As I travel through the Middle East each year, I’m struck most powerfully by rumbling discontents, some economic or political, others cultural or religious. With the exception of Saudi Arabia, the oil-producing sheikdoms of the gulf are recent, 1960s creations. Tahseen Basheer, an Egyptian diplomat, describes them as “tribes given flags.”
There are vast discrepancies of wealth across the region’s state boundaries. Per-capita annual income, for example, in the United Arab Emirates is $15,720, and in Kuwait $13,680--but in Egypt it is $650, and in Morocco $750. Stories of the sheiks’ extravagances abound, and Iraqi propaganda has successfully exploited them. War will entail massive casualties among soldiers from the poor countries, fueling an explosion of longstanding resentments and furthering the isolation of pro-U.S. governments, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Among Washington’s allies in the gulf, only Syria is in a position to gain from either a negotiated settlement or war. Never a U.S. client, Syria struck a tactical alliance; its primary objective is to regain the Golan Heights. Syria will expect full U.S. support in ending the Israeli occupation when the gulf crisis is over. When Washington proves unable or unwilling to do so, of course, wily Hafez Assad will have the option of realigning--with Iran.
The Iranian posture reflects the popular consensus in the Middle East: Oppose Iraq’s aggression, but denounce U.S. intervention in the gulf. Iran’s leaders are drinking tea over the conflagration; while other nations become enmeshed in a costly war, Iran is rearming and reorganizing its military.
The sheiks have already responded to Iran’s re-emergence as a regional force. Earlier this month, while sitting in the United Nations Delegate’s Lounge, I observed how eagerly representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain greeted their Iranian counterparts. A year ago, relations were so hostile they barely exchanged stares. But the center of power was already shifting; in December, the Gulf Coordinating Council, a policy-planning body of Arab states in the gulf from which Arab Iraq was excluded, invited Iran to attend its annual meeting.
In order to comprehend how it might be possible for non-Arab Iran to lead the Arabs, one must understand the contemporary Arab predicament. For Arabs, the war comes in an era of grief and humiliation. Never before has this people experienced such a combination of wealth and weakness, material resources and moral bankruptcy.
Through these years, the Arab yearning for a unifying ideology has been squelched but not extinguished. People’s identities, as members of tribes, craft guilds, religious sects or ethnic groupings, had been mediated historically by the universal ideal of Islam. The decline of Muslim empires gave rise to secular nationalism, or Arabism, as the unifying ideology. But the West opposed Arabism, because it meant Arab unity and Arab control of Arab resources. This sustained opposition, combined with Israel’s defeat of Egypt in 1967 and Cairo’s separate peace with Israel in 1978, nearly destroyed secular nationalism as a motivating ideology in the region. Saddam Hussein, who presides over a secular polity, was trying to revive it.
But today, Arabism is a spent force. People are turning to Islam, of which Iran is now the standard bearer. In countries throughout the region, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the most powerful voices of opposition to U.S. military intervention are Islamic. Among these is one of Saudi Arabia’s most important religious leaders, Sheik Safar al-Halawi, who has vigorously denounced the deployment of U.S. troops in that country, alleging that Washington seeks to control the gulf in order to control its oil and gain leverage over Europe, Japan and the Third World. His taped speeches are circulating throughout the region, much as Ayatollah Khomeini’s recordings once permeated the Middle East.
Even Saddam Hussein, Arabism’s opportunistic exponent, has turned in desperation to Islam. So, too, may the majority of Middle Eastern people. In the aftermath of a military conflagration, the United States should expect to stand alone, with Israel, for the crusades of the future.