Routine, it turned out, was but a brief interlude between two audacious bids. No sooner had the Arab/Muslim world said farewell to the wrath and passion of the Ayatollah Khomeini's crusade than another contender rose in Baghdad. The new claimant was made of material different from the turbaned saviour from Qum: Saddam Hussein was not a writer of treatises on Islamic government nor a product of high learning in religious seminaries. Not for him were the drawn-out ideological struggles for the hearts and minds of the faithful. He came from a brittle land, a frontier country between Persia and Arabia, with little claim to culture and books and grand ideas. The new contender was a despot, a ruthless and skilled warden who had tamed his domain and turned it into a large prison.

Three years earlier the Kuwaitis had dodged a bullet. The turmoil of the final year of the Iran-Iraq War had come closer to them. They turned to the Americans, seeking protection for their oil exports. The Reagan administration was on the rebound then from the fiasco of its arms sales to Iran; it obliged the Kuwaitis, re-flagged their tankers, and the danger subsided. But alas, countries cannot be re-flagged like ships and tankers. In the summer of 1990 Kuwait was left to the tender mercies of the Iraqis. The Kuwaitis were in the way of a state possessed of considerable power and a sense that the world around it owed it a great debt for the service it had performed in its long struggle against the Iranian Revolution. Saddam had been protector and gendarme. He now came to collect what he saw as the fair wages of the work he had done.

He struck in August, dusting off a fraudulent claim to the wealthy principality next door. Before he swept into Kuwait, Saddam had gone through the motions of negotiating with the Kuwaitis: the single negotiating session, held in Saudi Arabia, lasted two hours. Then came the dash for the loot on August 2, 1990.

Not the most articulate of leaders, Saddam Hussein found his themes as he went along. He annexed the dreams and resentments of other Arabs, appealing to their atavistic impulses. Hurriedly he rolled out his own map of a phantom Arab nation and picked up an old weapon. In the barracks and the academies there had once been a vision of Arab history-a memory of a time when the Arab world was supposedly one and whole, a tale of betrayal at the hands of European powers, and the dream of a leader who would set history right again. That was the material that Gamal Abdul al-Nasser of Egypt had worked with three decades ago, and that was the material that Saddam would try to revive.

With great stridency Saddam Hussein railed against the "colonial borders" of the Arab world. Those borders were false and contrived, he said, and they had placed Arab demographic weight on one side and Arab wealth on the other. In fact, however, he himself ruled a polity that had been put together by British power in the aftermath of the First World War out of the wilderness of Mesopotamia and the fragments of what were three separate provinces of the Ottoman empire: Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. It was British armor and will that had created an "Arab national state" in Iraq and left it with favored borders in the face of superior Turkish claims in the north and of the Kurdish yearnings for autonomy in the hill country of Kurdistan. The Shia majority in the south had been beaten into submission by the British to make way for that Arab national state and its would-be rulers, the Sunni Arab townsmen of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. But the Iraqi strongman saw no contradiction between the facts of his country's past and his own pan-Arab ambitions. He rolled together the claims of Arab nationalism and the resentments of the more impoverished Arabs.

Timing helped Saddam Hussein pick up the support he managed to rally: he made his move into Kuwait at a time when the Arab world felt it was being passed over by history. The move into Kuwait came right after that annus mirabilis of 1989-Europe's Springtime of Nations-had left the Arab world on the sidelines. History had gone elsewhere-to Germany and Eastern Europe. There were even celebrated elections in several Latin American settings. It was the season of democracy, but the Arab world's tyrants were still in power. While the Soviet Union was breaking with its orthodoxy, its Arab satrapies were left holding the bag.

"Look at us," said a Jordanian reflecting on the Arab condition in mid-1990, "our situation is terrible. The whole world is getting democracy except for us. Our economies are a mess, we are weak, we are being left behind. We can't even stop the Russian Jews from immigrating to Israel."1 In the Iraqi despot, some Arabs would see an instrument of redemption. There was no rival public project in the Arab world. To those who identified with him, Hussein passed off his conquest of Kuwait as the dawn of a new age. His admirers and those who indulged him said that he was not exactly the right man but that he came at exactly the right time, that it was enough that he had dealt a death-blow to the old order.

A decade earlier Saddam Hussein had posed as a man of order; he had mixed with the dynastic rulers in the gulf, presented himself as a defender of commerce and orthodoxy against the Persian state and its Shia tributaries in the Arab world. He had befriended the Saudi monarch and the emir of Kuwait. His brutal past, it was said, was surely behind him; he had matured and changed. Saddam now let the disgruntled read into him what they wished. He offered himself to the imagination of the thwarted. He was a second Nasser, said a Jordanian, but a Nasser with teeth.

