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The Arab-American Divorce: Gains and Losses

Author: Youssef Michel Ibrahim
August 8, 2002
Arab News

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Ever since the attack on America last September a growing and fierce campaign has evolved demanding, in effect, a divorce between Arab and American interests. The main highlights of this campaign have been:

1. The push to replace “Arab oil”, particularly Saudi oil, with Russian oil.

2. To end military cooperation with Saudi Arabia and move it to friendlier Gulf states. Those “friendlier” countries which these public and behind-the-scene voices are mentioning as “substitute military allies” are other Gulf countries which happen in fact to be close friends and allies of the Saudis: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.

3. To make it difficult, if not impossible, for Arabs and Muslims from countries such as Egypt, Iran, Syria, the Gulf, Pakistan and other countries, to visit and study in this country by refusing them visas and asking for fingerprints, among other humiliating and intimidating demands. To top it all, leaders of the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim campaign have also asked that educational systems and regimes themselves in the Arab and Muslim worlds be changed altogether. Hardly a day passes without an opinion article or a leak from senior officials predicting the imminent fall of some Arab or Muslim regime, or calling for it.

From the Arab side, the antipathy is mutual. Disgusted by the images of Israeli soldiers destroying Palestinian homes and killing scores of innocent people while the president of the United States describes Israel’s prime minister as “a man of peace”, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Arabs and Muslims around the world have started a boycott of American goods. Anti-Americanism has never reached the highs we observe now, not only in Arab countries but in Muslim countries including Indonesia and Pakistan, to mention just a few.

In short, goodwill and patience on both sides is drying up. Both sides are heading for a divorce. So the question becomes: Whose national interests stand to suffer from this? The simple answer is: this is a knife that cuts both ways. Both of us, Americans and Arabs/Muslims will lose.

Oil: Let’s take the oil fallacy first. Two thirds of the world’s oil reserves exist in the Gulf region mostly under Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran. The United States is already fighting Iran and about to go to war with Iraq. Damaging relations with Saudi Arabia, the only and biggest oil exporter in the world which is still friendly with the United States in that strategic region sounds foolish under these circumstances. The impression that Russia can fill Saudi Arabia’s place is a pipe dream. Why? Until just a couple of years ago, Russia was both an enemy and a competitor of the United States. It is a European industrial giant that is just waking up from its fall and collapse as the Soviet Union. The reason the Russian oil industry is able to export more oil, such as it has this year (to the rate of 400,000 barrels per day) is that other industries in Russia are still in a collapsed state or in the process of reforming themselves. Therefore, demand for energy inside Russia is still weak. But this is not a permanent condition. Now Russia is rebuilding. The first sector that has rebuilt itself successfully is oil. But the others, from heavy industry to light manufacturing, are to follow, quickly. Extra Russian oil for export is only a temporary condition.

American pundits, senators and congressmen counting on it for more than four years may be disappointed. As soon as the rest of the Russian industry completes its own reforms, the Russian industrial giant will do what all other industrial giants such as the United States, Germany, and France do: start consuming its own energy for its own industry.

The reason the United States, which has plenty of oil, cannot have enough is that it keeps consuming it as its economy grows. The same with China which has no oil, but is growing and will need someone’s oil, maybe Saudi Arabia’s. Once the Saudi oil stops coming to the US it will go somewhere else. Getting it back will not be as easy. The Saudis are not going to drop new reliable customers for the US, again. All economists expect demand for oil to rise around the world. There are only a few countries that can produce more than what they are pumping out right now. Saudi Arabia is the only producer of oil that can produce a lot more immediately, as much as 3 to 4 million barrels more. No country, including Russia, can do that. The net result of this quest to cut off Saudi oil is very shortsighted.

We, the Americans, lose influence in Saudi Arabia and the Saudis keep selling their oil to other clients. This means the Saudis may not be all that helpful in keeping all prices down the next time the United States asks them to do so, and may not be a moderating influence either in OPEC. This does not sound like a smart move.

On ending the US-Saudi military alliance: The American military campaign in Afghanistan against the Taleban and Bin Laden has been largely possible because Saudi Arabia cooperated in the war against terrorism. The Pentagon knows this too well. Suppose we push the Saudis to the point where they, perhaps in anger over the one-sided pro-Israeli Bush policies, decide to “end” that military cooperation with the United States.

One has to wonder then: how comfortable are Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the UAE going to be saying to the United States, “please come here”, or as they say in Arabic "Ahlan wa Sahlan".

I think the chances are very little. It would be very difficult if Saudi Arabia pulls its strategic cover from the United States to see others willing to act as “agents” of the United States especially if we in the United States launch a unilateral attack on Iraq without first gaining some Arab goodwill by resolving, or at least dampening, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The power of Islam: Finally, as the custodian of Makkah and Madinah, Saudi Arabia exercises extraordinary, albeit quiet, influence over 1.2 billion Muslims around the world, many of whom already dislike the West and feel considerable sympathy with Palestinians and Arabs. Nearly three million Muslims go to pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia every year from around the globe. There is a great deal of quiet influence there, which the Saudis are using as a moderating force. They ban anti-American demonstrations and literature. Saudis have been steady reliable friends of America for 60 years. Tens of thousands of Americans live and work there quietly and peacefully. Why stir this ocean? Do we know what an upheaval from an Iraqi invasion gone bad could mean in this region?

What it would do to Iran, to our friends in the Gulf , to our Turkish allies? If the lobby advocating divorce with the Arab-Muslim world succeeds in changing regimes, which it keeps pushing for, are we so sure the new regimes will be in favor of American interests? The famous change in regime in Iran in 1979 that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and did away with the Shah, did not work out well for American interests. What makes Americans think a new regime in Egypt, Jordan or the Gulf would be a better friend? Sometimes some of us Americans wonder, as I do, is there anyone who is really thinking in Washington D.C.? Many times the answer is no.


Youssef Ibrahim is Senior Fellow, Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations.

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