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Vijay Prashad: Saudi and Qatari heads of state are no-shows at Baghdad meeting

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

The Arab League met in Baghdad March 29. This was supposed to be a big coming-out party for the Iraqi government, now, quote-unquote, free of U.S. occupation. This new Iraqi government was going to take its seat at the Arab League. And what they wanted (they being the Iraqi government) was the participation of the Saudi Arabian government, even though there’s great differences with the Saudis, particularly over Syria. They expected the Saudis to come. Well, they didn’t, and neither did a lot of other Arab countries. So what to make of these divisions within the Arab League? And, of course, it’s mostly about the politics of Syria, and even more so about Iran.

Now joining us to talk about all of this is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is professor of international studies at Trinity College. He’s written many books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. And he joins us now from Hartford. Thanks for joining us again, Vijay.


JAY: So talk a bit about the Arab League meetings and the split over Syria.

PRASHAD: Well, the Arab League met in Baghdad for the first time since 1990. At that last Arab League meeting in 1990, Saddam Hussein was the presiding officer, and it’s at that meeting where he very strongly criticized Kuwait, suggesting that Iraq had carried the water for the Gulf Arab states in a long war, eight-year, bloody war, against Iran. And what Saddam was saying in the 1990 meeting was that, look, fellas, my Iraqi army was destroyed in the war against Iran, and we need you to pay up, plus we would like the Kuwaitis to stop lateral drilling into Iraqi oilfields. And we all know where that went. It went into Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, eventually a major war.

And now the Arab League returns. Of the 22 members of the Arab League, only ten heads of state gathered, one country from the Gulf, and that was Kuwait. So the emir of Kuwait came to Baghdad, but there was no king of Saudi Arabia, there was no emir of Qatar, there was no king of Jordan, not the king of Morocco, etc. One of the things that we need to understand is the Arab League has always, pretty much from its founding in the 1940s, been a deeply divided body. There is a major split in the Arab world between the so-called, you know, revisionists and those who want to maintain the status quo.

At the present time, the status quo is led by the Gulf coordination council, which is the so-called Arab NATO, whose main members are the Saudis and the Qataris. So they are the status quo powers. They want to maintain the house of order, as it were, in the region. And the second set of powers, you know, who are generally associated with a non-Arab country, which is Iran, are revisionist powers, where they seek to have a different order of things in the Middle East and in West Asia. So this divide in the Arab League is only occasionally bridged, as with the war in Libya, and it has opened up again because the debates that took place around Libya have returned over Syria. And so the Arab League, not that it is newly disunited, has in a sense always been disunited.

JAY: But one of the things you could say is new is Iraq now, not the great ally and willing to fight, take on the Iranians as it was under Saddam, it’s now, if anything, more friendly with Iran than it is with Saudi Arabia. And this is a big shift in clout and the politics of the Arab League. Is that not right?

PRASHAD: Well, it’s the uncertainty principle of imperialism. When the United States went to war, first with Afghanistan, that is, to overthrow the Taliban, and then in Iraq to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime, well, it provided two major strategic victories to the Iranians, because U.S. military force and U.S. treasure got rid of the two major enemies of Iran, the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein. And having removed the Saddam regime, the United States brought to power the forces of the mainly Shia-backed political parties, now led by Nouriel Maliki, and Maliki has a very fraternal relationship with Iran. So here you have a situation now of an Iraqi government, you know, moderately close to Iran, with a political ally inside the parliament, that is, the al-Sadr bloc, which is very close to Iran. So there is a almost pro-Iranian government in Iraq. They have decided not to follow through on the status quo objectives of the Saudis, which they had done in that war in the 1980s.

Now, you have to step back and understand the context of this Arab League meeting. Last year, when the violence broke out in Benghazi in Libya, the Saudis and Qataris in a sense hornswoggled the Arab League. You know. Then a minority of members came to a meeting in Cairo and they passed a resolution asking for UN and NATO intervention, effectively.

And after the war had, you know, taken place in Libya, the retiring head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, when he retired from his position, the Qataris wanted to bring in their very senior member of their government, Al-Attiyah, who was the military head of the Gulf coordination council, the so-called Arab NATO. But at this time, these so-called revisionist powers put up the Egyptian candidate, Nabil Elaraby, and Elaraby won the election and is currently the head of the Arab League. So the Qataris were defeated.

When Iraq was to host the meeting in late March, it was clear that the Gulf coordination council, the Gulf countries, were frustrated with the Arab League. The Arab League was not going along with the agenda of the Saudis and the Qataris in particular. So they refused to send their head of state. And the new place in which this tussle is taking place, of course, is manifestly over Syria, but also over Iran. There is a great disagreement in the Arab League. The Arab League, dominated now by revisionist powers, has accepted the UN position on Syria and in fact backed the Kofi Annan mission, which is not only a UN mission to Damascus, but a UN and Arab League mission to Damascus. This is something that the Saudis and Qataris did not want, and this is the precise reason why they refused to come to Baghdad and participate in the Arab League meeting

JAY: And there’s—and then the other issue is these flights. Apparently, there’s Iranian planes going over Iraqi airspace with Iraqi permission to Syria. And everyone’s assuming that on these planes it’s not just humanitarian aid, but it might likely be military aid as well. And the Saudis have told the Iraqis to block these flights, and so have the Americans, and the Iraqis have said no and are continuing to allow the flights. So this is another indication just how serious this division is.

PRASHAD: Oh, yes. And, in fact, after the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul in Turkey on April 1, the Iraqis condemned the attempt by the Saudis and Qataris to provide multimillions of dollars to the Friends of Syria and to the Syrian opposition to arm the opposition further. So the Iraqis have become very vocal in their critique of the Saudis’ and Qatari objectives in Syria, and the Iraqis have been fairly verbal in their, you know, hesitation or their sense of unease over a potential armed conflict on Iran.

JAY: The Iraqi civil war sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees to Syria. I suppose Iraq has rights to be afraid that the same thing could happen the other way, civil war in Syria could send hundreds of thousands of refugees to Iraq.

PRASHAD: Yes, and not only that, but, you know, they fear that if there is a lack of stability in Syria for too long, if there’s a prolonged lack of stability, the Kurdish region of Syria is going to create problems for the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. And they have no appetite for reopening in a major way the sectarian struggles in Iraq, which are slowly simmering down now.

JAY: Well, again, as we talked about in another interview we did about Syria, you have on one side forces led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and who seem to want civil war in Syria, don’t mind the disorder and the chaos. They have—regime change seems to be their only agenda. And I guess it’s to get at Iran. And allied with them you have Syrian National Council and U.S. And on the other side, you have, for their own reasons, Iran and Iraq, who seem to need stability and want stability in Syria and don’t want civil war. And you have many forces, oppositional forces in Syria, who also don’t want civil war. I mean, is that the way this is shaping up?

PRASHAD: This is indeed the situation, it seems.

It also should be underscored that there’s something quite disturbing, something Orwellian about how the language of humanitarianism and protection of civilians is being utilized by the West and the Gulf Arabs, whose policies actually are going to create further bloodshed and a great deal of, you know, instability in the region. You know, one cannot predict the level of bloodshed these kind of policies are going to create. And I think this is something that we don’t often enough talk about, which is the cynical use of language and of human rights to prolong conflicts.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.

PRASHAD: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.