Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, commander-in-chief of all foreign forces in the Gulf War, nephew of King Fahd, and son of the Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan, used to employ an American public relations company to manage his press conferences. Deep in the high-pile carpeted interior of the Saudi Ministry of Defence, an Irish-American of massive build – a certain Mr Lynch from Chicago – would stand just behind Prince Khaled, choosing which journalists should be permitted to ask questions and suggesting to the rather portly Saudi commander how he should reply.
It was, to put it mildly, an unbecoming performance. Prince Khaled would beam into the television cameras and pour out his effusive thanks to the American people for sending their sons to defend his land while Mr Lynch nodded sagely at his shoulder. The Prince’s presentation was made all the more extraordinary by a hairline so thick and low that he appeared to have recently undergone a hair implant. His thin moustache added an even more surreal touch, making him look unhappily like those bewhiskered gentlemen who in silent movies used to tie ladies to railway lines in front of express trains.
No, he assured us all, Saudi Arabia would never be used as a launching platform for offensive action against Iraq. US forces were arriving solely to defend the Kingdom. King Fahd’s decision to invite American troops to Saudi Arabia had been ‘one of the most courageous of his life’. He himself saw nothing wrong with this invitation to the foreign ‘guests’. America would respect the laws of Saudi Arabia; and Saudi Arabia respected the United States. ‘Respect’ was the word the Saudis always used. The foreigners would respect Islam and would respect the Arabs. And of course, Arabs would respect America. Prince Khaled expressed his ‘respect’ for General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the US commander in the Gulf, and the American general duly pronounced his own ‘respect’ for Prince Khaled’s generalship. It sometimes seemed there was no end to this mutual admiration, even when Saudi troops fled their posts at the Saudi frontier town of Khafji in January 1991 and abandoned the place to invading Iraqis.
After Saudi and Qatari soldiers – most of the latter being Pakistani mercenaries rather than Arabs – eventually fought their way back into Khafji, there was the ever-smiling prince, now sporting a bright blue keflon helmet adorned with transfers of a general’s four stars, declaring his pride in his Army and in their American allies. Little wonder, then, that the very same Prince Khaled, browsing through General Schwarzkopf’s newly published autobiography, was somewhat taken aback to find that General Schwarzkopf’s ‘respect’ for him was not quite as deeply held as he apparently thought. Khaled, according to his American counterpart, complained that American troops were wearing T-shirts bearing a map of Saudi Arabia (maps were ‘classified’), that a rabbi had boasted of blowing the Rosh Hashanah ram’s horn on Islamic soil (the rabbi was in America and quoted in an Israeli newspaper), that the Americans were bringing ‘dancing girls’ into Dhahran; Khaled wanted the Americans to launch their ground offensive from Turkey rather than Saudi Arabia and told Schwarzkopf that the Syrians didn’t want to fight. Prince Khaled was chosen for his job, Schwarzkopf wrote, by two American generals.
The Saudis should have expected such treatment. After all, in the 19 months since the end of the second Gulf War, Saudi Arabia has emerged as America’s principal client in the Middle East, a vassal state supporting the finances of Washington’s poorer allies in the region – Egypt, for example – while buying off the suspicions of those less enthusiastic about American policy in the region, especially Syria. The desire of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for new American tanks, fighter-bombers and anti-aircraft missiles is now as urgent as Israel’s. Indeed the post-war clamour for weapons on the part of the Gulf states is going to play an essential role in the future of the US arms industry.
In return for American fire-power and political support, Saudi Arabia has become Washington’s bank roller. One of her favourite sons, the Lebanese-born Saudi billionaire, Rafiq Harir, has become prime minister of Lebanon, the Arab nation in which America suffered her most violent humiliation. Harir accepted the appointment only after discussions between Riyadh and Washington. Now Saudi cash is to flow into a land hitherto synonymous with suicide-bombers and kidnapping. Ten per cent of the ruined centre of Beirut is to be owned by Mr Harir, who has promised to rebuild the city as a capitalist megalopolis, complete with luxury hotels, conference centres and marinas. America will have no more problems with Lebanon, or, if the Saudis have anything to do with it, with any other Arab nations in the Levant or the Gulf. Why, then, should there be any surprise when the Americans no longer hide the nature of their relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Predictably, an embittered Prince Khaled has launched a series of attacks on the hitherto ‘respected’ Schwarzkopf, accusing him of concocting stories and distorting facts ‘to give himself all the credit for the victory over Iraq while running down just about everyone else’. Poor Khaled. Did he really believe that the Americans would accept him as a four-star general alongside the Schwarzkopfs and the de la Billières? Typically, he failed to object to one of the most offensive passages in Schwarzkopf’s book, perhaps because he failed to understand its implications. Readers are now invited to spot the insult:
Khalid [sic] was ideal: he’d been educated at Sandhurst, the British military school, had attended the US Air Force Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, held a master’s degree in political science from Auburn University, and was the highest-ranking prince in the Saudi Armed Forces. His military credentials were nowhere near as important as his princely blood, since almost all power in Saudi Arabia resides in an inner circle of the royal family. Simply put, unlike the other generals, Khalid had the authority to write cheques.