Saddam's conquest of Kuwait offered something for nearly all the frustrated masses. For the Yemenis sitting at the edge of the oil wealth, he provided the vicarious satisfaction of seeing the wealthy stumble and fall. Beirutis-east Beirutis, that is, in the Christian sector of the city, whom Saddam had supported against Syria-celebrated his deed: the ruin of their city had spread to a city in the gulf that had been orderly and precious. For the young semi-Westernized Algerians and Tunisians living in close proximity to Europe, Saddam acted out their rage against the West-a rage born of dependence and of the failure of the post-colonial state to stand on its own and keep its people at home.

Saddam had warred against Ayatollah Khomeini for nearly a decade; he had insisted that religion and politics did not mix, he had prided himself on the secularism of the Baath Party. He now paid his old Iranian nemesis a curious compliment by falling back on Khomeini's language of fire and brimstone. Although he had a Christian foreign minister, Saddam summoned believers to a jihad, a holy war: "Arabs, Muslims, believers in God wherever you are, this is your duty to jump up and defend Mecca, hostage to the Americans." The violence of his deed against Kuwait was to be overlooked: the annexation was presented as a fait accompli; it was the American presence in Saudi Arabia (brought about by his invasion) that he and his supporters saw as the principal challenge.


With the Palestinians Saddam Hussein forged an instant bond: he was a revisionist leader assaulting the status quo, they were the quintessential revisionists. In the West Bank and Gaza, they had been waiting for an Arab cavalry, and Saddam was the "Knight of Arabism" riding to their rescue. He was the "Second Saladin," said a school teacher in the town of Beit Fajjar, on the West Bank. The Palestinian press under Israeli occupation paid tribute to him. In April Saddam had threatened to hit Israel with a "binary chemical weapon," to torch "half of the country" if it attacked Iraq. The crowd on the West Bank and Gaza did not know exactly what the binary chemical weapon was, but they assumed it was a weapon of wonder that would bring the invincible Israelis to heel.

Saddam struck a responsive chord among the Palestinians with his bravado, and they went out for him when he devastated Kuwait in August. The uprising in the West Bank and Gaza that had erupted in December 1987 was a Palestinian declaration of independence from the captivity of pan-Arab politics. The Palestinians had decided to go it alone. Their celebration of Saddam's rise, some thirty months later, was a return to the past, as good an indication as any that the hopes pinned on the uprising itself had failed to materialize, that the Green Line between pre-1967 Israel and the occupied territories had not been erased after all, and the status quo had not changed. The sun had risen again over the old impasse, and the Palestinians were looking for deliverance from far away.

Then came the decision of the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization to support Saddam. Perhaps they thought that he was a sure winner, that he had gotten away with the heist; shortly after the invasion of Kuwait, Yasir Arafat traveled to Baghdad to embrace the conqueror. Irony, if not hypocrisy, was startling: Kuwait had been the place where Arafat had made his fortune as a young man. More than Beirut even, Kuwait was the place where a vast Palestinian bourgeoisie had prospered, put together their lives after their dispossession in 1948. Kuwait's rulers had given generous subsidies to the PLO and its affiliated organizations. But passions warred with interests and passions won.

Arafat had tried flying among the doves; he had his dialogue with the United States, he had been admitted into the charmed diplomatic circle. But the dialogue had failed to yield the bounty he had expected. His embrace of Saddam was part opportunism-Saddam had seemed on a roll in August-and part conviction. There was no indication that Arafat saw the contradiction in his own position-accepting the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait while urging Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank-or that he appreciated the long-term damage to the Palestinian cause from such a call.

A great deal of Arafat's energy and time had been spent cultivating the support of the dynasties in the gulf. To the rulers of the gulf he had insisted, over the course of the preceding two decades, that the Palestinian cause was devoid of any ideological overtones, that he did not traffic in revolutionary politics of any kind. When it was time to be counted, though, the choice was in favor of the Iraqi leader. One thing should be granted to Yasir Arafat: he has never run ahead of his people. In good measure his acquiescence to Iraq's conquest of Kuwait was a fair reflection of where his constituency stood. Military occupation and dispossession, rather like misery, apparently love company. A Palestinian woman who lived in Kuwait gave vent to this sentiment when she said, "Maybe the Kuwaitis will understand us better. They are always blaming us, asking us why did we leave our country. Let's see how many Kuwaitis stay here."2

Powerful currents of historical revisionism and of sympathy for Iraq's bid were unleashed also in the capital of Jordan, traditionally the most cautious of places. Amman's delirious crowds embraced Saddam's cause. There was that fault-line between Jordanians and Palestinians, but Saddam's bid appeared to close it, giving both halves of this modest realm a joint enterprise. History came to the forgotten monarchy, or so it seemed in the first month that followed the invasion of Kuwait. It was there that the world's press-the print media and TV broadcasters-converged; for a brief moment Amman became the Arab "street." The TV cameras found a people anxious to talk. They were poor and the Kuwaitis were rich, the aid promised them by the gulf states seldom materialized, and when it did the assistance was given in a way that battered pride. Jordanians were heavily indebted, living beyond their means; food riots had swept Jordan's principal cities a year earlier, but hardly anyone came to the rescue.

