation pacts and Hussein's recent pledge to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as recently as a few days ago, that he would not resort to force.
"It's like a thumb in Mubarak's eye, and he knows it," one Western diplomat said. "At this point, I don't think any one state is able to counteract the Iraqis, and it just doesn't seem likely that there will be any concerted action."
Kuwait pleaded with the ministers to adopt a resolution condemning the invasion and also sought military intervention from the 21-nation Arab League and from its neighbors on the Gulf Cooperation Council, a coalition of Persian Gulf states whose primarily economic union also included a mutual defense pact.
But sources close to the talks said the ministers found themselves unable even to agree to condemn the invasion, in large part because of opposition from two staunch Iraqi allies, Yemen and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Gulf Cooperation Council members--Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates--met earlier in the day and broke up without issuing a statement.
The Egyptian president held intense contacts with Arab leaders throughout the region Thursday, proposing an emergency Arab League summit in Cairo as early as the next few days. But most attention focused quietly on the Saudis, who have the most muscle to apply against Iraq--and the most to lose if it doesn't work.
Saudi Arabia's vast oil wealth--almost 40% of it annually spent on defense--has enabled it to amass one of the most sophisticated weapons networks in the Middle East. Its 65,700-member armed forces is by far the largest among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries; its air force is equipped with sleek F-15 and F-53 fighter jets; the Saudis operate U.S.-supplied AWACS airborne early warning systems and sport 550 main battle tanks.
But the Iraqis have 1 million troops under arms, finely honed from Iraq's recent eight-year-long war with Iran. They are prepared to deploy up to 5,500 tanks and 513 combat aircraft, including fairly advanced Soviet-made MIG-23s and the French-built Mirage F-1s.
"The quick answer is, they (the Saudis) are not a powerful force. It's a very expensive force, a very sophisticated force in terms of aircraft, but there's not all that much there," said Dr. Hans Binnendijk of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Saudi Arabia finds itself in the uncomfortable position of being bound to defend Kuwait under a clause of the Gulf Cooperation Council pact, yet vastly underequipped to do so--and suddenly wary that its historic political influence within the region may be on the wane, a variety of diplomats and analysts said.
Allowing an Arab counterstrike from Saudi soil could have dangerous repercussions if the strike fails. And the Saudis are equally wary of seeking too much assistance from the United States because--with their own regime occasionally buffeted mildly by internal dissent--they don't want to appear to be, in the words of one analyst, "too dependent on the U.S."
"They're just helpless. They're a population of 7 or 8 million people with lots of modern equipment. They've never been tested militarily. And they're up against a major machine," one longtime Middle East specialist said. The specialist continued:
"Very often, their tactics have been to suborn people through money. But with Saddam Hussein, they won't be able to buy him now. He owes them over $30 billion--with what's happened in Kuwait, how are they going to ask him to pay it back? I think their concern is going to be that he's now the big guy on the block. They're going to have to jump in oil pricing, foreign policy. They must be very, very worried."
Egyptian officials are worried--and angry--about the same thing, complaining privately that Hussein has within a single day undone the effects of years of careful diplomacy on the part of the Egyptians to begin restoring intra-Arab ties.
"He read the changes in the world between the Russians and the Americans as leaving the Middle East as a stage for local predators to take over, and he took over," one Egyptian official complained. "His methodology has been the methodology of the new bully around the country who neutralized everybody and scored."
Mubarak reportedly took the invasion hard, regarding it as a personal affront. And while the Egyptian government carefully avoided any direct comment in advance of the final Arab League deliberations, Cairo's government-backed papers early today were less circumspect.
"This is truly a black day in the history of the Arabs," wrote the daily Al Ahram, "because whatever the reason and rationalizations, no one can accept that one Arab will kill his brother, or will carry arms against his Arab-Muslim brother. . . . It brings us back to the primeval days of ignorance."