Tucked away in the elegant confines of the Al Faisaliah commercial complex in Riyadh's Olaya district sits a modest research center run by one of the sons of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Here Turki Al-Faisal ponders the growing crisis in the Mideast, and what it means for U.S.-Arab relations. Until a little over a year ago, Al-Faisal was the chief of Saudi intelligence, a position that put him in close contact with U.S. policymakers. Yet he has little reassuring to say about the Americans now. He predicts that a U.S. invasion of Iraq will be a "bloody" disaster. "Lots of Iraqis are going to die and perhaps Americans as well," he says. He says the U.S. is behaving like an imperial power. "Any country or society that becomes dominant inevitably wants to change the world in its own image," he says. "America is like this now. Look at what Alexander the Great did and the British."
These words at first seem over the top coming from a senior member of the House of Saud, a close U.S. ally for more than half a century. After all, despite their protests, the Saudis are likely to cooperate in America's prosecution of the war--as are other Arab states. And few Arabs will miss Saddam if he is toppled.
Al-Faisal's harsh words, however, represent a huge swathe of Arab opinion. The ruling elites of the Mideast--and much of the Arab street--are alarmed at the turn American policy has taken. Alarmed and utterly bewildered. They think this is the wrong moment for a war, and the wrong enemy to fight. They think Saddam is boxed in--and they aren't particularly impressed with the Bush Administration's evidence on Iraqi weapons programs or Saddam's links to terrorism. "In the eyes of the Arab world, this is a bad war, if it happens, while [the gulf war in] 1991 was a good war," says Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The march to this war is well under way. "We're ready to go," says a civilian official with the U.S. military mission at Prince Sultan Air Base. American soldiers and pilots may go sooner rather than later. On Dec. 7, the Iraqis submitted a 12,000-page report describing their arsenal to the U.N. Now the Bush Administration must decide whether to accept the report and allow weapons inspections to continue--or unleash the awesome armed might of the U.S. and its allies on Baghdad.
The prospect of war is one source of anxiety. But the biggest thing worrying the Arab regimes is American idealism--a full-fledged Wilsonian need to change things for the better. While the U.S. has long been deeply involved in the Middle East as a guarantor of the international order and a trading partner, it has mostly refrained from trying to impose American values. In the world post-September 11, 2001, the U.S. is becoming a much more intrusive force, demanding changes in how institutions such as schools and charities function.
The new "with us or against us" approach not only worries states such as Syria and Iran that have traditionally been estranged from the U.S. America's friends in the region are also on edge. "They have lost the unconditional support of the U.S.," says Vahan Zanoyan, president and CEO of Washington-based energy consultants PFC. "Their own internal weaknesses are far more exposed." There is a big risk that the tense atmosphere is helping militant Islamic groups recruit more adherents. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that we are worse off than after September 11," says one American diplomat.
The fear within the Arab regimes contrasts sharply with the mounting confidence of many Bush officials. These aides want to use a liberated Iraq as a platform to promote democracy, liberal capitalism, and women's rights in these authoritarian states. They argue that poverty and lack of outlets for political expression create a breeding ground for extremists, and that it's time to put an end to this state of affairs. "The Arab world has been exempt from the progress of the 20th century," says one top Bush Administration policymaker. "That is its history but it doesn't have to be its fate. Administration officials pledge that the U.S. will stay in Iraq for as long as it takes to create a model society for the region. Declared Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz in a recent speech: "I believe there is an opportunity here to liberate one of the most talented populations in the Arab world with positive effects throughout the Middle East."
This is ambitious stuff--the Mideast desperately needs reform and maybe, if all the pieces fall into place, the Bush team will be proved right. But the Arabs see this attitude as a scary reminder of what has gone before. When the British and French rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the fallen Ottoman Empire, they intended to build a series of peaceful, pro-Western regimes. Instead they constructed artificial states, based on unnatural borders and eventually armed to the teeth by their European sponsors. The result was the new Middle East--the same Middle East whose wars, coups and upheavals have shaken the world for eight decades.
That's why others in the region see change coming, too, but of a very different sort. "I see the Middle East being transformed into a new era of confrontation between the U.S. and Iraq and Israel and the Palestinians," says Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League in Cairo.
Arabs worry that they will have to deal with any instability in Iraq that stems from an attack, and that the Americans, never known for their stamina, will show no stomach for the long process of rebuilding a nation. Many Iraq analysts think that competing power interests will emerge once Saddam, who restrained them, is gone. They also know a prolonged war could further stir the passions of their own people, who are already furious about American support for Israel against the Palestinians. "You could have a domino effect in other countries such as Saudi Arabia," says Mohamed Sid Ahmed, foreign affairs columnist for the leading Cairo daily, Al-Ahram. If war is slow and ugly, it could inspire street demonstrations or bombing attacks on American targets.
