to each his own the great arab league break up, by

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    To each his own The great Arab League break up, By Amir Taheri

    Feb. 7, 2003

    Amr Moussa is a clearly worried man. Drawing deep puffs from his hefty Havana, this last of the Nasserite dinosaurs believes the Arabs are facing "their greatest crisis since the First World War."

    Moussa, an Egyptian, should know. He is secretary-general of the Arab League at a time when everyone is talking about its imminent demise.

    In a conversation at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Moussa said league members had agreed to hold their next summit in Manama, Bahrain, but had not agreed on a date. Clearly, some members wanted the summit to be held before the war against Saddam Hussein, expected anytime after the Haj pilgrimage on February 10. They pressed for a date in the hope of finding a formula to allow the Iraqi dictator to step aside and thus prevent the conflict.

    Now, however, even the venue of the projected summit is a matter of dispute. Some Arab leaders do not want to meet a few miles from the headquarters of the United States navy in the Persian Gulf.

    Bahrain, a tiny archipelago that recently promoted itself from emirate to kingdom, has made no secret of its firm resolve to be on the side of the US when, and no longer if, there is a move to topple Saddam.

    Quarrelling over the date and venue of the next summit, however, isn't the only problem that Arab leaders face these days. There is a growing sentiment that they have reached an historic cul de sac, with no idea of how to pierce through.

    THE ARAB predicament over the looming war in Iraq is only the last episode in a story of economic decline, political disorientation and cultural crisis that dates back several decades.

    Last year a United Nations study, conducted by Arab scholars, showed that the Arab states were the only ones in the world to have seen their living standards actually decline in the past two decades. Even oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are today poorer than in 1983.

    At the same time, World Bank estimates show that more than $2 trillion of Arab money has flowed into Asia, Europe and the Americas since the 1970s.

    "Associating with the Arabs has brought us nothing but trouble," says Colonel Mu'ammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator who recently decided to boycott the Arab League and emphasize his so-called "African identity."

    Gaddafi is not the only one to seek an alternative to Arabism. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN secretary-general, is also urging an "African destiny" for his native homeland of Egypt. In a recent article that triggered much debate, he called on Egypt to look south toward black Africa and north toward the Mediterranean rather than east toward the Arabs.

    Other Arab statesmen and politicians are looking in other directions.

    Yussuf Shirawi, Bahrain's elder statesman, wants the Persian Gulf states to forge special links with the Indian subcontinent to counterbalance both the threat of Iran and "all the troubles caused by being associated with the Arabs."

    At the other end of the arc of crisis, Morocco's Foreign Minister Muhammad Benaissa recently shocked the pan-Arabists by urging his nation to look toward the American continent as the key partner in shaping the future.

    Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for his part, has began to distance himself from the Ba'athists and pan-Arabists, and is developing a "Mediterranean doctrine" combined with closer military cooperation with the US.

    Iraq's opposition leaders men and women likely to form the post-Saddam government in Baghdad have gone further by discussing withdrawal from the Arab League and the forging of links with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

    "The Arabs have caused us little but grief," says Iraqi academic Kenan Makiyah, a member of the Transition Council. "Even now most Arab states prefer Saddam Hussein to the democratic regime that we wish to build."

    Disenchantment with pan-Arabia is also felt in Saudi Arabia.

    "If someone asks what have the Arabs been doing for two decades, the answer is: They have been blackmailing one another over the issue of Palestine," says a member of Saudi Arabia's appointed "parliament."

    Can the Arab League be saved? Moussa believes so. But even he realizes that the old rules must be broken. The next summit, when and if it convenes, will have to consider four different plans for reform, coming from Libya, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    The Qatari plan is focused on administrative reform and ultimately aimed at breaking the Egyptian hold on the league by transferring its headquarters from Cairo to another Arab capital and making the post of secretary-general, always held by an Egyptian, open to candidates from other Arab states.

    The Libyan plan seeks to link the Arab League to the newly created African Union, thus rendering it irrelevant in the long run.

    The Sudanese plan is essentially aimed at forcing the oil-rich Arab states to share their fortunes with the poor members of the league.

    Paradoxically, the most revolutionary among these plans comes from ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

    This envisages committing member states to sweeping political and economic reforms.

    The Saudi leaders seem to be seeking a pan-Arab cover for introducing reforms they know hard-line religious forces in the kingdom would resist. The Saudi plan calls for all Arab states to establish "accountable governments" and develop "participatory politics," which, translated into plain language, means holding elections.

    In recent weeks both Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel-Aziz and his half-brother, Defense Minister Prince Sultan Ibn Abdel-Aziz have spoken of holding elections for at least part of the membership of the currently appointed parliament.

    "The pressure for participatory government is coming from all segments of society and is irresistible," says Prince Turki al-Faisal, the new Saudi Ambassador to London.

    "No Arab regime can now resist change. Those that are intelligent would know how best to manage what cannot be avoided."

    This talk of reform is echoed in other Arab states, including the still hermetic Syria. The Syrian Ba'ath party is planning to hold a conference supposedly to transform itself into a "social democratic" party.

    And President Bashar Assad is reportedly working hard to impose free elections that could break the old guard and give him a genuine constituency of his own for reform.

    At least eight other Arab states from Oman to Jordan and including Yemen and Kuwait are now formally committed to the Western model of political pluralism and a market economy.

    All this talk of reform and pluralism may, of course, be due to fears that a forcible change of regime in Iraq is a prelude for action against other despotic Arab regimes. The rulers may be simply trying to buy time and confuse the outside world, especially the US.

    Many Arabs believe that the despotic regimes, even if they shed their spots, cannot alter their essential nature, and that any reforms will remain largely cosmetic.

    One thing is sure, however: The presence of a huge US army in the region has, much like the proverbial hangman's noose, helped concentrate many minds among the Arabs on the causes of what many now refer to as "our great historic failure."

    The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.

    This article can also be read at

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