October 19, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >
BY NIBRAS KAZIMI
October 19, 2005
Iraq got saddled with a flawed constitution this week, whereby supporters and detractors broke ranks along sectarian lines without really knowing much about what the document said. They were guided throughout the process by a dangerous array of demagogues and ambitious men; men whose main concern with the constitutional text was not its "democratic" portions, but rather the admission or omission of loop-holes that would facilitate commandeering Iraq into "undemocratic" darkness tailored to their even darker agendas. But still, there is a chance that it might all work out in the end if America stays the course and more responsible Iraqi leaders emerge to steer their constituencies away from the fratricidal brink.
Yes, indeed, Iraq has problems, but at least it isn't Saudi Arabia. That was the message delivered by Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, earlier this month when he tongue-lashed Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal.
Prince Saud, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in late September, was prolifically doling out advice to America about its project in Iraq. Al-Faisal, along with his brother Prince Turki, who is slated to become his country's ambassador in Washington, and their brother-in-law Prince Bandar, the outgoing ambassador who is assuming the job of national security adviser, are the three leading lights of a concerted Saudi effort to reclaim their influence along the Potomac. Their game plan is simple: throw around a lot of money just like the good old days. Their motto is even simpler: "We told you so."
The trio's refrain is "this whole democracy business is messy and dangerous. We have our own way of doing things in the Middle East. Do not disturb our delicate balancing act with your crazy notions of freedom. Your decades-long support for our archaic dictatorships is not why young Middle Easterners are angry at you. They are angry because of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. You should have listened to our plan: substitute Saddam with Saddam-Lite. Now Iran is getting all the spoils. But thank Allah that we have decided to forgive you for the lapse of judgment and unkind words you said about our kingdom after 9/11. Now, we will fix-up this mess for you."
And why does Prince Saud believe that his country can bail out the world's superpower? He says, "Saudi Arabia also has a unique position in the world and in its region. It is the cradle of Islam... Accordingly, Saudi Arabia has been thrust into assuming a heavy burden of responsibility, influence and moral leadership."
But then, something unexpected happened: Iraq's Mr. Jabr entered the scene screaming out "Wrong!" and proceeded to trash-talk the Saudi talking points. He was speaking from the grounds of the Iraqi Embassy in Amman about 10 days after Prince Saud's comments were published. Mr. Jabr said the following: "Iraq is heir to an ancient civilization and does not need advice from a Bedouin riding a camel." Mr. Jabr went on to say that Prince Saud should worry about the problems of Saudi Arabia, where minorities are treated like third and fourth class citizens, women are not allowed to drive, and its embittered youth are fueling the ranks of Islamic radicals all over the Middle East.
This was an unprecedented moment in the history of the Club of Arab Rulers. Mr. Jabr clearly broke all rules of proper gentlemanly decorum; Iraq's new spirit of openness has become the clothes-pin of publicly exposed Arab dirty laundry. Ironically, the two leading ethnic Kurds of Iraq rushed to salvage relations with Iraq's Arab brethren: President Talabani from London and Foreign Minister Zebari - who was uncomfortably attending a conference in the Saudi city of Jeddah at the time - quickly crafted sound-bytes distancing the government from the statements made by its interior minister. The Arab press outlets - mostly owned by Saudi and Persian Gulf royalty and staffed by Lebanese, Egyptians, and Palestinians - came out expressing outraged indignation and disbelief.
Although Prince Saud, educated at Princeton and Lawrenceville, who has been at his job for 30 years this October, may not indeed be a "Bedouin riding a camel," Mr. Jabr's outburst revealed an inherent truth about power dynamics in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia's influence is artificial. The Saudis bought their way to the table, but their presence feels unnatural. It is akin to Saudi Arabia's stature in Washington: a regime that survived and continues to survive at America's pleasure and benevolence but has come to believe itself entitled to push America around.
Who cares if the Saudis control Mecca and Medina? That does not give them moral authority over Islam: when the first Muslims expanded their empire beyond the Arabian Peninsula, the first thing they did was move the capital to Kufa in Iraq. Thence it went to Damascus, and then back to Baghdad, and for a while, under the heterodox Fatimid Caliphs, to Cairo. There are three "real" power centers in the Arab Middle East: Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo. Throughout Islamic history, coups in these three capitals determined who got into power, not control over the holy sites in the Peninsula. Mecca and Medina may by the crown and majestic robe of a would-be sovereign, but the throne was firmly planted in Baghdad, Damascus, or Cairo.
Mr. Jabr's rude comments had the regional effect of putting the Saudis in their place. He basically said that Saudi Arabia does not have the historical, cultural, and symbolic heft to arbitrate power-politics in the region. And he was right about Saudi Arabia's own internal problems: an example would be the current uproar among fundamentalists against their government over the mere rumor that a leading Saudi Shia cleric is to appear on national TV and give a sermon during Ramadan.
The Saudis are far behind these changing times. Recently, I was watching televised parliamentary debates a-la C-SPAN on Iraqi state television. The members were discussing legislation that would compensate political prisoners under Saddam. It was so extensively detailed that it even stipulated that a former prisoner would be entitled to enjoy a trip abroad once in his or her life, courtesy of the Iraqi government. The programming halted to announce the mid-day call to prayer, which usually lasts for a couple of minutes. But this particular call lasted a little longer since it was the Shia version. Then, the regular programming went back to the lawmakers.
If I were a Saudi prince watching this half-hour segment of official Iraqi TV, I'd be scared. Times have changed drastically. Not only are members of parliament discussing some heady stuff, but the official call to prayer is recognizing Iraqi sectarian demographics; something that had never happened before the fall of Saddam's regime. Imagine what this Saudi prince would be thinking if he were to turn on the TV today, as Saddam's trial is being broadcast? The Middle East has been turned on its head, and Baghdad, a natural center of cultural and political gravity, is leading the way towards a brave, new Middle East.
Surely, Iraq has problems and these problems matter for a very important region of the world. Saudi Arabia also has problems, but taking its opinions too seriously is part of the larger problem by which America misunderstands the Middle East.
Mr. Kazimi is an Iraqi writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
October 19, 2005 Edition > Section: Opinion >