CurrenT aFFairs Who calls the shots?
Intervention or meddling? In essence it amounts to the same thing. mustapha Karkouti reports from the Gulf on how a number of non-Arab powers are playing an increasing role in shaping the region’s political and economic future.
It is becoming clear that four nonArab powers are currently, for the first time in half a century, struggling for regional supremacy in the Middle East. The Big Four: the US, Iran, Turkey and Israel, sometimes try to achieve their goals individually (Iran and Turkey), while in other instances they work in tandem, as in the case of the US and Israel. All the indications are that the Big Four have high hopes of determining what course the Arab fate should take in the short and medium term future. The last time the Arabs attempted to make their voice heard was when their heads of state declared an initiative for peace at the end of their annual gathering in 2002 at the Beirut summit. Arab States signed up to the peace plan, based on the two-state solution, an independent Palestinian State with pre-1967 boundaries in exchange for recognition and the normalisation of relations with a secured Israel. The peace plan was presented to the summit by King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The Arabs hoped the world community, particularly the US, would help them move towards an historic settlement that laid down practical arrangements for a lasting peace with Israel. But since then, and for over six years, the four non-Arab powers have taken over events in the Middle East region and it is now they – and they alone – who decide the direction and nature of not only peace in the region, but also its stability and future. The Big Four also seem to hold strong influence over the lives of individuals in many Arab countries. No other power, not even Russia, China or the European Union, are exerting any significant pressure or playing an important role in shaping major events in the region. The EU’s role has been reduced to that of a philanthropist, dishing out charitable hand-outs, in a similar – but admittedly more efficient – manner to the UN Relief & Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
In less than three months, four of the highest US administration of ficials, President George W. Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and both state and defence secretaries, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, have all shown up in various countries of the region, some even paying multiple visits to the area. President Bush himself is due to visit the Middle East at least once more before the end of his tenure. Each of the non-Arab power seekers has its own goals in the region but the most noticeable and important of the four is the US,
Ironically, President Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein facilitated the historic official visit by an Iranian head of state for the first time in almost four centuries
now a “super” regional power in the Middle East since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. With its political presence in Iraq, the US is now an unlikely neighbour to countries such as Iran and Syria, nations the Bush administration dubbed “rogue states” long ago. Now, Washington seditiously plays in the murky and muddy world of Arab politics, alongside not so distant members of the big “brotherly” Arab family. A top US diplomat to the Middle East, David Welch, warned last February in a letter he sent to the Arab League general secretary, Amr Mousa, that America would not sit by with its “hands tied” if the political crisis in Lebanon continued. And US of ficials have gone even further in openly meddling in regional affairs by advising Arab govern
ments who opposed Syria’s role in Lebanon, to think “carefully” about attending the annually scheduled Arab summit, held in Damascus at the end of March. “In contemplating whether or not they (the Arab states) attend a meeting (the summit) in Syria, it certainly bears keeping in mind what Syria’s role has been up to this point in not allowing a Lebanese electoral process to move forward,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. As a result of this power struggle, the beleaguered Lebanese prime minister, Fuad
18 The Middle easT June 2008 Siniora, decided to boycott the summit, and the two Arab giants, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, decided to reduce their participation to second rank representatives. Current US Middle East policy has not only polarised the already divided Arab world, but has also successfully driven the Arab governments away from the single central issue that has unified Arabs since the creation of the Jewish state in Palestine
saudi King abdullah bin abdul aziz al saud (r) greets iranian president mahmoud ahmadinejad in December 2007 at the gCC summit in Doha
in 1948. For the first time in six decades, the premier foreign issue on the Arab “political agenda” is currently Iran, not Palestine. Many Arab officials, particularly in the Gulf, consider Tehran “Problem No 1”. Many believe there can be no stability in Iraq without Iran’s consent and say any future settlement in this war-torn country must take into account Iran’s interests. As one high level Arab source demanded incredulously: “How can you elect a president for Lebanon, or resume any Hamas-Fatah reconciliation process without first consulting Tehran? Iran is clearly present in Gaza through its allies, and its influence in the Mediterranean basin continues to be sustained by Tehran’s close relationships with Syria and Lebanon’s Hizbullah.” Regional concerns increased in early March, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, swept triumphantly into Baghdad’s highly protected Green Zone, under watchful American eyes. Addressing the EU ambassadors’ reception in the Iraqi capital, Ahmadinejad declared his country’s support for a “unified and independent Iraq”. Ironically, President Bush’s decision
to topple Saddam Hussein facilitated this historic official visit by an Iranian head of state for the first time since Persia ceded Mesopotamia (Iraq) almost four centuries ago in 1639. The rising importance of Iran persuaded the GCC heads of state to support the emir of Qatar’s initiative in December 2007 when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani invited Ahmadinejad to attend the GCC summit in Doha and the world saw, via satellite coverage, the Saudi monarch stepping into the meeting hall hand in hand with the Iranian president. Arabs are also speedily losing, or have already lost influence, on two other major issues: Israel’s occupation and the Kurds. The recent attack against Gaza at the end of February-early March was unusual in its scope and ferocity where more than 130 people were killed – the vast majority civilians, including many children. Israeli air strikes against Gaza using American F-16s and Apache helicopters have become a daily occurrence while the Arabs look on virtually powerless. The Palestinian National Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, appears increasingly helpless having renounced all forms of resistance. Far from considering the main Arab condition for peace, i.e. the withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, Israel – on the contrary – seems determined to consolidate its control over the whole of historic Palestine by increasing settlement activities, imposing closed military zones, controlling population movement with an iron fist, and authorising the continuous seizure of Arab lands in East Jerusalem, which is increasingly the mere virtual capital of a diminishing Palestinian state. The last member of the Big Four is Turkey. Early this year, Ankara launched a major ground operation into northern Iraq to “chase” Kurdish (PKK) rebels amidst protests by Iraqi of ficials who considered the Turkish incursion as a “breach of Iraq’s sovereignty”. The eight-day incursion ended on 29 February without being condemned by the European Union or the United Nations. On the contrary, the response of Washington – which shares real-time intelligence with Ankara – to Turkey’s attack, was low key. Vice-President Cheney discussed the issue during his tour of the region recently with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and renewed his country’s support for Turkey in its “war against terrorism”. Only in May, when the price of oil topped $120 a barrel, was the threat of the Kurdish “skirmishes” , which were blamed for contributing to the price hike, referred to in Washington again. n
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