The United Arab Emirates: "Americans Are Our Friends"

Article excerpt

Even before leaving Qatar, we had encountered some young men from the United Arab Emirates who politely asked our nationality. Informed that we were Americans, they broke into smiles and exclaimed, "That's good. Americans are our friends."

Beguiled at this almost forgotten echo of the century that preceded the creation of Israel, we didn't ask whether this was a reaction to Desert Storm, which saved the UAE from eventual Iraqi attack almost as surely as it saved Kuwait, or whether it resulted from President Bush's victory over "the one thousand lobbyists on Capitol Hill." In fact, both battles are intimately related.

If the US had joined with its Arab friends to roll back the illegal Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, and then continued to support the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the US soon would have had no Arab friends left. Nor would some of those Arab rulers who joined the United Nations coalition have ruled much longer.

President Bush's action was essential to vindicate the Arab rulers of Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the UAE as well as rulers of the many non-Arab Muslim states of Africa and Asia who joined the US-led coalition to liberate Arab Kuwait from Arab Iraq.

The young UAE government representative who meets us at the airport looks almost blank when we mention the smoke from Kuwaiti oil fields. His country, it seems, is now out of range. They've seen the smoke, but mostly shortly after the Iraqi withdrawal in which the oil wells were torched.

When we awake the next morning the sun is shining in a cloudless sky. The beaches that ring the island capital soon are full, as Abu Dhabi residents take advantage of the first days of fall when the air begins to cool enough to tempt people to leave their air-conditioned homes, and the water in numerous pools and the sea still is warm enough for pleasant swimming.

The United Arab Emirates, whose president is Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who also is ruler of Abu Dhabi, hosted both US Air Force and Naval personnel during the Gulf war. Being well out of range of Iraqi Scuds, however, and with the population centers in its seven associated emirates widely dispersed, it seemed less traumatized by the event than its Gulf neighbors. Its armed forces participated, on land, sea and in the air, but this September its officials seem more interested in talking about the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Headquartered in Abu Dhabi, with transactions worldwide of more than $1 billion daily, BCCI's management was largely Pakistani. Its charismatic Pakistani director had first come to Abu Dhabi in affiliation with the Bank of America, an association that ended many years ago. The appeal of BCCI, founded in 1972, to Muslim depositors was that of "Islamic banking," designed to comply with the Qur'anic injunction against usury--collecting interest on capital.

It was only in May 1990, however, that Sheikh Zayed was persuaded to invest sufficient state and personal funds in the bank to give Abu Dhabi a 77 percent ownership of BCCI. Bank officials told him that, although they had become the fastest-growing bank in the world, and certainly the largest Third World financial institution, they were in deep but temporary financial trouble. His intervention, they assured him, would protect jobs and economic development throughout the Third World, and the savings of Muslim depositors.

After assuming financial responsibility, Abu Dhabi authorities sought Bank of England approval for restructuring BCCI with three separate banks based in Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and London. The plan envisioned dismissing top BCCI managers and closing down many international operations.

No one, therefore, was more stunned than Abu Dhabi authorities at the July 5 Bank of England closure of BCCI in England, thereby putting at risk BCCI operations in 72 countries. One by one, officials in other countries have closed these down, freezing the accounts of small depositors.

As a British journalist pointed out, "there is no precedent in the world for liquidating a bank on charges of fraud which are still unproved." Governor Leigh Pemberton of the Bank of England, however, maintains that the action results from a report by Price Waterhouse, the bank's auditors, alleging "substantial fraud" in BCCI operations.

An Altruistic Intervention

People in the Gulf sympathize with Sheikh Zayed and Abu Dhabi officials, whose intervention was for altruistic purposes, and question the Bank of England action, which they believe unnecessarily put the assets of all concerned at risk. They consider it ill-timed and motivated by resentment that a Third World institution was penetrating fields long dominated by the West.

Islamic penalties for theft are stern, however, and there is no doubt that BCCI managers are facing tough questions in Abu Dhabi. They have been released from detention and dismissed from their jobs. Some have been deported, while others must remain in the UAE as an army of accountants sifts the records in BCCI's Abu Dhabi headquarters. As visiting US journalists have remarked, the view of the matter from the Gulf is quite different than that from the US.