But what if the war in Iraq goes well and the country stabilizes fairly quickly? That outcome also threatens the other Arab regimes. A weak, U.N.-sanctioned Iraq wasn't so bad for them. Iraq has been unable to compete with the Saudis and other oil producers for influence, and U.N. restrictions have kept Iraq's oil production down--leaving room for the other oil producers' output in a weak market. They fear that a new Iraqi regime could double or triple production, hammering prices and threatening OPEC's cohesion.
As the fears multiply, the gulf between the U.S. and its Mideast allies widens. There is already a good deal of resentment in Saudi Arabia about American pressure to crack down on Islamic charities, some of which have been conduits to extremists. Knowledge that the American Embassy in Riyadh has been studying the content of Saudi textbooks for evidence of religious intolerance is also a cause for concern. "The way the U.S. is pushing the issue of reform is counterproductive," says a senior member of Saudi Arabia's Shura Council, an appointed group viewed as a precursor to an elected parliament. He adds that America's heavyhanded approach is undercutting reformers inside Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the Arabs must shoulder a good part of the responsibility for their own predicament. Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait should have served as a warning to these regimes--particularly the gulf's oil producers--to put their houses in order. In most cases, the Arab states have taken only minor action to broaden their political bases. True, the Saudis took a key step in creating the Shura Council. But they made it an appointed rather than an elected body. What's more, almost no country in the region has figured out how to unleash the kind of economic growth that creates jobs and dampens the appeal of radicalism.
The tempo of change needs to pick up. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia have dabbled with reform, but a souring political situation and recalcitrant bureaucrats have gummed up the works. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi financier, gives his uncle the Crown Prince an "A" for diagnosing the kingdom's problems, but he only awards the government a "C" for implementation. "From the reform point of view, the Crown Prince is going at 100 miles per hour while the bureaucracy is going at half-speed," says Alwaleed. Other observers wonder whether Abdullah has the depth to cope with complex projects such as a stalled $25 billion gas scheme designed to lure investment. "I feel sorry for the Crown Prince," says a Western executive who has sat across the table from the 78-year-old Saudi leader. "He is in the dark."
Astute political initiatives have been lacking, too. Although the Arabs complain bitterly about the violence between the Palestinians and the Israelis, most Arab government have done nothing to curb the suicide bombings inside Israel, which have severely damaged the Palestinian cause in the U.S. Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal earlier this year to solve the conflict might have had a greater chance of success if it had come much earlier--when President Bill Clinton was trying to broker a peace in late 2000. "I believe that if the Saudis had been that forthcoming [then] we would have had a deal," says Madeleine K. Albright, who was Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration. Arab efforts to head off a war with Iraq will likely come too late as well.
Despite these problems, many in the region yearn for change. On a recent day in Riyadh, Mohammed Al-Sarhan, managing director of Al-Safi-Danone Co., a Saudi-French joint venture, groused that he could not figure out how to hire a highly qualified young Saudi woman. The problem: The mutawas, the notorious religious police, would go into conniptions if they discovered a woman working alongside men. "It is frustrating to see such talent go jobless," Sarhan says. "Somebody has to start" bringing women into the top level of Saudi companies, he adds.
Such candid expressions of frustration give some Americans hope. "There is great potential for Saudi Arabia to look a lot more like the U.S. in 20 years," says an American official in Riyadh. "There is a well-developed middle class. Islam melds well with capitalism." After all, the prophet Mohammed was a merchant, Saudis have a long tradition of trade and commerce, and nothing in Islamic doctrine is inherently opposed to business. A democratic Iraq might inspire such change. "It won't happen quickly, but Iraq could act as a mecca for liberals just as Egypt was" for Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, says Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.
But how far does the U.S. want to go? Real democracy would give an opening not only to moderates but also to governments much less willing to do America's bidding--or even extremists. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 69% of Egyptians had an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. And a Zogby International survey earlier this year found that 87% of Saudis shared that view. The main reason: U.S. support for Israel. If fair elections were held in most countries in the Arab world, the Islamists would stand a strong chance of winning a substantial share of the votes.
Already, the Islamists are getting their message out. Religious scholars circulate anti-U.S. tracts on the Internet and by hand in Saudi Arabia. "Today it is Iraq's turn: Tomorrow it will be the turn of anyone who resists Westernization and secularization," says one. The House of Saud's early opposition to a U.S. invasion has won it more credibility among Islamists. "We feel that they [the royal family] are more with us than they have been in a long time," says Mohsen Al-Awajy, an Islamist who spent four years in jail for his role in a campaign against corruption.
The rulers of most Mideast countries have been around for decades. They have outlasted many changes in government and policy from Washington. Will they survive the era of uncertainty the fall of Saddam will usher in? "The leadership here is always forward-looking," says Turki Al-Faisal. Those leaders will soon be put to the test.
By Stanley Reed
With Stan Crock in Washington