The whole edifice of the diplomatic settlements that followed the First World War and created the modern Middle East was dug out by the intelligentsia of Jordan. Bravado and worry mixed in equal measure in Amman. The pundits knew the fragility of their land, understood that it could be trampled by more powerful players. They sought for their kingdom a curious kind of insurance policy: a fling with radicalism, a ride with the conqueror. Deep down the intellectuals and activists in Jordan must have known that the benign political culture of their land would have no place in Saddam's universe. But caution was thrown to the wind.

King Hussein had been here before: a quarter-century earlier, during the Six Day War of 1967, the crowd in Amman had been carried away with its enthusiasm for Nasser. Back then the king had thrown in his lot with the Egyptians. He shared in the Arab defeat of 1967: his regime was spared, but he lost the part of his realm west of the Jordan River that his grandfather had secured in 1948-49. The king made a similar decision this time around. He would go as far as he could to support the Iraqi dictator. The king and the Iraqi strongman were not the most natural of allies-scion of the Hashemites and ruthless upstart from Takrit. Their relationship had begun as a matter of convenience during the struggle between the Iranian Revolution and the Iraqi regime.

The king of Jordan is a man who hedges his bets, and the bet on Baghdad was one among others he had placed. Across the Jordan River there were his dealings with the Israeli Labor Party and his interlocutor, Shimon Peres. But as the 1980s drew to a close some of the king's bets had not paid off. The ascendancy of the Likud Party in Israel had pushed aside the Israelis he knew and understood. He and Peres had committed themselves to a "Jordanian solution" for the West Bank. But Peres' party had lost to Likud, and the uprising, the intifada, which erupted in December 1987, had put the final nail in the coffin of the Jordanian solution.

Beyond that were the king's ties to America, but these patrons were far away. Their attention and their help were directed elsewhere-toward Israel and Egypt, their newest ward in the Arab order. Jordan had once mattered to America; its monarch had grown dubious that this remained true. Hussein had been, if any Arab leader was, a man of the West among the Arabs, but this had ceased to matter. To the extent that the Americans engaged themselves in the affairs of concern to the king, they had drawn closer to the Palestinians. The king could not "deliver the Palestinians," Washington believed; only the Palestinian leadership itself could. The uprising of the "children of the stones" had held the world's attention for nearly two years; it had given Arafat a new lease on life. Washington had obliged the PLO leader with an American dialogue in the closing days of the Reagan administration. This left the king on his own.

Amman's relations with Baghdad loomed larger in its 1990 universe. In no time the Iraqi strongman would take the cautious monarch beyond lines he may have never intended to cross. King Hussein went along with the same sense of fatalism that has marked critical junctures in his political life. The king was the inheritor of a statecraft bequeathed him by his grandfather, who knew how to sail close to the wind and when to ease off, but it was virtually impossible to navigate safely through this particular storm. As Saddam Hussein's bid unfolded, it developed into a struggle between legitimacy and usurpation. The monarch in Amman would try to split the difference. He stepped out of the way and let the deadly passions in his country play themselves out. This was democracy, it was said in Amman. Revolutionaries and pamphleteers-Palestinian radicals like George Habash and Nayif Hawatmeh-converged on his capital in mid-September for a "pan-Arab" meeting. These were revolutionary vagabonds whom the king had known before and had expelled to Beirut in 1970. Two decades later they were back in a city that had changed its loyalties and was now playing with fire.


Matters were more difficult for Saddam Hussein in other parts of the Arab world, places and populations that knew him all too well. There would be no celebration of Saddam's invasion among the Muslims of West Beirut. For the Shia majority in Lebanon, Saddam was the embodiment of cruel power that lies at the heart of Shia martyrdom and history. He had put an end to the independent life of the Shia shrine towns of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. In 1980 the dictator had executed Iraq's most distinguished Shia jurist, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, as well as many others, and banished hundreds of Shia ulema to Iran.

Saddam had played for Egypt's support. By President Hosni Mubarak's account, Saddam had appealed to Mubarak to side with him as a leader who had also risen to the pinnacle of power but was not of "the kings and the princes."3 Saddam sought to speak to the Egyptian masses, to appeal to their sense of deprivation relative to the Kuwaitis and Saudis. But vast numbers of Egyptians had lived and worked in Iraq through the 1980s. They were not deluded by his populist promises; their possessions had been looted by the Iraqis, their savings taken away from them. For months prior to the invasion of Kuwait a quiet story was an open secret in Egypt. Egyptians who had worked in Iraq were being killed, vigilante-style, by Iraqis who had returned from the gulf war to reclaim their farmland and their jobs. Perhaps a thousand Egyptians had been murdered, it was said. Troubling the peaceful temperament of the Nile valley were horror stories about Iraq and its violent ways.

