The Gulf crisis cannot be regarded as a purely local or regional issue, or a crisis whose worldwide significance is derived only from the importance of Arab oil. More fundamentally, it has become the main testing ground for the rapprochement between East and West as applied to North-South relations. Can the South be included in the new world game or is it condemned to react violently against it?

While the key ingredient in the East-West rapprochement is interdependence, in the North-South relationship it is unevenness. The disparity between these two notions gives rise to divergent perspectives. Interdependence between uneven parties can appear to the peoples of the South as some updated version of neo-colonialism. The rules on which the East-West rapprochement are built are portrayed as being of a universal character, but the South is well aware that they are being formulated by parties in the North representing less than one quarter of humankind.

The De Klerk-Mandela dialogue suggests that a basic North-South issue, apartheid, can be resolved peacefully along the lines of East-West conflict resolution mechanisms. Such a transposition is much more complicated when it comes to the Middle East, if only because of the intractability of the Arab-Israeli antagonism (the Shamir coalition, no less than Saddam, is committed to playing it rough). And is the Arab Mashriq, with the leverage it has on the North thanks to oil and oil wealth, an authentic part of the South?

The wave of liberalization that swept through Eastern Europe, reaching its peak with the violent overthrow of Ceaucescu, was bound, sooner or later, to spill over into the Arab world, not because of affinities in ideology but rather because of similarities in state structure and curtailment of human rights. In the hope of preempting the need for fundamental change, a number of Arab regimes, notably Jordan and Algeria, introduced a degree of pluralism and held relatively free elections. But these attempts at liberalization remained cosmetic. Many Arabs hoped that the Palestinian intifada would bring about a breakthrough toward a new Arab world order. What finally forced the Arab world to face up to the realities of the new international order was Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait, exactly seven months after Ceaucescu’s downfall.

The international community has condemned Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. Only in the Arab world has the legitimacy of Saddam’s action been an issue of debate. It is imperative to understand why it was not condemned outright.

It is no secret to any Arab that Saddam’s regime is one of the most repressive in the world. Most Arabs would not deny either that the key factor in Saddam’s decision to grab tiny, rich Kuwait was the virtual collapse of the Iraqi economy, not only because of his war against Iran but also because of his ostentatious reconstruction plans aimed at substantiating his image as a victor. The Iraqi claim that Kuwait was originally an Iraqi province is not widely accepted, especially since Iraq accepted Kuwait as a member of the Arab League in 1963.

But Arabs have been extremely frustrated by their inability to cope with the challenges put forward by the “new world order,” which took its most dramatic expression in the utter Arab impotence in the face of the massive emigration of Soviet Jews to Israel. In this setting, any Arab ruler who appears to challenge the West immediately becomes a hero.

It is true that it was only after his invasion of Kuwait that Saddam tried to put himself forward as a contemporary Saladin or Nasser, simultaneously championing the causes of pan-Arab unity and of Arab thawra (revolution) against Arab tharwa (wealth). Even if many Arabs see Saddam’s behavior as sheer opportunism and demagogy, they still consider it pertinent to ask why unification of a nation by force be dismissed a priori. Why should Saddam not do for the Arab nation what Bismarck did for Germany and Garibaldi did for Italy? Why is the new international legitimacy, which categorically opposes the annexation of any member state of the United Nations by another, binding on states which were not consulted when it came to laying down the ground rules governing this new legitimacy?

Rare are the Arabs who openly condone Saddam’s annexation of Kuwait. But outright condemnation is tempered by apprehensions that the massive military buildup in the Gulf cannot be explained primarily in terms of defending international legitimacy. At issue is access to oil at acceptable prices — in other words, basically Western interests. This widespread support of Saddam signifies that this new system has failed, so far, to incorporate the Third World.

That is why the solution of the Gulf crisis cannot lie only in restoring Kuwait’s previous status. While the withdrawal of the Iraqi troops and the implementation of Kuwait’s right to self-determination are necessary, they are not sufficient. The prevailing structure in the Arab world, shaped in part by polarization between East and West, has collapsed and cannot be restored. The challenge is now to conceive of an Arab order more in keeping with the changes underway on the global level.

Ideal scenarios could be proposed, but can they be implemented? One scenario would begin with the assumption that the real protagonists are not the Arab revolutionaries versus the conservative owners of Arab oil wealth, not Iraq versus Saudi Arabia, not an Arab version of the Cold War. Rather, the confrontation is between repressive regimes, whether reactionary or “progressive,” and advocates of a new democratized Arab system and set of institutions. Such a scenario requires that the sparsely populated, oil-rich Arab states be made accountable, through a process of institutionalization and democratization. This is essential to remove from the densely populated poorer Arab states an underlying reason for the emergence, sooner or later, of belligerent and defiant dictators similar to Saddam Hussein.

Establishing such a system through peaceful means is no easy task. Protagonists such as Saddam are charismatic; advocates of more sober, rational policies are much less so. Certain Arab countries, Egypt for instance, could become a model in the Arab world of deepened institutionalization and democratization. Against this possibility, though, is the growing polarization and militarization of the Arab world. Changes within the Arab world are likely to follow more arduous and painful paths, and the task will be to avoid a major conflagration.

Can the existing Arab system survive the present crisis, or is it doomed to disintegrate further? The central issue of Palestine, which preserved a modicum of Arab solidarity and which no Arab party dared openly disavow or ignore, has again become marginalized. None of the three recently established Arab groupings — the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab Cooperation Council and the Maghrib Union — has maintained any coherence throughout this crisis. The Arab League is no longer operative. Non-Arab states such as Iran, Turkey and Israel are bound to acquire an enhanced role in the regional competition for supremacy. This could deal a final blow to the pan-Arab system, even if an open war can be avoided and even if Arab states do not disintegrate into smaller entities. The new international order has failed to embrace the world as a whole or the world as it is, and there is a vast gap between its declared principles and their implementation.

How to cite this article:

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed "The Gulf Crisis and the New World Order," Middle East Report 168 (January/February 1991).

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