Cheques for transportation. Cheques for water. Cheques for fuel. This is why Prince Khaled was important. For the Gulf War, after massive arms purchases from the West had discredited George Bush’s promise to reduce the level of weapons in the Middle East, ended as a net profit to the Western alliance, fought by young men from Glasgow and Detroit but paid for by the man who likes to call himself the ‘Guardian of the Two Holy Places’, Prince Khaled’s uncle, King Fahd. Could two such partners show each other anything more than mercantile respect?
Curiously enough, the commanders of the two largest Western armies in the Gulf spend a good deal of their memoirs trying to persuade us that they do ‘respect’ the Arabs and the Muslim Middle East. Schwarzkopf, for example, speaks lyrically of his boyhood life in non-Arab Iran, where his father, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf Senior, was commander of the Shah’s gendarmerie. He forgets to mention that his father, along with Kim Roosevelt of the CIA, was one of the two Americans primarily responsible for the overthrow of the legal Prime Minister of Iran, Mohamed Mussadeq. Visiting the Gulf as head of the US Central Command in 1989, he claims to admire the Arab way of life, hunting with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in the Emirates, even dressing up in Kuwaiti robes for dinner. His Arab counterparts welcomed him into their palaces and mosques, Schwarzkopf writes, ‘now that they knew of my fascination with their culture’.
General Sir Peter de la Billière, Britain’s commander in the Gulf War, seems even more smitten with Arab ‘culture’. ‘I liked and respected Arabs and understood their way of life,’ he announces. ‘I came to appreciate the Arabs well, to appreciate their fine culture.’ A few pages later, he is boasting again of ‘my understanding of Arabs and their way of life’. Yet a good part of de la Billière’s previous service in the Middle East had involved hunting down Arabs as an officer in the SAS. In Oman, he says, he failed to ‘eliminate’ (i.e. kill) or capture the three dissident leaders but succeeded in forcing them into exile. At Wadi Rawdah, the SAS attacked two guerrilla strongholds and ‘effectively put them out of business’. Curiously, de la Billière does not choose to mention the Iranian Embassy siege in London when the SAS – of which he was then the Director – broke into the building, rescued the civilian captives held there and then proceeded to execute all but one of the Arab hostage-holders.
What is one to make of all this? Perhaps it is necessary, so many months after the Gulf War, to romanticise the relationship between the West and the Arabs, between Christians and Muslims, unconsciously to simplify and reconstruct the reasons the Western armies embarked on their Gulf crusade. President Bush inaugurated this romantic mythology with his talk of a New World Order – a world free from aggression – and followed it with a promise to the Arabs to settle the Arab-Israeli wars. The first proved a short-lived vision which ended in Bosnia, the second a long-drawn out process of humiliation for the Palestinians, most of whom will never be allowed the ‘right of return’ and none of whom seems likely to obtain a state.
Should we be surprised at this, however, when the very generals who led the Allied armies in 1991 appear so remote from the political realities of the Middle East? General Schwarzkopf, who at least understood the need for America to maintain its relations with the Arab world, states that one of the war’s principal aims was to ‘eliminate Iraq’s ability to threaten the Arab world’. Millions of Arabs are still cynical enough to believe that the war’s real aim was to eliminate Iraq’s ability to threaten Israel, which, given the enormous effort to destroy mobile Iraqi Scud missile-launchers – US and British special forces operatives were fighting and dying deep inside Iraq in an effort to stop the Scuds being fired at Israel – may not be far from the truth.