Arab/Muslim society has not been able to produce democratic politics or to check the tyranny of despots who step forth and claim it all. That society knows a tyrant when it sees one, and it may obey. For the Iraqi strongman there was no love; he had not tapped that kind of sentiment. He had presented himself as a man to be feared. Moreover he had made his bid from an insular city; few Arabs knew Baghdad or identified with it. Nasser's bid had come from Cairo, the metropolis of the Arab world, the capital of its modern culture. Baghdad was a prohibitive, stern place. Its gift to the Arab political experience was the first coup d'etat staged in modern times, in 1936, a generation before the military seizures of power in Syria and Egypt. And there were those searing images of Iraq's more recent past-the murder of the Hashemite rulers on that summer morning in July 1958 and the successive purges and wholesale murders that have been part of Iraq's past since the fall of the monarchy.

To be sure, some Arab intellectuals among the Palestinians and the North Africans said that Saddam expressed the "hidden anguish of the Arab soul" when he moved against Kuwait. But that is the familiar plaint of frustrated intellectuals about dictators in other lands and other epochs. Against the confusion of the intellectuals, a traveler through the area could hear the moral clarity of ordinary men and women who saw through the deed. One Syrian, who lost his life savings in Kuwait, observed, "Saddam has put ink in the water. How can we drink from it anymore?" In the town of Beit Fajjar on the West Bank, a man in his sixties dissented from the exultation of his town to say: "The Prophet Mohammed said people should share three things: fire, water and grass. It is true that the Kuwaiti emir should have shared more. But Saddam is not Saladin. We are like a people drowning, trying to grab any straw. Saddam is our straw."

It was not easy for Saddam Hussein to claim popular culture on his side, to preempt its symbols. There were many threads in that culture; some lent themselves to his manipulation, others did not. He had summoned Islam to his side, but Islamic symbolism did not come naturally to him or to his regime. And besides, Islam spoke in many ways; the Kuwaiti episode has revealed once again the variety of Islam and the difficulty of capturing it. Some Islamic activists in Tunisia and Algeria and the Gaza Strip rallied to the Iraqi banner, but Islamic movements in Egypt and Lebanon condemned the Iraqi deed and ridiculed Saddam's sudden discovery that he was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Radical Islamic movements issued predictable charges against the presence of foreign forces in Saudi Arabia, but the highest ulema of the religious establishment ruled against the conquest of Kuwait and the ruler of Baghdad. In late August, one of Egypt's most authoritative ulema, Sheikh Jadd al-Haqq, issued a fatwa (a ruling opinion) that denounced Saddam's invasion of Kuwait and sanctioned the Saudi invitation of foreign forces. "The tyrant has to be contained," the influential Sheikh wrote, "lest his tyranny spread." The gulf states had a right to ask for foreign assistance to protect themselves against a "treacherous brother." The learned leader of Al Azhar brushed aside Saddam's call for a jihad; this call to a holy war, he said, was only a cover for tyranny.4

On a more concrete level, that of interstate politics, Saddam could not prevail in his attempt to depict his campaign as a straight-out struggle between the rich and the poor states of the Arab world. He picked up the support of Yemen, Jordan, the Palestinians and a measure of indulgence on the part of Tunisia and Algeria. But he had to contend with the opposition of two pivotal states, Egypt and Syria. Baghdad's audacious bid for mastery in the gulf gave a new lease on life to the trilateral coalition that had dominated Arab politics during the October War of 1973: Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

For their part, the Egyptians were keen to return to the politics of the gulf and the Saudis had to reconcile themselves to an Egyptian role. Old memories and the modern competition of states had left the custodians of the Saudi realm determined to keep Egypt out of gulf affairs. The first Saudi state (1744-1818) had been devastated by the Egyptian ruler, Mohammed Ali, who came into the gulf peninsula on behalf of the Ottoman court to put down the puritanical revolt of Wahhabism. History was repeated, or so it seemed, when Nasser dominated inter-Arab politics in the 1950s and 1960s and mounted a serious challenge to the survival of the Saudi dynasty. The weight of Egypt in Arab affairs has never been easy for the Saudis to accept. The staggering size of Egypt's population and the difficulty of coming up with enough aid to see the Egyptians through have always seemed overwhelming to the Saudis. American pressure in favor of a highly visible Egyptian presence was one element in the new Saudi acquiescence, the very deadly nature of the Iraqi threat was no doubt a reinforcing factor. In the event, the Egyptians were back at the center of things, and the Saudis had to make room for them.

For the Syrians the struggle against Iraq was an opportunity to return from the diplomatic wilderness. Over the last decade Syria had been a state unto itself. During the Khomeini era the ruler in Damascus had straddled the fence between the old Arab order and its Shia challengers in Teheran and Beirut. He was alternately a gendarme of the neighborhood putting down Beirut's troubles and a heterodox rebel from Syria's Alawi hinterland. It was reckoning time for Hafez al-Assad when Khomeini's crusade failed to overrun the old Arab order. The Syrian president had made common cause with the Iranians and they had failed. Assad's dominion in Lebanon was an uneasy affair, challenged by an Iraqi regime that found anxious wards in Maronite east Beirut. From that isolation the Assad regime has been released by Iraq's bid. There is treasure to be found in the gulf that the Syrians desperately need. And there is a reconciliation with the old order. President Assad may be a bully who had established a sphere of influence in Lebanon, but compared to his counterpart in Iraq he possessed some scruples. His state had revisionist claims of its own against part of Lebanon's territory, but Assad had let matters run their course in Lebanon. He worked through the shell of Lebanese sovereignty and never broke the rules of his world with the brutal indifference on display in Baghdad.

