Waiting for the other shoe

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Washington – In the political tug-of-war now under way between the Palestinians and Israelis during their uneasy ceasefire, the focus has slowly shifted to the other shoe that has yet to drop.

The Bush administration wants to tread softly lest it seriously jeopardise its vast oil interests and arms sales in the Arab world, despite repeated Arab urging that it adopt a more activist role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which, to date, has been seen as serving only Israeli interests.

Arab displeasure with American policies has been until recently mute. When the Arab summit was held in Amman in March, Arab expectations were high that the assembled leaders might make some pointed, if not harsh, criticism of the one-sided American position. But some Arab leaders were apparently still banking on the Bush administration to adopt a more even-handed approach.

The first public sign of disappointment came in the reported snub of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, who runs the day-to-day affairs of the oil-rich kingdom. He reportedly turned down an invitation from US President George W. Bush to visit Washington because of Washington’s failure to rein in the hawkish Israeli government.

When this failed to make any dent in the US administration’s stance, the Saudi monarch, King Fahd, followed through with a direct request to the US government “to put an end to this situation (in occupied Palestine) in which the enemy (Israel) is ignoring all principles pertaining to human rights.”

It is significant that King Fahd chose to make his remarks before the newly appointed members of the Shura, an important advisory council, on June 4.

Yet, the new Saudi slap coincided with an announcement that Saudi Arabia has just awarded, for the first time since the mid-1970s, several American oil companies, led by Exxon Mobil, contracts worth billions of dollars (between $17-$25) to develop large natural gas fields in Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the pointed Saudi remarks against US policy on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict came on the heels of reports that the Bush administration, unlike its predecessors, is not blaming oil-producing countries for the high gasoline prices in the United States. US officials are apparently hoping that oil-rich Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, will ultimately deliver more oil to the United States, effecting lower prices as the summer driving season begins here shortly. (Actually, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries or OPEC, which is meeting in Vienna this week, is expected to decide against pumping more oil to the world markets despite the onset of the summer driving season).

Of course, as the New York Times reported, the other motive for the low-key US approach against the OPEC cartel is also rooted in the Bush administration’s agenda for pet energy projects in the United States, such as the relaxation of environmental requirements to increase refining capacity or the opening of federal lands to oil drilling, although the US oil reserves are not abundant.

“The focus of the (American) charm offensive is clearly Saudi Arabia, the cartel’s largest producer and among the largest exporters of crude oil to the United States,” the Times reported June 4. “Last year, even before President Bush was elected, his father called on Saudi political and business leaders in Riyadh.”

On the other hand, Arab Gulf states were said here this week to be shifting “huge chunks of their national budgets away from buying weapons” from the United States. Defence News, which reported the survey, did not attribute this shift to any political considerations although this trend might figure prominently should Arab disappointment with the recalcitrant Bush administration increase.

Top officials from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have told Defence News that the initial steps to reduce arms purchases were meant “to improve relations with Iran and settle longtime border disputes” among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia has a security pact with Iran and Bahrain and Kuwait are expected to follow suit.

The weekly also attributed the shift to an intention to spend less on arms and more on building infrastructure, creating jobs and paying down the national debts – “a dramatic change in a region long known as one of the world’s most lucrative arms markets”.

According to the US Congress’ Congressional Research Service (CRS), the six GCC states have spent $55.7 billion on weapons between 1992 and 1999, the Saudi kingdom accounting for a little more than half of these arms purchases. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s military contracts have declined by half, from $1.4 billion in 1999 to $755 million in 2000.

Despite these vast American interests in the region, the Bush administration has yet to adopt chapter and verse the report of the fact-finding mission led by former Senator George Mitchell that called among other things for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction. More to the point, the administration has yet to raise a finger against the near-strangulation of the Palestinian population in the wake of the disco bombing last Friday that left 20 Israeli youth dead.

It may be Secretary of State Colin Powell’s military background that stops him from seeing these draconian Israeli measures of collective punishment against the entire Palestinian population as another form of harsh retaliation that is probably more devastating than a military strike.

The American secretary of state needs to expand his vision and see the whole region in the context of both American interests and a Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. Or else, havoc may spread should the other shoe drop.

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