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Analysis: Uneasy Neighbours

For different reasons, the Gulf states find reasons to worry about the grand designs of both Saddam Hussein and George Bush.
By Mohammed Mashmoushi

Since the beginning of this latest, greatest confrontation between Iraq and the United States, the states of the Arab Gulf have displayed mixed feelings towards both protagonists - to President Saddam Hussein, who invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and to the United States, whose president, George W. Bush, has made clear that he will seek to reshape the entire Arab world, by one means or another, after he has finished with Saddam.


Few in the Gulf like Saddam, his Ba'athist rule or his oppression. They also blame him for the US bases that have mushroomed across the Gulf area since 1990 as a direct result of his disastrous occupation of Kuwait.


But few in the Gulf like President Bush - not only because of his hawkish policy against Iraq but also because of the free hand he has given Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to continue his vengeful military campaign against the Palestinian people for the past two years. In the Gulf view, Sharon and his entourage of right-wing parties would not have triumphed in Israel's recent elections without Bush's support for their hard-line anti-Palestinian policies.


Kuwait, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia, acknowledge openly that it was only the international coalition assembled by Bush the father that saved them from being gobbled up by Saddam's ambitions in 1990. Despite this, however, they still favour a no-war solution that would rescue them from both evils: from living next door to Saddam on one hand, and from having a fellow Arab state occupied by foreign troops on the other.


Last weekend, in an initiative presented to the Arab summit held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the United Arab Emirates took a first step - unprecedented in the Arab world - to try to avert a war against Iraq and the repercussions it would have throughout the Gulf region. The UAE initiative envisages Saddam Hussein leaving Baghdad with his family, close aides and senior army officers. It proposes putting Iraq in the hands of an international protectorate composed of both the United Nations and the Arab League.


The initiative united the Gulf states in throwing off their ambivalence towards Saddam, but was not discussed officially at the summit because of the fears of other Arab countries that interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq would give others an excuse to interfere in theirs. In the end, the summit limited itself to calling on Arabs "not to take any part in any military offensive against Iraq".


But the Gulf states were not deterred. UAE Information Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zaid told reporters after the summit that the initiative remained "the last choice for Arabs if they truly want to rescue Iraq and the Arab world from a devastating war." The foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council who met in Qatar after the summit included the initiative in their agenda. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain endorsed it openly.


With the exception of Saudi Arabia, which takes into consideration a public opinion that generally supports Osama bin Laden's radical anti-Americanism, the Gulf council, as a group, looks more sympathetically on US preparations for war - not in hope of war but of increasing pressure on Saddam to step down. Taking into account Saddam's refusal to relinquish power voluntarily, this anti-war, anti-Saddam axis, with its post-1991 "security arrangements" with the United States, Britain and France, may eventually turn out to participate explicitly in a US-led war on Iraq by continuing to lend facilities to the US military.


For the Gulf states, as for all Arab states, there is only one happy outcome to the current crisis: that Saddam cooperates fully with the weapons inspectors and that President Bush abandons what Arabs see as his strategic ambition to control all the oil reserves between the Caspian Sea and the Gulf.


In its improbability, this matches the task European countries like France, Germany and Belgium have set themselves: to try to avert war against Iraq by convincing the US administration that another Security Council resolution is needed - but only after the weapons inspectors have been given more time to finish their job.


For the Gulf Arabs, as for continental Europeans, the immediate problem is not only the arrogance of Saddam Hussein but also the arrogance of the leader of the world's last remaining superpower: President Bush. Today, as Saddam Hussein destroys his missiles, the imperial strategy of the US administration, clearly voiced by the hawks in Washington, counts more than rogue regimes like the one in Iraq.


Mohammed Mashmoushi, a Beirut-based political analyst and veteran deputy editor-in-chief of Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper, writes for the Gulf daily al-Bayan.


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