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Old Feuds Shape Gulf's Present

Where Westerners see a tyrant at work, Arabs see a leader responding to the logic of history

HOW serious is Saddam Hussein's call for a holy war? Western politicians like George Bush may dismiss it as inflammatory rhetoric, but this doesn't matter. What matters is how the Arabs view it. Based on the Cairo summit resolutions, the West is tempted to see Saddam Hussein as a hated warmonger, isolated even from his fellow Arabs. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Saddam Hussein, unlike Westerners, knows exactly how to appeal to the Arab public: Jordan's King Hussein also knows what will work.

Let's look at who attended the summit. No president there was freely elected by his people. All were foreign-made rulers, whether they were placed in power by the departing colonial rulers, like King Hussein, or kept in power by American ``military aid,'' like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. King Hussein, an experienced diplomat, knows this. This awareness led him to ally himself with someone the West calls ``the world's most hated man.'' King Hussein knew that as soon as the Americans appear on the Arabian peninsula, many Arabs would turn against their governments.

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The Nasserites of Egypt and the fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia are the most obvious threat.

While realpolitik is the dominant concept in the West, historical claims are the decisive factor in the Middle East. Moreover, while the policy maneuvers of America and others toward the Middle East seems peripheral to many Americans, they are central to Arabs. Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, his animosity toward Saudi Arabia, his call for a holy war, and King Hussein's latest shift make absolute sense within the Arab frame of reference.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is not the first of its kind; it reflects a territorial dispute that has been going on for at least 30 years. When Kuwait became independent in 1961, Iraq proclaimed its sovereignty over Kuwait's territory based on old Ottoman records. When Iraq threatened to invade, the British came to Kuwait's aid and Iraq was deterred. In 1973, Iraqi forces occupied a Kuwaiti border outpost. Hostilities surfaced again in 1984, when Iraqi forces crossed the disputed border and occupied a strip of land. After 1984, hostility lessened because of the Iran-Iraq war, but differences between the two countries were never resolved.

If the dispute between Kuwait and Iraq is territorial, the hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iraq can be seen as part of a long-standing dynastic conflict. In the 1920s, Ibn Saud drove the ruling Hashemite family of Sherif Hussein out of the Hejaz, the western province of what is now Saudi Arabia. Since the Hashemite family is descended from the prophet Muhammad, their claim to rule is seen as more legitimate from a religious point of view. After the Hashemites were expelled from Arabia, the British appointed Faisel I king of Iraq, and later appointed another Hashemite, King Hussein's grandfather, Abdullah, king of Jordan.

In essence, Ibn Saud drove out the Hashemite family in the same way that Saddam Hussein expelled the Al Sabah family from Kuwait. Furthermore, although Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist party overthrew the Hashemite king of Iraq, he himself is related to the Hashemite family. It is also important to note that when the Saud family conquered Arabia, they began their operation from Kuwait, with the backing of the Al Sabah family.

Therefore, the current invasion of Kuwait, and Saddam's call for a holy war against the Saud family, is to some degree a continuation of the Saud-Hashemite feud. Arabs know this, and so do not view the invasion as the ``unprovoked aggression'' that Westerners label it.

The conflict is as much about families as it is about nations - as much about the past as about the future. Knowing this also explains why the presence of Iraqi troops in Kuwait frightened Saudi King Fahd into calling for American help. He remembers very well what his grandfather Ibn Saud accomplished from his base in Kuwait in 1902.

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Arabs also remember that in the 1920s, parts of Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan were embraced in the British Mandate of Palestine. Although they differ somewhat ethnically and linguistically, there is some historical basis for their current alliance.

In addition to historical relations and kinship, Saddam gives King Hussein twice the amount of aid given him by the United States and Saudi Arabia combined. However, because the historical facts are more widely known in the Arab world than the current economic relations, King Hussein has been able to avoid being viewed by the Arab public as someone who has been bought.

It's important to recognize, also, that many Arabs have come to view Saddam Hussein as Saladin, the savior from Christian crusaders whose modern counterpart is challenging the Israeli might. His eight-year war against Iran, which ended in relative victory, was known to Arabs as the kadisiat Saddam and aroused pan-Arab nationalism throughout the region. The kadisiat was an ancient war in which the medieval Arabs defeated the Persians. Such reference to history has been a common practice among Arab radicals from Nasser to Saddam.

In his recent call to Egyptians to overthrow their government and join the ``holy war'' against the Americans, Saddam called the Egyptians ``Nasser's heirs.'' With such words, Saddam is certainly pushing the right buttons. He also calls upon the Saudi people to revolt against the Westernized, anti-Islamic house of Saud, which ``sold the holy shrines of Islam to the Crusaders.'' Given the instability of Saudi Arabia, such a call will appeal at least to dissidents as well as to the poor in the eastern province. It will ring in the ears of the disinherited Shiites of that province, especially when America is the enemy.

The unpopularity of America in the Middle East is a direct result of American foreign policy, especially the channeling of foreign aid. The $2.7 billion given by Washington to Egypt each year is used to keep Mubarak's unpopular regime in power. Instead of building schools and hospitals, say critics, American money builds jails, maintains an internal surveillance system, and feeds corruption. In addition, Arab's view the $3 billion sent to Israel each year as having been used to kill thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians.

From all of this, one can infer that the people of the Middle East are once more pawns in a feud between powerful men - not just the Sauds and the Hashemites, but Saddam Hussein and George Bush.

Whoever sides with the Arab people and their interests will win their hearts - and the region. In this contest, the odds are greatly in favor of Saddam Hussein, despite all his flaws. It would be a mistake to underestimate his call for a holy war.

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