Assad's campaign in east Beirut against the Maronite rebel commander, Michel Aoun, was in keeping with Assad's style. Aoun was indulged for two years, hemmed in, but kept in play. The decisive push against Aoun came when everything was in place for the Syrians: they were partners in the coalition against Iraq, Aoun's Iraqi patrons were too busy to come to his rescue, and he had become a nuisance. A free hand in Lebanon was the payoff for the Syrian role in the gulf.


A distinction is made in the lands of the gulf littoral between Arab al-Shimal, the Arabs of the north, and Arab al-Khalij, the Arabs of the gulf. The Arabs of the north had been content to spare the lands of the gulf their deadly political feuds. It was a pragmatic accommodation; the lands of the gulf provided money, job opportunities and made possible the work of the gunmen and the pamphleteers further north. Utopias of all kinds were unleashed in the lands of the north: currents of radical nationalism, flings with socialist politics, absolutist temptations of every kind. It was a simpler world among the Arabs of the peninsula and the gulf. Few thought that the world of princes and merchants could be remade. Authority was paternalistic, but ruler and ruled lived in a social and political world held together by bonds that men generally did not break.

In the summer of 1990 Iraq, the borderland between the Arabs of the north and the gulf Arabs, served a warrant on the old order in the gulf. The failed lands in the north-the ruinous politics, the burdened state-run economies, a demographic explosion that provides young foot-soldiers for the politics of despair and banditry-spilled southwards. The precarious peace between the Arabs of the peninsula and gulf (constituting about eight percent of all Arabs) and their more impoverished neighbors has broken down.

By one interpretation put forth by the keeper of the Nasserite flame, the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal, the crisis of the summer of 1990 was the latest round in the struggle between "desert people and city people." The struggle for national independence, Heikal wrote, was conducted in the cities-Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut. The "tribal leaders" got the oil and the cities were "deprived of the fruits of their struggle." A contract of sorts had been concluded between the city people and the tribal leaders. But a new generation grew up in the oil states "believing that they had the right to rule"; the royal households grew in size and transformed a "tribal system into a regal one." The Saudi royal family alone, Heikal observed, now numbers 6,500 to 7,000 people. The contract with the cities was broken. In Heikal's formulation, Arab history-the writ of that "Arab national movement" in the cities-now wars with geography, the location of oil.5

For the oil states this kind of political logic, which slights their sovereignty and legitimacy, is a throwback to an unhappy past. The rallying cry of "Arab oil for the Arab people" had been the stuff of politics in the 1950s and 1960s, the hightide of Nasserism. Those were perilous times for the oil states. They walked a tightrope between some fidelity to the wider Arab world and self-preservation. There were insurance policies from afar-a British guarantee for Kuwait, a more durable American guarantee for Saudi Arabia. It was still a time, though, when local predators were easily held in check by outside powers. Days after the British had terminated their treaty of protection of Kuwait in 1961 the Iraqis moved their army across the border, staking a claim. The British then returned to the scene and the Iraqis retreated. Not long afterward Nasser went into Yemen. He did not head straight to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia; he was a more cautious player. Nasser may have been a revisionist but he was no outlaw. He knew the balance of forces and the logic of things that can and cannot be. The Yemen war pitted Saudi Arabia against Egypt, and Egypt lost.

Luck came to the rescue of the gulf and peninsula Arabs in their struggle against radical nationalism. The Six Day War with Israel in 1967 shattered the power and self-confidence of the radical states. A deal was then struck between the dynastic order in the gulf and the Egyptian state. Aid was provided to Egypt and Cairo called off its ideological campaign. Militant pan-Arabism was seen for the ruinous crusade it was; the region was de-radicalized. Flush with oil wealth after the October 1973 War, the people of the gulf gained the confidence of societies turning to finance and economic work. Khomeini shattered the peace a few years later. But as we know in hindsight, Khomeini could never really bridge that Arab-Persian divide. The Islamic split between orthodox Sunnis and Shia rebels was too deep for him to surmount.

