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Guardian: The coming Arab crash
By Said Aburish
18/10/2001 12:48 pm Thu
If the Saudi and other pro-western regimes are lined up against
Bin Laden, they will fall
Thursday October 18, 2001
The west's most important friends in the Arab Middle East - Fahd of Saudi
Arabia, Abdullah of Jordan, Mubarak of Egypt and the PLO's Yasser Arafat -
are probably the world's most vulnerable political quartet. It is likely that
endemic problems and the Islamic fundamentalist tide gripping their countries
will bring an end to their regimes within the next five years.
Though Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have many
problems in common, the likelihood is that Saudi Arabia will be the Middle
East's next trouble spot among the pro-western countries. This is because
King Fahd, 79, is ailing and his death is likely to produce several contenders for
the kingship at a time of mounting economic problems and growing Islamic
For now, all might seem outwardly quiet in Saudi Arabia. But a closer look
reveals serious problems. Since Fahd bin Abdel Aziz, fifth king of modern Saudi
Arabia, succeeded to the throne in 1982, the economy has shrunk drastically.
Even by historical standards corruption is completely out of control. With oil
income down to $40bn, most of the country's people are suffering. In 1993,
annual per capita income was $5,000, barely one third of what it was in the
early 1980s. By some estimates, it has since fallen still further. And politically, all
this has aided Islamic fundamentalism, which has grown at an alarming rate
because it is the only popular movement which the government cannot outlaw.
Widespread anti-western feeling means there is a danger of internal unrest and
more violence against western interests.
Corruption and the suffering of the average Saudi provide a fertile background
for the emergence of a popular Islamic opposition and the coming of age of a
generation of educated Saudis who reject the absolute ways of the monarchy.
Fahd and his family are identified with the west. The misdeeds of the royals,
including allowing the stationing of American forces on holy Muslim soil, is
doing the west more harm than good. These elements combined are driving
more and more Saudis to join militant Islamic movements and reducing the
monarchy's already small popular base.
A fight over the succession could produce an alliance between Muslim
fundamentalists and the army against the royals - or some dissident royals
forging an alliance with the army or security forces against their relations. This
is a difficult time for the House of Saud to join the west against fellow Muslims:
there is no direct threat to Saudi Arabia and Bin Laden's criminal actions appeal
to many Muslims.
In Jordan, the situation is no better. Young and untried King Abdullah is in
serious trouble. More than two thirds of his country's population is Palestinian
and sympathise with any anti-American action because of America's support
for Israel. King Abdullah's open support for action against Bin Laden and his
militant supporters has done nothing but diminish his popularity. At present the
opposition to Abdullah is unorganised and no groups are openly asking for his
overthrow. But there is a strong and vocal Islamic fundamentalist opposition,
which at one point controlled a quarter of the seats in the Jordanian
parliament. As in Saudi Arabia, there are very few who favour supporting the
west against fellow Muslims. Even those who do blame Abdullah for
maintaining the peace treaty with Israel and attempting to please the west at
the expense of local feeling.
Jordan's troubles have a regional component in them. Syria, traditionally
anti-west, has considerable influence with the Jordanians. Jordanians approve
of Syria's hard line against Israel and are full of admiration for the
semi-socialist politics of their northern neighbour. Moreover, Saddam Hussein
is extremely popular in Jordan. Seen as a modern day Saladin who stood up to
the west, his popularity is widespread.
Overall, the anti-western feeling of the Jordanian people, be they secular or
Islamist, is extremely strong. Any Jordanian help for the west, even if strictly
diplomatic, is likely to backfire and exacerbate King Abdullah's chronic
problems. Yet, Jordan's dependence upon America's economic aid has already
forced its government to adopt this unpopular stance.
In Egypt, economic conditions are much worse than in Saudi Arabia and
Jordan. The damage to tourism brought about by the September 11 disaster is
likely to be severe. Tourism is the country's major industry and top foreign
currency earner. Moreover, lower oil tanker traffic through the Suez canal will
make the situation worse. This comes at a time when the fever of opposition to
President Mubarak is catching.
Until recently, opposition to Mubarak's army-backed regime was confined to
Islamic fundamentalism. This is no longer the case. The press reacted angrily to
laws aimed at restricting its freedom. The bourgeoisie accused Mubarak of
spending too much on foreign and regional affairs and not enough on Egypt's
internal problems. Stories about corruption and nepotism abound. The growing
impatience with Israel and the US has meant Mubarak's popularity is at an all
time low. Egypt's economic decline - interrupted by the cancellation of billions
of dollars of debt during the Gulf war in return for an anti-Saddam stand -
has resurfaced as the country's major problem. Egypt owes more than $30bn,
its population is increasing by more than a million a year and money sent back
from workers in oil-producing countries issharply reduced as countries need
fewer guest workers. And Egypt cannot expect a debt-cancellation bonus this
Meanwhile the calm surface concealing Islamist activity is deceptive -
infiltration of the army is at an all time high. Because Mubarak has failed to
create a popular base for his government, there are no political movements to
oppose the Islamists. Joining the west in an alliance against fellow Muslims is so
unacceptable to Egyptians that it could well lead to upheaval and Mubarak's
Arafat, the west's newest friend, confronts the same political and economic
problems as Fahd, Abdullah and Mubarak. His Islamic opposition is armed and
willing to wage a guerrilla war against both him and Israel. He has failed to
create a political entity acceptable to his people. Because the Oslo peace accord
and the subsidiary agreements which followed it have failed to satisfy
Palestinian aspirations, the people of the occupied territories are turning to
Hamas, Islamic Jihad and smaller Islamic groups. Totally opposed to the west
and disparaging of Arafat's subservient behaviour, these groups have made no
secret of their tacit approval of Bin Laden's actions.
With nothing to show after years of depending on the US to play honest
broker, Arafat has never been this unpopular and his use of the secret police
has already inflamed the Palestinians. Along with press censorship, it has
eroded his credentials. He no longer speaks for the Palestinians and the
Islamists are likely to add to his problems.
It is difficult to see what could save Arafat. The standard of living among
Palestinians is at an all time low. Unemployment is over 30% and higher among
university graduates. Arafat's inner circle has been tainted with corruption and
nepotism. Given that the Sharon government is unlikely to be generous enough
to save Arafat, the prospects for a Palestinian civil war are growing by the day.
The unthinkable may come to pass, an Arafat-Israel alliance against Hamas and
other Palestinian Islamic groups.
The threats to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Arafat are real. What makes the
present situation worse than ever before is America's determination to involve
Arab leaders in an alliance against fellow Muslims. The popularity of the
pro-west leaders is so thin that any material move to hitch their fate to the
anti-Bin Laden coalition will create an irreversible march towards disaster.
© Said K Aburish is the author of The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the
House of Saud (Bloomsbury)