by Zafar Bangash (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 18, Rajab, 1418)
A BRUTAL FRIENDSHIP: THE WEST AND THE ARAB ELITE By Said K Aburish. Published by Victor Gollancz, London, UK. 1997. pp. 414. Hbk: UK20.00.
Out of the ashes of the Ottoman empire emerged not an ‘Arab nation’, as envisioned by the champions of Arabism, but division of the Middle East into Arab nation-States. As if this were not bad enough, an additional blow was delivered by the creation of the Zionist State of Israel in Palestine. The misery of the people in the Middle East can be traced to these developments in the early part of this century.
The sordid role played by the colonial powers - Britain and France - since before the first world war, and by the US since the second - is carefully analyzed by Said Aburish in this highly readable book. Written in journalistic style, it is fast-paced and therefore, interesting.
His irreverant expose of Arab rulers stands in sharp contrast with their almost saintly image projected by court/official handouts and uncritically accepted by most of the mainstream media in the west. While he dismisses all regimes as illegitimate, Aburish identifies three types of rulers in particular in A brutal friendship: the west and the Arab elite: those viewed as friendly to the west, those opposed, and the ‘floaters.’
The west’s ‘friends’ are easy to identify: kings Fahd and Husain, president Husni Mubarak of Egypt, the Gulf shaikhs and even king Hasan of Morocco in the Maghreb. These rulers have always done the west’s bidding, some more than others.
Those on the enemy list - colonel Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Husain of Iraq - are not there because of their undemocratic credentials. They are considered enemies because they refuse to toe the western-prescribed path. The floaters include people like Hafez al-Asad of Syria and Yassir Arafat of the Palestinian Authority.
The wishes of the people in the Middle East do not matter; only the interests of the west are important. Besides, enmity is personalised to the rulers - Qaddafi and Saddam. ‘Questioning the lack of legitimacy of unfriendly regimes would inevitably extend such scrutiny to friendly ones’ (p.13), says Aburish.
The best example of this was witnessed on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990-1991 when US president George Bush personalised the entire campaign to Saddam by demonising him as ‘worse than Hitler.’ As Aburish points out, quite correctly, the west would be happy to have someone equally terrible in power in Iraq as long as he obeyed the west’s orders.
The author in fact goes on to provide ample evidence to show that Saddam - yes the ‘worse-than-Hitler Saddam’ - was the creation of the west itself because it suited their purpose at the time. Initially, Saddam had to be weaned away from the Soviet Union; later, he was needed to fight Iran after it had undergone an Islamic Revolution overthrowing the Shah, another western client.
Islamic Iran was viewed with alarm by the west’s client regimes in the Middle East and it had to be fought and contained. This task was assigned to Saddam who was provided money by fellow Arab rulers and weapons and chemical and biological plants to manufacture the most lethal weapons known to mankind, by the west. The only condition was that these were to be used against Muslims who dared challenge western interests.
Once the Iraqi-imposed war came to an inconclusive end and Saddam refused to demobilise his army, he had to be defanged. The oil weapon was used through Kuwait to undermine the Iraqi economy. Saddam reacted angrily but walked into a trap the west, especially the US, had set for him.
Numerous books have been written about the Middle East. Most deal with the emergence of the regimes, their relations with the west and, of course, the Palestinian-Israeli question. Some also delve into the rise of Arab nationalism. Few authors, however, have focused on the nature of the regimes the way Aburish does.
Of Paletinian origin, Aburish’s book is unique in that he takes a broad sweep of all the regimes including Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. He not only calls them illegitimate but also finds them unresponsive to the wishes of the people. It is a devastating critique of the subservient Arab rulers and how they have willingly played as tools of the west in order to advance their narrow personal interests at the expense of their peoples.
Any analysis of the contemporary Middle East scene must take into account the nature of the regimes that have come to occupy the various pieces of real estate, the background of the Arab ruling elites, their policies, alliances, preferences, oil policy, relations or lack thereof with Israel and of course, the Palestinians.
While the incompetence, greed and corruption of Arab rulers have been well-documented elsewhere, what is interesting about Aburish’s latest book is that it breaks considerable new ground. He augments historically documented facts with experiences of which he has personal knowledge, such as the sale of US weapons to Iraq in the early seventies.
Especially interesting is his revelation of the deep links between Saddam Husain of Iraq and the west’s eagerness - Britain, France and the US - to promote him. ‘It was an American company, Pfaulder Corporation of Rochester, New York, which in 1975 supplied the Iraqis with a blueprint which enabled them to build their first chemical warfare plant’ (p.99). Aburish says that he is in possession of a copy of Pfaulder’s design. Even earlier, in 1958, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had provided the list of Iraqi elite who had to be eliminated in the coup against the popularly-elected government of Abdul Karim Kassem!
