Legacy of Arab Distrust of West Supports Saddam's Defiant Stance
Some say war is attempt on part of US and allies to impose a new order on the Arab world
THE United States-led offensive against Iraq is stirring unhappy memories among Arabs, Middle East analysts say, and is prompting comparisons with foreign adventures in the region from the more distant past. The Gulf crisis is also underlining differences in outlook between the people of the Middle East and those of the West, these analysts say.
The 20th century began with Western powers (notably Britain and France) drawing new lines on the map of the Middle East after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. (See chronology.) Now, Arab commentators are pointing out, the century is coming to a close with Western powers still trying to impose their authority - this time in the Gulf.
``I think people in the Middle East are extraordinarily aware of what's happened within the century,'' comments Roger Owen, a specialist in the region at St. Antony's College in Oxford, England. ``There was the coming of the West, then the going of the West, and now their return.''
Arabs who express these thoughts point not just to comments from Western leaders on the need for what US Secretary of State James Baker III has called a new ``security structure'' in the region once the current crisis is over. They question the whole attitude of the Western powers.
``We do not seek the destruction of Iraq,'' President Bush said in his state of the union address last month. Rather, he went on, the Western allies wanted an Iraq which would use its resources ``to build a better life for itself.''
Western attitude questioned
``What right,'' an Arab academic asks, ``does Washington have to decide what constitutes a `better life' for Iraq?''
In trying to understand why the West should suddenly have gone to such lengths in taking up the cause of Kuwait, many Arabs point to the oil wealth of the Gulf region. But they also find their minds wandering back to events which began in the 11th century: the crusades.
``People in the region can not quite decide, whether it's an oil war in the guise of a crusade, a crusade in the guise of an oil war, or some fusion of the two,'' says Kamal Salibi, lecturer in Middle East history at the American University of Beirut. ``Certainly, everyone feels it is an attempt on the part of the United States and her allies to impose a new order on the Arab world and on the Arabs' ability to make independent decisions.''
Professor Salibi says that the splits within the ranks of Arab leaders over the Gulf crisis also mirrors what happened at the time of the crusades.
``The Fatimid rulers of Egypt were reckoned to be in cahoots with the crusaders - they actually invited them, with the Normans of Sicily as intermediaries, because they had a common interest in Red Sea trade,'' Salibi says. ``Then there were those leaders who cooperated with the crusaders because they felt they were winning and it was better to be on the right side. Others reacted negatively to the outsiders - by sheer instinct.''
Echoes of crusades
As every Arab man, woman, or child will tell you, the crusaders were eventually driven out of the region. Historical echoes like that, as much as anything else, generate popular support for Iraq in the current crisis.
In the centuries before the West arrived in the Middle East again in the 1900s, most of the region was under Ottoman Turkish domination.
The emergence of Turkey in the anti-Saddam alliance has made some Middle Eastern leaders, notably those in Iran, question whether the descendants of the Ottomans may be about to flex their muscles again.
But in the view of a senior Western diplomat in the Middle East, ``the Arabs believe that Turkey sold out a long time ago on its connection with Islam, and its historical link with the Arabs has been forgotten.
``Turkey makes claim to areas of northern Iraq, but I don't think there is a fear that she will re-establish the semblance of an Ottoman Empire,'' he says.
Arab anxieties lie much more in what current Western intentions in the Gulf might be. Dr. Owen says there's a ``legacy of distrust, based on the deception carried out against the Arabs in the early years of this century.''
For example, in 1916, Lt. Gen. Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, the British governor general of the Sudan, wrote privately about his country's promise to work for the setting up of an independent Arab kingdom. ``Of course, any such notion is altogether remote from my real view, but it has suited me, as I believe it has suited all of us, to give the leaders of the Arab movement this impression.''
``It's because of deceptions like this,'' Owen comments, ``that most Arabs don't believe Western statements that they intend to withdraw their troops from the region once the crisis is over. These promises are not taken at face value.''
Arab memories of the 1920s and 1930s are also dominated by visions of foreigners active in the region. In Palestine, Jews from Europe were beginning to arrive in large numbers, while in the deserts to the east, Western oil prospectors were busy.
In 1925, King Faisal of Iraq (who had been put on the throne by the British) along with his Cabinet were prevailed upon to agree to give Britain major concessions. When oil was found in large quantities two years later, the ownership of the Iraq Petroleum Company had been shared between British, American, and French companies.
West Controls Oil
As Peter Mansfield, in his book ``The Arabs,'' writes: ``Iraqi ministers had very little say in any of these proceedings.''
Perhaps the most resonant echo of history is the difference between Middle Eastern and Western perceptions of how the region should be. Most people in the West, for example, seem to find the massive Arab popular backing for Iraq in the Gulf crisis incomprehensible. But Salibi insists that the support is ``overwhelming - and not just among the unthinking classes.''
The people of the Middle East have become accustomed to defeat and humiliation at the hands of the West. Any show of defiance, no matter how hopeless, wins admiration.
Salibi concludes that the failure of Arabs and the West to understand and trust each other means inevitably one thing: The Gulf crisis ``is bound to leave a legacy of hatred and hurt for a very long time to come.''