The facts about the human results of the war are still denied us by the generals, even if the sufferings of a few selected groups of men and women are revealed. Thus the brutality meted out to the Kuwaitis by Iraqi occupation forces is dutifully catalogued. But the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kuwait that followed the war – the killing of hundreds and the wholesale deportation from their homes of tens of thousands of Palestinians by Kuwait while Allied forces still maintained a massive presence in the country – is totally ignored by Messrs Schwarzkopf and de la Billière. Indeed, Schwarzkopf has only three references to Palestinians in his book, the second of which shows an insensitivity which might well have provoked Prince Khaled.
It records a conversation between the General and the Prince on the day Israeli police slaughtered 21 Palestinian civilians outside the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Schwarzkopf ‘cautioned General Khalid not to be too quick to condemn America’s historic support of Israel, particularly just after the American people have absorbed ten accidental deaths incurred while defending Saudi Arabia’. That Schwarzkopf could compare a series of military accidents – however tragic – with what was, in effect, a massacre shows just how far removed from reality was his ‘fascination with Arab culture’. For it is not just the immensely wealthy Gulf Arabs who have a culture. The Palestinians have one too. So even do the Iraqis, only faintly reflected in the Allies’ determination not to damage holy sites in Iraq.
Who, for example, were the Iraqis incinerated at Mutla ridge, the infamous ‘highway of death’ north of Kuwait City? I met some of the survivors of these horrific American raids, as prisoners in Kuwait and later in Kurdistan. Most of them were conscripts, many from the Kurdish and Turkoman communities in Iraq. Several were Armenian. One Kurd I met had endured the Mutla ridge firestorm and escaped back to Iraq only to find himself homeless in the mountains of the far north when the Kurdish uprising – encouraged by the Allies – was so ruthlessly crushed by Saddam.
These people, too, had their ‘way of life’, their ‘culture’, and were, in their way, as much the victims of Saddam Hussein as were the Kuwaitis. True, Schwarzkopf and de la Billière – the latter with Boy’s Own Paper relish – condemn Saddam. Saddam is ‘a brutal dictator who ruled through fear and treated human beings as expendable pawns in pursuit of his own ambition’, de la Billière thunders. Readers who doubt the cruelty of Saddam’s regime can, of course, read Republic of Fear, Samir al-Khalil’s study of Iraqi terror, or even the account of torture and brutality inflicted on two RAF pilots after their capture in 1901. But the truth is that Saddam was allowed to rule his people in this way because the Gulf Arabs – our allies in the war – and we ourselves wanted to keep him in power (until he was inconsiderate enough to invade Kuwait). Thus we find de la Billière talking of Saddam’s war against ‘expansionist Iran’ when in fact it was Saddam who was expansionist. It was Iraq which invaded Iran, not the other way round.
So much for understanding the ‘Arab way of life’. If ‘respect’ there was for the Arabs, it was heftily squandered when de la Billière made his jubilant demand at the war’s end – as the corpses of tens of thousands of Iraqi Muslim soldiers lay across Kuwait and inside Iraq – that British people should ‘get out there and ring the church bells’.
It is necessary, at shameful moments like this, to return to the reasoned, thoughtful work of Mohamed Heikal who remarked in Illusions of Fear, his own account of the Gulf War, that among Arabs, ‘a profound sorrow over the destruction of Iraq was felt, in countries which participated in the coalition no less than in those which did not, and a sense of humiliation caused by the American management of the crisis overwhelmed all other aspects of the war.’ In the Arab world, Heikal makes clear, there is no democracy and little freedom of the press. The wealth and privilege which the Arabs gained from oil – the substance, of course, for which the Allies actually went to war – was largely invested in the West.
Could it be, perhaps, that the Arabs now have a clearer vision of the Gulf War and what it represented than the West? They, after all, have watched the tragedy of their fellow Muslims in Bosnia with a far greater sense of involvement and a far more tragic understanding of what this means for them. To an Arab, the New World Order was a trick. Yet can even we fail to notice how swiftly Britain sent the 7th Armoured Brigade to Saudi Arabia, and how slow it has been to despatch a mere two thousand soldiers of the Cheshire Regiment to Bosnia? Can we remain blind to the larger geographical comparisons, to the lack of will on the part of America – indeed, of the entire West – in the Balkans, scarcely a year after Allied troops liberated Kuwait? What happened to the world ‘free from aggression’ for which Schwarzkopf’s and de la Billière’s men fought? Prince Khaled, we are told, is now writing his own account of the Gulf War, thankfully with the help of a British journalist rather than an American public relations man. We may expect no revelations of Saudi royal thinking. We will certainly find no criticism of Islam. But his recent treatment at Schwarzkopf’s hands just may produce a book on the Gulf War which is worth reading.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.