Published February 11, 2005
When I first went to Saudi-Arabia in the summer of 1991, they hailed me as liberator. Granted, they mistook me for an American. These days, if Europeans are mistaken for Americans in the Middle East, they tend to be shot on sight. This says something about the results of US policy in the past decade and a half.
After the end of World War Two, when the European powers retreated from the Middle East, the Americans did not waste time in taking their place. This was, by and large, seen as a good trade off by the local populations. The Americans weren’t obsessed with colouring the map pink or blue, as were the British and the French who had come before. The belief that the US was a new type of Great Power seemed justified when, in 1956, The British and French, in a final bid to reassert their dominance, invaded Egypt with Israeli assistance. Not only did the US not take part in the invasion, it forced their allies to withdraw.
The Cold War divided the Middle East, with the US and the USSR pouring arms into their client states. But, unlike previous “protectors,” the US did not keep a large standing army in the region. US support for Israel angered many Arabs, and US marines were killed in Beirut and even in Germany. Still, when the US forces entered Kuwait 1991, it was seen, by most Arabs, as a good thing. Why may explain why I was met with feelings of friendship and gratitude on the streets of Riyadh.
Taking a tip from Stalin?
Sure, Kuwait was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the British for oil reasons. And the Emir is not the world’s most democratic leader. But, the people of Kuwait were not doubt better off without Saddam than under his control. And Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was a clear example of one country attacking another. The US attack on Iraq in 1991 was, as these things go, a just war. However, the US Army stopped at the border of Iraq, only to resume its offensive more than a decade later. Having encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the dictator, the Americans now stood by as the rebels were massacred by Saddam’s forces. A historical parallel could be the Red Army stopping on the Vistula in 1944. As the population of Warsaw rose up to get rid of their oppressors, Stalin ordered his troops to wait while Hitler’s forces levelled the city and massacred the Poles. Only after the Nazis had re-established control did the Russians take the city. It has often been supposed that Stalin made his decision to make the Poles more pliant in the aftermath of the war, having been bled to death by Hitler. Surely, the Americans would never do such a thing in the Middle East.
Memories from another era
But just as the Red Army did not abandon territories it had liberated, so the Americans did not leave the Middle East. US soldiers in the neighbourhood of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the starvation of Iraq and intermittent bombings, the continuing occupation of Palestine by US supported Israel; all these factor combined to breed resentment, then hatred. The hatred simmered, then exploded.
Now, the US keeps a large standing Army in the Middle East, guarding the oil supplies they had previously sold willingly. And it is no longer safe for Westerners to walk the streets of Riyadh, as I once did. Back in 1991. But that was during another era.