|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
31 Dec. 1998 - 6 Jan. 1999
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Rocky road to Baghdad
Arab countries have embarked on a new round of mutual accusations as to who exactly is responsible for their persisting failure to formulate a coherent strategy to deal with the Iraq crisis.
Almost eight years after the end of the second Gulf War, inter-Arab differences over Iraq are still too deeply entrenched to allow a unified approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein's regime, official expressions of sympathy notwithstanding.
"Some regimes, in the Gulf, are simply not interested in helping, while other regimes would like to help the Iraqis but don't want to have anything to do with Saddam Hussein, either because they don't trust him, or because they don't want to upset the US," commented one Arab diplomat.
This week, Arab foreign ministers failed to hold an extraordinary meeting that was scheduled for Wednesday to examine the issue of Iraq as one part of the overall Arab crisis. The meeting is now postponed until 24 January at the request of the vast majority of the Gulf states.
The decision was taken Sunday after Saudi Foreign Minister Saoud Al-Faissal conferred in Cairo with President Hosni Mubarak and Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. Al-Faissal told his Egyptian interlocutors that, with the exception of the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf countries -- and particularly Kuwait -- feel apprehensive at the prospect of attending a meeting that could end up issuing a communiqué declaring Iraq the victim of an aggression.
The Gulf countries, as represented by the Saudi official, also explained that at this stage they are not prepared to take any course of action that might displease the US with whom they have joint defence treaties. Therefore, any talk about a gradual, or partial, breach of the economic sanctions against Iraq is, for them, completely out of the question. The maximum they are willing to tolerate are statements of support for the Iraqi people, together with maybe some sort of humanitarian aid.
GCC leaders held a closed-door meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday evening to discuss both their participation in the meeting of Arab foreign ministers and a possible Arab summit. No announcement was made at the conclusion of the meeting, and reporters were barred from both the airport and the conference centre.
Arab League Secretary-General Essmat Abdel-Meguid announced the postponement on Monday, only a few hours before US fighter planes blasted an Iraqi anti-aircraft battery, killing four soldiers and wounding seven, in retaliation for what Washington says was an attempt to violate the rules of the US-imposed no-fly zone in northern Iraq.
The United Arab Emirates, which has long been calling for Arab reconciliation, lamented the postponement of the ministerial meeting. UAE Information Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayad Al-Nahyan speaking on Abu Dhabi television expressed surprise that a handful of states could succeed in having the talks postponed, when the vast majority of the Arab countries were ready to go ahead.
However, for Foreign Minister Moussa, it does not make much sense to aggravate an already delicate situation by letting the preparations for the meeting degenerate into a conflict over a date, at a time when there are so many other problems unresolved between the Arab nations.
Arab League spokesman Talaat Hamed also defended the decision. He told Al-Ahram Weekly, "The Gulf countries asked on Monday for more time to consider the issue. We see this as a sign that the problem is being taken very seriously."
Nevertheless, some Arab diplomatic circles have been highly critical of the delay. As one diplomat from a North African Arab country put it, "Now is the time for Arab coordination. If we don't meet now [not only at the ministerial but at the summit level] to find answers to our problems, then when are we supposed to meet?"
"This delay did not come out of the blue," said one source. "It could have been anticipated [by anyone] following the [lame] reactions to the Yemeni call to hold an Arab summit to debate the issue of Iraq. The Arab world is not yet ready to sit down together and decide to forgive Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait."
Arab diplomatic sources admit that, given the current atmosphere, it will be very difficult to produce a result that both Baghdad and Kuwait can accept. If the meeting does now go ahead as scheduled, in the presence of both the Iraqi and Kuwaiti ministers, it seems likely it will produce a communiqué that recognises the grievances of the Iraqi people, and their right to see "light at the end of the tunnel", as well as the right of all the Arab countries to coexist without fear of mutual aggression.
The best that the Iraqis could then look for from this meeting is a statement that does not lay the blame for Iraq's present problems at the door of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Obviously, this will not go very far to contain the public outcry in the Arab world at the threat of more sanctions -- or more military action -- against Iraq. But as Foreign Minister Moussa argues, "Much hard work is still needed [to repair] inter-Arab relations, in general, and particularly on the issue of Iraq."
Saddam's regime, if anything, appears to be doing its best to undermine the Arab sympathy it had won during the latest American-British attack, and along with it the prospects of a common Arab position that would help ease the suffering of the Iraqi people. On Tuesday, Iraq's official media pulled out all the stops as it launched a fierce attack on Arab leaders, including President Mubarak, for allegedly failing to show support for Iraq.
And indeed, there are diplomatic sources who feel it is possible the meeting will not go ahead at all.