The author reveals that in 1983, he had personally taken a proposal for a US$230 million deal to purchase US-manufactured Harpoon missiles to save Saddam’s regime which was under pressure from Iran’s forces. The offer to supply the missiles had come from an American arms dealer who told Aburish that the US government would be favourably disposed to such an arrangement (p. 100-101). One needs to remember that the US was officially ‘neutral’ in the Iraq-Iran war!
Given the west’s current hysterical campaign against Saddam, it is interesting to note how western regimes created the monster that he became, all because it served their interests at the time. This is the central thesis of Aburish’s book. The policies pursued by the Arab rulers as well as the west have nothing to do with principle or the interests of the peoples in the Middle East. Every policy is predicated on the need to serve the west’s interests.
The Arab rulers and elites who came to occupy important positions in their respective governments understood this well. They, therefore, served western - mainly British and French interests in the early part, and later on, US interests - to remain in their good books. The west in turn ensured their survival as rulers.
This is best illustrated by the Arab regimes’ oil policy. First discovered in Bahrain in 1908, it was western multinationals, and behind them their governments, which actually determined oil prices. Even when windfall profits accrued to oil producers because of sudden price increases, the money was funnelled back to the west.
This was done in several ways, the most common of which was arms purchases, totally unnecessary as far as the Arab regimes were concerned. The Saudi regime continues to be the biggest arms purchaser in the world but as the Gulf War showed, these weapons were of no use to defend the country. Aburish points out that ‘according to London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies, the cost to maintain a Saudi soldier is five times the cost of maintaining an American soldier’ (p.106). One need hardly compare their competence levels.
Arms, in fact, have been the west’s favourite tool in advancing its policies, as Aburish shows. In the early part of this century, Britain used the supply of weapons to Husain I (better known as Sharif Husain of Makkah) to promote the Arab revolt against Turkey. When Sharif Husain demanded that Britain honour its pledge to make him the king of all the Arabs, the British simply switched sides, supporting his arch-rival, Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud.
Husain I was ditched and humiliated, forcing him into exile as Ibn Saud’s tribal allies crushed his army. Later, the British would turn the tables even on the Ikhwan - Ibn Saud’s supporters - and facilitate their massacre so that Abdul Aziz would become the undisputed ruler of Saudi Arabia (as opposed to the ruler of all the Arabs).
The division of the Middle East into petty fiefdoms is described in detail by Aburish who makes a telling point about how on the eve of the creation of the zionist State of Israel, the British had yet again played a treacherous role. The Egyptian army, equipped with British weapons, was denied spare parts resulting in disaster for Egypt’s campaign against Israel in 1948.
In Jordan’s case, it was even more ludicrous. The Jordanian army had 21 British officers. They made sure that the West Bank of Jordan (which should have formed part of Palestine under the UN partition plan) was occupied by Jordanian forces but that no soldier was allowed to enter any part of Palestine allocated to Israel (p. 96).
Aburish reveals not only king Husain’s zionist connections which have come under close scrutiny lately, but also his long-standing liaison with the CIA. It was former US president Jimmy Carter who admitted in 1977 that Husain was on the CIA payroll. Aburish provides the details, which are both revealing and fascinating.
He also details Fahd’s indiscretions, whether his laziness, heavy drinking or womanizing. It is a disgrace that a man of his character should carry the title of Khadim al-Haramain. The author shows that it is Saudi Arabia, more than any other oil producing country, which has deliberately kept oil prices low in order to appease the US. This is at a heavy price to Saudi Arabia itself.
Quotaing from the world bank report of 1983, Aburish writes: ‘the per capita income of an average Saudi declined from $14,600 in 1982 to $6400 in 1992, without factoring in inflation,’ (p.253). Similarly, in 1982, Saudi Arabia had a surplus of $142 billion; ‘currently its debt is somewhere between $60 billion and $120 billion.’
It is a most interesting book, full of useful insights about the behaviour, policies and traits of the most important players in the Middle East. Aburish has a soft corner for Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and shares his nationalistic inclinations but this has not blurred his vision of Nasser completely. He admits, for instance, that Nasser, too, was working with the CIA. It was only after he had been ditched completely that he turned to the Russians.
Those interested in the affairs of the Middle East and wish to understand the reasons for the failures of Arab rulers will find this book highly useful.