Saddam's bid closed a circle; the pan-Arab arguments and radical sensibility of the 1950s returned. The new bid, though, had behind it the cruelty of the man at the helm of the Iraqi state, its weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam's conviction that he lived in a political world shorn of all restraints and scruples. Saddam had implicated much of his world (gulf Arabs, Egyptians) and powers beyond (Americans, French) in his anti-Iranian and anti-Shia drive, in the cruelty of what he did at home. It is no wonder he was impervious to judgment, why he acted as though he himself had been betrayed by the furious response to his invasion of Kuwait. A decade ago Saddam had dispatched his cowed countrymen eastward in a campaign against the "fire-worshipping Persians." Back then he had banned grief and public funerals for the war dead. This time around, the expedition southward, to Kuwait, held out the promise of Kuwait's treasure and the heady illusion of a crusade to expel the West from the peninsula and the gulf. To the cruel challenge he placed at the doorsteps of the gulf Arabs, their benign societies had no ready deterrent. To survive this assault the gulf Arabs, principally Saudi Arabia, had to break with one of the political and cultural taboos of their world: the deterrent had to be supplied by an American-led military presence.


The founder of the modern Saudi state, Ibn Saud, left his descendants a subtle tradition about traffic with the foreigner: "England is of Europe, I am the friend of the Ingliz [the English], their ally. But I will walk with them only as far as my religion and honor will permit." The foreigner may have been benevolent; his machines and skills may have found and marketed the source of the peninsula's wealth, softened and altered the life of the desert. But traffic with the stranger had its rules; it had to be discreet, the foreigner had to tread carefully. It was these political and cultural limits that the custodians of the Saudi state had to cross when Saddam swept through Kuwait to their border.

It is idle to speculate what Saddam's intentions were once his forces had amassed on the Saudi-Kuwaiti border. The guardians of the Saudi realm were in no mood for guesswork. Saddam could have struck Saudi Arabia or kept open the possibility of an invasion. That kind of uncertainty was intolerable to Saudi decision-makers. We do know from accounts supplied by the Saudis that there were three Iraqi incursions into Saudi Arabia in the first day that followed the Iraqi push into Kuwait. The Saudi realm seemed at the mercy of the Iraqi ruler.

The Saudis hold no illusions about what would have come to pass had Saddam's army swept across the border: Iraqis could have reached the capital city of Riyadh in three days. Saddam could have decapitated the regime and shattered the ethos of its Najdi heartland, based as it is on conquest and chivalry and the memory of a warring past. The entire social contract of the Saudi state could have collapsed. Saddam could have severed the eastern province of the kingdom with its oil reserves from the rest of the Saudi realm. The state bequeathed to the House of Saud by Ibn Saud would have been up for grabs. Compared to this sort of calamity the political and cultural troubles of a foreign military presence on Saudi soil were minor irritants.

The guardians of the state trusted that their people would go along, that the Saudi public understood the threat the raider across the border held out to the life and the prosperity of the kingdom. Somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 Kuwaitis fled into Saudi Arabia. They came bearing tales of grief and violation. They had taken to the road and were anxious to talk; the Saudis gave them unlimited access to the airwaves and the printed media. The subliminal message of Kuwait's ordeal was straightforward: "There but for the grace of God go we." It was easy for the Saudis to understand why "Arab and Islamic and other friendly forces" had been invited by their rulers. The Americans were a fire brigade, a Saudi journalist told me, and a man whose house is on fire is not concerned with the national origins of those who come to put out the flames.

A post-boom generation had come into its own in Saudi Arabia during a time of great wealth and indulgence. They did not have their elders' memory of poverty and hardship. The shattering of the Kuwaiti world was their first exposure to dispossession. It was a reminder that all could be laid to waste, that a cruel fate awaits those who find themselves surrounded by covetous neighbors. On the 59th anniversary of the unification of the Saudi state, which came in late September, there was a sudden awareness of the dangers that attend this wealthy realm. No one was in a mood to second-guess the decision of the rulers to call for American military assistance.6

The Saudi rulers sought the approval of the ulema of the realm. The leading traditional jurist, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Ibn Baz, gave the presence of the foreign forces his sanction. A few years earlier the same Ibn Baz had ruled against the moral pollution of the foreigners on several matters of social ritual: he had ruled that foreigners in the kingdom should fast during the month of Ramadan, he took a jaundiced view of Saudi Muslims who travel into non-Muslim countries, and he wanted stiffer penalties imposed on foreigners manufacturing alcohol in the kingdom. "There could not be two religions in the peninsula, but only one," he had admonished. Now he found a warrant for the presence of foreign forces. In a reasoned fatwa he called on the ruler of Iraq to "repent and return to God's way," to put an end to the zulm (oppression) and ruin he had brought onto Kuwait and its people. He then spoke about the Saudi government's decision to invite "different nationalities of Muslims and others." That, he said, is a "permissible matter, nay, even a necessity for the kingdom, for the defense of Islam and Muslims and for the protection of the sanctity of the country and the safety of its people." There was a man of "treacherous intent" in Iraq, it was important to "protect the kingdom from all evil."

