The New Arabia

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was an immediate disaster for Kuwait and the Palestinians and an ultimate calamity for Iraq. Nonetheless, many Americans, including President Bush, thought good would come from this evil.

There would be a "new world order" in which aggression would not be tolerated. Furthermore, the entire Middle East would be transformed. The disparity between rich and poor Arabs was clearly an unstable configuration and would be changed. After the final victory, the rich would move smartly to improve the lot of the poorer 90 percent of the Arab world. Future investments of the oil-rich Arab states would be in North Africa, Syria, Jordan and Yemen, not in Europe, Japan and America. Some American academics proposed that rich Arabs could put a substantial portion of their oil income into a special account for development of the entire Muslim world. Secretary of State James A. Baker thought the rich Arabs should form a new bank to finance projects in the poorer countries.

It all seemed reasonable and just. Unfortunately, to one who has spent most of his professional life dealing with the Arab world, it is all only a utopian fantasy. Secretary Baker, for instance, might well have discussed his bank idea with the Arab leaders before he announced it. While Egypt and Syria were enthusiastic, those countries with the financial resources were not. The idea of an Arab bank died before it was born; so did the dreams of a new Arabia-or a new Islam-with its wealth more equitably shared.

I can agree with confidence-not necessarily satisfaction-that the future Middle East will indeed be different from what we have known, but it will bear no relationship to the idealized picture of generous gulf Arabs using their riches to transform the Arab world. Instead, the signs of the Middle East will continue to be marked by glaring disparities between the rich few and poor many, and among diverse national and ideological forces in competition for the soul of Arabism.

II

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