How the Arab World Is Already Changing

Governments are scurrying to ride out--or profit from--Saddam's fall

Abdul Aziz Sultan has fond memories of his boyhood vacations in the 1940s in Basra, Iraq's second city, before the advent of a series of repressive regimes. His family owned a beautiful old house with high ceilings near the market. Sultan thinks the Bush Administration has made a fortuitous choice in Iraq for an experiment in nation-building. "It is rich in resources, and its people are intelligent," he says. If a decent government takes hold and Iraq prospers, "it will have tremendous impact on the region." He even predicts that a secular Iraq could encourage the region's governments to stand up to the fundamentalists who have scored big gains over the last decade.

Granted, Sultan cuts a somewhat unusual figure in the macho Arab culture. Although he serves as the No. 2 of Kuwait City-based KEO International Consultants, an engineering and design firm, his wife, Donna, is its chief executive and runs the business in a no-nonsense fashion. But Sultan is no odd man out when it comes to his sentiments about Iraq. In this oil power in the shadow of a much larger northern neighbor, almost everyone would like to see the U.S. stop bargaining for international support and depose Saddam fast. What about the risks of war and upheaval? "Anything is better than Saddam," says Khalil Ali Haider, a Kuwaiti author and columnist. Indeed, the Kuwaitis' biggest fear seems to be that the Americans will change their minds and go home, allowing Saddam to keep menacing Kuwait.

In the West, the debate still rages over the necessity of going to war with Iraq. And Americans, if they think of it at all, have only a fuzzy notion that the Arab world is solidly against the war. The reality on the ground is far more nuanced. With perhaps just days to go before a U.S.-led invasion, most Arab governments are resigned to conflict. They may not want war, but they emphatically want an end to the dangerous no-war, no-peace limbo that has paralyzed the Middle East. Saddam's fall will be a major milepost, even though his influence is much weaker than it was before the last Gulf War. It will mark the most dramatic result yet of a rough and ready American approach to the region that -- like it or not -- governments now have to take into account.

The Iraqi leader's imminent demise is already sending shock waves across the region, from North Africa to the occupied territories to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Governments are scurrying to position themselves both to ride out the war and to deal with its aftermath. Some countries, such as Qatar, are openly embracing the prospect of a new era in the Middle East after Saddam is gone. More rigid regimes such as Saudi Arabia are hoping to control the forces of change (table).

The likelihood of war even looks to be behind Palestinian National Authority President Yassir Arafat's recent moves. Bowing to international and domestic pressure, he finally decided on Mar. 10 to appoint a Prime Minister -- moderate Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat is hoping the long-awaited appointment will spur the U.S. or Europe to press the Israelis to resume serious peace talks with the Palestinians after the Iraqi conflict ends. He may not get his wish, but he's angling to survive in the post-Saddam Mideast, too.

But it's the Kuwaitis who have the most to gain from war in Iraq. True, they may have to forego collecting on tens of billions of dollars in Iraqi debt and war reparations. Still, Kuwaitis figure those possible losses will be offset by the major shot in the arm that greater security and a revived Iraqi market would give the country's private sector, which has struggled in recent years.

Kuwaiti merchants are already doing a booming trade catering to the needs of the thousands of British and U.S. troops camped out near the border. These legendary entrepreneurs also hope to cash in on supplying and rebuilding their decrepit but potentially rich neighbor. Kuwaiti speculators have begun to pile into the stocks of local transportation and distribution companies, taking the Kuwait Stock Exchange index up about 12% this year. Tarek Sultan, Chairman of The Public Warehousing Co., says his company is already investing $100 million, 20% of its market capitalization, in state-of-the-art storage facilities in Kuwait that multinationals can use as staging points for forays into the Iraqi market. "We are going full speed," he says.

Meanwhile, wealthy Kuwaiti families say they are digging out deeds to property in Iraq that they lost under a series of despotic regimes. They are looking forward to being able to drive up to Basra for alcohol, which is banned in Kuwait. Liberal Kuwaitis anticipate that having sin readily available across the border will force their royal family to loosen up. "I hope they put casinos and bars all along the border," says one entrepreneur.

Other smaller countries in the region are also making plans to profit from the better business environment they hope the post-Saddam era will bring. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has established itself as a wide-open gulf financial center, where businesses provide services to highly-regulated Saudi Arabia. "The smaller countries feel the need to compete more to survive in the Middle East environment," says Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti political scientist who is founding what will be called the American University in Kuwait. "They have to be leaner and faster." The diminutive size and relatively open political systems of the smaller countries have helped make them more flexible and receptive to outside ideas. Jordan's King Abdullah, for example, hopes that the U.S. will reward his country for allowing a low-profile U.S. military presence and for not showing any sympathy for Saddam as his father did in the last Gulf War. Qatar wants the protection of a massive U.S. presence as it continues to experiment with social and political reform.