Ibn Baz's support was echoed by the powerful Hay'at Kibar al Ulema, the Council of Higher Ulema, in a ruling issued ten days after the invasion: "Grave violations and serious crimes have taken place in Kuwait. The guardians of the kingdom have decided to spare it the fate of Kuwait and to ask the assistance of Arab and non-Arab countries." All means of defense, the ulema ruled, were legitimate to guarantee the people "the safety of their religion, their wealth, their honor and their blood, to protect what they enjoy of safety and stability." Prudent men, the ulema knew that this was one of those moments when purity bows to necessity; defense and high politics are the domain of the rulers. This has been the basis of the partnership between the dynasty and the religious class. The ulema of the realm are men of their society; they are men of property and order. They knew the panic of their country and the magnitude of the Iraqi threat. To them fell the task of drawing out the moral horrors and violations of custom and precedent committed by the Iraqis in Kuwait. The business of the state-the dealings with the Americans-was left to the custodians of the state, the key players in the House of Saud.

We should not read into that desert world more purity than is warranted by its history. The Arabs of the peninsula and the gulf littoral are the products of a pragmatic world. They are fully aware of the dangers around them: "We are wealthy people in a neighborhood of paupers. The world around us is getting poorer and poorer and more resentful of us," a man of the Saudi business elite said in a discussion of the American presence. The historical experience of the peninsula and the gulf has left in that area a benign view of the West. No bloody anticolonial struggles have been waged in the region. The neurosis with which the people of the Levant and North Africa approach the West-the dependence and the resentment bred by that dependence-is alien to the temperament of the Saudis and other gulf Arabs.7 Foreigners had intruded into the world of the gulf Arabs, but they were the prospectors for oil, the technicians who helped wrest a world of prosperity from the harsh bleakness of the desert. From the 1930s onward there was a vast American presence in Saudi Arabia-that of the oil complex. In the lands of the littoral the foreigner was an even more familiar figure. Britons had ruled Aden since 1839; they were the de facto rulers and protectors of the waters and the lands of the gulf.

The Arabs of the gulf have dealt with the West for a long time, but always from within their own world. They were more fortunate than the semi-Westernized Arabs who made themselves over in the image of the West, only to be rebuffed and patronized. Rage against the West does not come naturally to the gulf Arabs. No great tales of betrayal by Western powers are told by the Arabs of the desert. These are Palestinian, Lebanese and North African tales, told in those parts of the Arab world where the West made promises, and where people convinced themselves that they had been let down and betrayed. The unrequited love affair with the West experienced by Christian Arabs of the Levant has no echo in the gulf. The lands of the gulf carry on a vast commercial traffic with the West, but they do so on their own terms. They cross into the foreign world but then return to a cultural universe that is largely intact. Foreigners work in the Saudi realm in large numbers (that is why, said one astute young Saudi, the Saudis wear their traditional garb-to separate themselves from the four million foreigners in their midst). But the foreigners are there for concrete tasks, and it is they who adjust to the outward norms and practices of the place rather than the other way around.


From the town of Takrit in the Tigris valley-a town that in more benign times depended on the making of kalaks, rafts of inflated goatskin-Saddam Hussein rose and reached for it all: mastery of the gulf, establishment of a new center of Arab power in the land between the two rivers. His was the third bid in the post-World War II years to dominate the politics of the Arab/Muslim region. The first was Nasser's, the second was Khomeini's. This third bid could not succeed. It was too cruel, too blunt; its very audacity helped to forge a coalition determined to thwart it. This coalition brought together some of Saddam's former enemies-the Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad-as well as many who had supported Saddam back when he had played as a man of order: the Americans, French, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Egyptians.

In response to Saddam's bid there were indications of the rise of a more assertive Saudi state. The state that had turned temporizing into an art form made some daring choices. It went on the offensive against Jordan and Yemen, established normal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and acknowledged the depth of its relations with the United States. The Saudis and other gulf states could not turn themselves overnight into garrison states. But they hunkered down, and braced themselves for a fight. There had been two ways in the gulf world: the Saudi way and the independent, free-lance Kuwaiti way. Kuwait was the loose cannon on deck, more prone to believe in the pieties of Arab nationalism, less likely to toe the Saudi line. Now the gulf states will revolve more tightly than before around the Saudi state. The small quarrels within the gulf world will be submerged. The threat from beyond is more deadly than ever.

There was that old tribal maxim: "My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger." Perhaps it was always more wishful thinking than reality, but the brutal bid from Baghdad tore this bit of wisdom to shreds. As the Saudis and other gulf states braced themselves to cope with this threat and to keep their world intact-their riches, their autonomy, their distinct political style-they are side by side with the Americans. A few years earlier, in the mid-1980s, the Saudis had begun to go outside the American market for their weapons. They bought Tornado fighter planes from Britain, surface-to-surface missiles from China. They had tired of the congressional battles that attended their requests for weapons. They sought to diversify their sources of supply and to go beyond their American connection. There was a fierce anti-American storm stirred by Ayatollah Khomeini's calls to "authenticity." Then came this crisis, and the "special relationship" with the distant superpower was what saw them through.

