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The Abdullah Initiative: An Intermission

Author: Youssef Michel Ibrahim
May-June, 2002
Middle East Insight


Regardless of how it came about—through careful planning or happenstance—Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative offering Israel normal relations with the Arab world in return for full withdrawal from land occupied in 1967, and the Arab League’s acceptance of his initiative, have suspended a sinister drift in American-Arab/Muslim relations for a while.

The point now is to exploit this—especially in light of the dramatic debate triggered by the savage terrorist attacks of September 11 and the bloody fighting this past month between Israelis and Palestinians—towards a new dialogue between America and Arabs and Muslims that aims at clarity and a willingness to listen instead of lecturing. In the past few months there were so many episodes in which the interaction between both parties became so opaque as to appear unreal.

One recent illustration of this was the rift during the long preparations for Vice President Richard Cheney’s visit to the Middle East and before the Crown Prince’s initiative had surfaced to somewhat change the tide.

Hearing it only through leaks and inspired opinion editorials, Arabs were baffled to learn the vice president’s sole purpose was to discuss how to organize an attack on Iraq—more so as each Arab leader was telling Washington publicly and privately that their primary or only concern in recent months was how to stem the bloodshed in the civil war between Palestinians and Israelis.

To the Arabs it seemed inexplicable that the American response was that one issue had nothing to do with the other. The Arab posture was that helping change the regime in Baghdad cannot even begin until the Palestinian issue is stabilized.

This is just the latest example of what can only be described as the growing misunderstanding between America and the Arab/Muslim world. To get serious about ending this drift that is neither in American nor Arab interests, both sides have to look over the fence and get off what has been the primary mode of interaction—the “lecturing” dais.

The United States has to appreciate that September 11 has indeed changed the Arab world, deepening latent rejection of Islamic extremism.


American diplomats and pundits have to look beyond the sound-bites and self-serving polls quoting Muslims saying how much they hate America to the real debate underway in these societies. For nearly a decade, the secular civil side of Arab/Muslim societies had been brewing with doubts about the sort of Islamic fundamentalism that led to the creation of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and other extremists and their movements. If anything, September 11 turned this into an open engagement—one in which the United States should join hands with civil societies in the Arab/Muslim world. The free field enjoyed by Muslim extremists since the mid-1970s in places like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the whole Gulf region—including Saudi Arabia—as well as Pakistan, Malaysia, and other Muslim societies is over. Extremism is now on the defensive, undergoing both an intellectual and security assault.

What is slowly but unmistakably sinking in is that Bin Laden’s defeat—whether he is dead or not does not matter—has established that extremist Islamists have no social project other than war to offer Muslim societies. Their actions brought economic and political calamities, widespread hatred of Islam, economic ruin, and great difficulties in pursuing good relationships with the West—for which nearly all Arab and Muslim countries yearn.

The dimension of this change can be better understood if compared to the impact of the 1967 defeat of the Arab world in ending Arab nationalism—and Nasserism—as an ascending political force.

This process is maturing in so many ways, surfacing in editorial columns and public speeches as well as directives for moderation within Muslim religious establishments themselves. Indeed, Crown Prince Abdullah’s public admonition to religious leaders to restrain their speeches in mosques paralleled similar messages from religious leaders in Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, among other places.


Israelis and Palestinians can, if they wish, dilute Crown Prince Abdullah’s initiative by asking: so what’s new, by attaching all sorts of conditions to it, or by loading it down with the details of what should be discussed in direct talks. The bottom line, however, is that all parties must recognize that it is revolutionary. For Israel, it represents a public declaration made by the next person in line to the Saudi throne in the most conservative of Arab Muslim countries in the name of the whole Arab world. The Crown Prince has repeated and amplified it in both Arab and Western media. And the initiative received the support of the Arab League at its summit in Beirut in late March.

For the Palestinians, the initiative means liberation from further Arab meddling and manipulation of various Palestinian factions. Abdullah in effect is saying, “We accept that the Palestinian state will be limited to West Bank and Gaza. Otherwise you negotiate.”

It remains for Palestinians to sort out issues they have long postponed, including the need for some internal Palestinian unity. This boils down to settling the internal debate between Islamists who want to liberate all of Palestine and, what I believe, to be a majority of Palestinians who want to settle for the West Bank and Gaza as a Palestinian state living in peace next to a Jewish Israel. How this will resolve itself depends on the momentum of the peace process—if it resumes.


It is an open secret that no Arab country is wedded to the rule of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The sympathy is entirely for the Iraqis, not their leadership. Indeed, it would be safe to say that every Arab leader would like to see Saddam go in a way that does not threaten chaos in his aftermath. The proverbial Arab street would support a new chapter in Iraq because it would end the suffering of the Iraqi people under a ruthless United Nations sanctions regime that is dismantling Iraqi society but failing to harm its intended target: Saddam and the ruling clique.

This sentiment is driven by an appreciation that ever since he invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein’s policies have brought paralysis to Arab politics, divisions with the West, and huge financial losses reducing investments and tourism, and destabilizing OPEC and oil prices.

The frustration here with the United States is influenced by its refusal to pay even lip service to the obvious: the victims are the Iraqis. This frustration becomes intertwined with another perception in the West Bank and Gaza, that the United States, under the Bush administration, has equally distanced itself from Palestinians’ suffering while embracing Israel’s policies of the Sharon government.

Muddling things further is the opaque nature of the American plans in Iraq, leaving strong suspicion that there will be chaos, or maybe civil war, with Shiites bonding with Iran, Kurds fighting each other, everyone fighting the ruling Sunnis, and Turkey meddling in the mess. Even Saudi Arabia and Kuwait do not want to see that kind of instability as the price to remove their worst enemy.


America’s anger against the Arab and Muslim world was understandable in the aftermath of September 11, as many Muslims and Arabs in the early weeks adopted an attitude of coy denial. Matters were made worse by sensational network coverage, provocative statements by politicians, and even some Christian religious leaders who waded in with unmistakably anti-Muslim and anti-Arab views. These early clashing attitudes, both in America and in the Arab/Muslim world, have since been toned down.

This is the time for American diplomacy, scholarship, and think-tanks to engage friends within various segments of Arab and Muslim societies, such as those of the middle classes, business leaders, intellectuals, unions, and universities among others—with programs, visits, bonds, and ties.

On Iraq, the United States must appreciate that it will get active help in removing Saddam Hussein and indeed public sympathy depending on how it is done. Bombing what is left of Iraqi infrastructure will not do it. And any plan must aim at removing the Iraqi leadership, not deepening the suffering of the Iraqis, with whom Arabs and Muslims have a brotherly bond.

In the Middle East, Cheney’s visit appears to have diminished the widespread perception of benign neglect by tying the Palestinian issue to the Iraqi obsession of the Bush administration. Without affecting the strong bonds with Israel, the United States needs to reaffirm what it has already said were legitimate Palestinian rights to an independent contiguous state.

The Abdullah initiative has brought an intermission of sorts, allowing time and space to do all that. But it is not much time, and it should be governed by the notion that neither America nor the Muslim/Arab world has anything to gain by allowing a rift to widen.

Youssef M. Ibrahim is senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and strategic planning manager for the Greenberg Geoeconomic Center. For more than two decades, he served as regional Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and energy editor at the Wall Street Journal, while based in Iran, Egypt, Paris, and London. Prior to joining the Council on Foreign Relations, he served as vice president and head of media for BP.

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