Encouraging stuff from an American point of view. But the major states -- Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran -- are far more apprehensive than the smaller countries about the post-Saddam era. They fear that after the war they will come under more pressure from both the U.S. and their own discontented peoples. "Arab regimes have a feeling that they may be next," says Emad Shaheen, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

So the Saudis and Egyptians are doing an uncomfortable dance -- placating antiwar opinion at home while trying not to further alienate their longstanding U.S. ally. The Saudis have felt the most heat after September 11, 2001, because 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals and because of accusations, some of them overblown, from American commentators that the hermetic Saudi system was nurturing Arab radicalism.

Senior Saudis say that a review of their relations with the U.S., including the presence of American troops and aircraft, is coming after the war. But as the conflict approaches, they are falling into line. The air war is likely to be run from Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis are opening bases in the north to shipments of war materiel.

More important, the possibility of regional turmoil is spurring political change. Crown Prince Abdullah recently met with signers of a petition that politely called for elections to a Saudi consultative council, whose members are now appointed. The petitioners also want tighter checks on bribery and other financial abuse. A senior Saudi official says that some form of elections is "coming quickly" whether senior members of the royal family "like it or not."

Many Saudis are skeptical of such talk. Saudi conservatism and the vast range of views on the desirability of reform in the royal family are obstacles to Abdullah's campaign -- no matter how sincere his intentions. "I will believe it when I see it," says an influential Saudi official of the proposed reforms. But the tone is more promising than before, and if the House of Saud fails to open economically and politically, it will face increasing public disenchantment.

The Egyptians have less to fear from a war than the Saudis -- if only because Egypt does not border Iraq. But as he ages, 74-year-old President Hosni Mubarak has become a portrait of paralysis. Mubarak has staked everything on a role as America's most reliable Arab ally. Now, he watches helplessly as Washington prepares to retool Iraq as a potential rival. A revitalized Iraq can only highlight Egypt's moribund economy and stagnant political system.

Mubarak also appears to fear unrest -- irrationally, given the strength of his security apparatus. In an effort to co-opt antiwar feelings, Mubarak's son, Gamal, recently led an antiwar rally attended by an estimated 300,000. That was a shrewd way to relieve pressure on the system -- and even build support for Gamal, who is spearheading the drive for market and social reform.

The question is whether the Cairo regime's controlled antiwar stance will be enough to satisfy ordinary Egyptians. Scarier sentiments are coming from other corners. On Mar. 9, Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the fading yet prestigious font of Islamic scholarship, issued a statement saying a war against Iraq would be "a new crusade" and calling on Muslims "to be on high alert to defend themselves, their doctrine, and their lands." Many people in the Arab countries resent America's new assertiveness, and there could well be a backlash. "The American interests in the Muslim world will be threatened," warns Essam al Arian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Egypt's largest Islamic group. Muslims could disrupt transportation or attack oil facilities, he adds.

Some of this is bluster, but the U.S. does face an increasing threat from militants in the region -- especially if it continues to do nothing to resolve the Palestinian problem. Most Arabs consider that a far more important issue than Iraq. Even Kuwaitis say they are troubled by America's eagerness to invade Iraq while being apparently unwilling to press Israel. "The Arab world is ready to be realistic about relations with the Israelis," says Haider, the Kuwaiti writer. "But they need a decent offer."

But Middle Eastern troublemakers are more likely than the U.S. to get hurt in the next few years. Certainly President Bashar Al Assad's Baathist regime in Syria will feel lonely following Saddam's ouster. Not only will fellow Baathists next door likely be facing trial for mass murder and corruption after the war, but Assad risks losing the lucrative oil and trade deals Saddam used to win his support.

Syria could also face pressure to give up its decades-old occupation of Lebanon. And Israel might go after Syrian forces there if the Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah guerrillas step up their activities against Israel during a war. Assad seems to have decided to tough it out, relying on his late father's old guard and giving little ground on political or economic opening. He could be making an historic mistake.

Like Syria, Iran will have a lot to think about after Saddam falls. The Iranian population is growing increasingly discontented with rule by clerics, and a successful secular Iraqi regime could give Iranians a new model to compare with their own regime. Such pressures could force the Ayatollahs to ease up on social restrictions and dial back on the covert operations, nuclear programs, and other off-the-books activities that give Iran such a bad name.

Such a turn of events in Iran is a long shot. But the hidebound governments will have the most to lose as the power game changes in the region. Their hope is that the U.S. will be too busy in Iraq to risk meddling elsewhere. But having the U.S. as a neighbor will be a brand new experience. The experiment is just beginning.

By Stanley Reed in Kuwait City, with Susan Postlewaite in Cairo and Neal Sandler in Jerusalem

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