An old order has passed in the gulf. There is talk of a "new political order," but no one knows what this new political order might look like. It is clear that there is a great power standing sentry in the gulf-a power that was on the verge of believing that military force is a thing of the past. That power may be overextended, dependent on financial contributions to its operation in the gulf from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Japan and South Korea. But that power is all that stood between the Iraqi claimant and the societies nearby with all their wealth and resources. The skeptics may say that Operation Desert Shield is something of a rent-a-superpower deal. But the American military presence in the peninsula and the gulf and the cobbling of the American-led coalition were the only viable answers to aggression in an order of states that remains anarchic and vulnerable to the assaults of aggressors like Saddam Hussein.

One thing is certain about this new political order in the gulf: for the foreseeable future the Iraqi state will have to be quarantined and checked. Conceivably a counter to Iraq's power could be provided by enlisting the support of the two local powers with an interest in checking Iraq's designs for hegemony: Syria and Iran. These are the two states with the demographic weight and the military potential to match Iraq's power. They should want to do it in pursuit of their own interests. The United States cannot press them into this assignment, try to rush the Iranians into normalcy or turn a blind eye to their ambitions and foibles and those of Syria. This is how Saddam himself rose to become such a threat in the first place: everyone had indulged him because he was seen as a bulwark against the revolutionary turmoil of the Iranian state. At a minimum, though, there should be readiness to accommodate the return of Iran to the more "normal" ways of statecraft.

But even if the Iranians and the Syrians were to play, a buffer must be established between the dynastic states of the gulf and the Iraqi predators who have let loose on these states a whirlwind of resentment and envy. That buffer will have to be provided by American power, or by a multinational force centered around an essentially American core. There may have to be American trip-wire forces in the gulf states, and the assignment could be one of long duration. That American presence could be "re-flagged," as it were, made more politically and culturally palatable by the participation of some Arab and Muslim forces. If the Iraqis were made to disgorge Kuwait, a restored Kuwait would be anxious to have these forces. The Kuwaitis were not spared when they observed what they thought were the "red lines" of their neighborhood. They surely would fare no worse for the presence of foreign forces on their soil. The conventional wisdom has been that Saudi Arabia itself cannot bear the presence of foreign forces and that the best America could do is work with the Saudis on storing large amounts of equipment in the country and building the kind of facilities that would make it easier for the Americans to return to Saudi Arabia whenever the need arose. But the conventional wisdom has been breached by the rise of Iraq and its quest for hegemony. To the extent that the first act of this drama is any guide, the presence of American forces in Saudi Arabia has not been the "defilement" it was thought to be.

Beyond the specifics of a military presence and its desirability, there is a broader matter that has to be understood: the societies of the gulf states are now convenient scapegoats for the failures of the larger Arab world around them. A militant theory of Arab nationalism, and a discourse about the "haves and the have-nots," mask the greed of the world around these sparsely populated states with no great military power.

These states have always paid protection money to ward off troubles. But Saddam upped the ante; with his bid he went beyond extortion to outright annexation. The states of the gulf and the peninsula have a memory of a time when they marked their history with famines, when the who's who of the Najdi elite of the Saudi realm went north to labor in the port city of Basra. It was only in 1946 that the emir of Kuwait turned a silver valve wheel on a loading pipe and started the flow of oil that changed the principality by the bay into an object of envy. Before that, the history of that town of pearl-divers and fishermen was a steady diet of hardship and deprivation. Back then the lands of the north had the rivers, the agriculture, the advanced cities, while those in the gulf peninsula relied on locusts for their protein. All this is part of a vanished past now, as the "have-nots" rail against the oil states. For these deep wells of resentment, the gulf states and the outsiders drawn to their affairs ought to be prepared.

There were deadly if half-baked ideas floating in the Arab world when Saddam overran Kuwait-ruinous concepts of Arab nationalism that flew in the face of political reality, atavistic resentments along that ancient fault-line between Sunni and Shia Islam, wild notions about how to break the impasse between the Arabs and Israelis, resentments toward the West born of the very attraction to it, and then that desire to place the blame on the gulf states for everything wrong under the sun. The Iraqi dictator plucked these ideas and resentments and turned them into monstrous instruments. The military means to check him were principally in the hands of the United States and the coalition it soon fashioned. But the battle to exorcise the dreams and delusions that fed Saddam was, at its heart, a battle for the Arabs themselves.

1 The Economist, May 12, 1990.

2 The Washington Post, Aug. 15, 1990.

3 Al-Ahram, Sept. 18, 1990.

4 Al-Hayat, Aug. 22, 1990.

5 "Out with the Americans, In with a New Arab Order," The Times (London), Sept. 12, 1990.

6 The remarks on Saudi Arabia are drawn from my field notes from a two-week trip in late September, early October.

7 I owe this idea to Sheikh Khalid Ali al-Turki, in a series of discussions in Dhahran.

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  • Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University. He is author of The Arab Predicament and other works.
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