On our first working day in Abu Dhabi, a UAE official is watching a CNN weekend news roundup in his office. It reminds American visitors of just one of the many problems of US-Middle East relations. The western weekend is Saturday-Sunday. The Arab weekend is Thursday-Friday. On only three days of the week are offices in both hemispheres open. Even on those three days, however, offices in the UAE, which is eight hours ahead of New York or Washington and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles or Seattle, are closed before offices open in the United States.

As the CNN announcer describes preparations in the US to send Patriot missile batteries, armed helicopters, aerial tankers and even attack aircraft back to Saudi Arabia, the UAE official says firmly, "They are welcome." It's a far cry from the secretive attitude of a year ago, when US servicemembers, told to keep their voices down and their uniforms out of sight, huddled at crowded tables in Abu Dhabi hotels, halting conversations in mid-sentence when strangers, even two elderly American visitors, passed within earshot.

Nor is this UAE official's confidence mere bravado. A veteran of Middle East wars, he was enrolled at the American University of Beirut until 1973, when the civil war in Lebanon forced most foreign students to withdraw. Ironically, he returned in 1976 as an officer in a UAE brigade that was part of the Arab League force dispatched with US blessing to halt the fighting that threatened, literally, to push the Lebanese Maronite forces into the sea.

While on occupation duty with the largely Syrian force, he re-enrolled in AUB and took the degree which, along with his excellent AUB-acquired English, is the key now to his rise in the UAE civil service.

In the 1960s, spectacular construction and economic development in Kuwait was the Arab world's answer to unfavorable comparisons with Israel. Now, all of the oil-producing countries of the Arabian peninsula and Gulf are setting annual records for improved GNP, personal income, and educational and health standards.

Building an Earthly Paradise

In one respect, however, Abu Dhabi is unique even on the Gulf fast track. Its ruler set out deliberately, a generation ago, to transform one of the bleakest stretches of salt-encrusted desert in the world into an earthly paradise. Starting with a spectacular seaside corniche with landscaped walks, parks and fountains bordering a capital city yet to be created, he willed a sparkling, sprawling downtown of skyscrapers into being within a decade.

Even more astonishing is the carpet of green within and surrounding his city. Trees, flowering shrubs and lawns link the modern buildings. A 100-mile drive inland from the capital is almost surreal. The divided highway is lined, for the entire distance, by curtains of foliage. Corridors of bougainvillea are interspersed with oleanders and, near the coast, carpets of flowering plants.

Date palms, indigenous drought-resistant trees and shrubs, and towering eucalyptus trees form a backdrop to the flowers lining the road for the entire distance.

A decade ago, this landscape was alive with laborers from all over Asia watering these instant flowering forests by hand. Now, drip irrigation systems wind for miles along them and the army of laborers is busy planting new trees rather than maintaining old ones. Where once the foliage along the roads created little more than narrow leafy corridors winding across the flat desert and into rolling, sand-covered hills, now it backs up to vegetable gardens, orchards and forested greenbelts.

Long-haul heavy-duty German-made trucks ply the back roads laden with plastic sacks containing tons of chemical fertilizers, by-products of the burgeoning petrochemical industries clustered around the oil fields. These fields now are producing some 2,300,000 barrels of petroleum a day, making the UAE OPEC's fourth largest producer.

The Israelis drained swamps to create gardens among existing Palestinian orchards, and planted forest trees part way up hillsides previously used by the Palestinians for grazing. But there was little net gain in the population of Israel-Palestine, other than that normally associated with high Middle Eastern birthrates. In the UAE, however, the desert truly has been made to bloom, and there are cities and date plantations where before there was nothing but an ever-shifting sea of sand.

The UAE portion of the bi-national city at the end of the forested corridor is called Al Ain. The portion called Buraimi is in Oman, a separate sovereign state and GCC member. Cars and people from both countries cross back and forth without hinderance. Similarly, there are no customs posts or physical barriers among the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates, or obstructing passage to or from the several of them that border Oman.

In no other member of the United Arab Emirates has so much care and money been lavished on greenery. However, beautiful and modern Dubai, ranged around a picturesque harbor; its neighbor, Sharjah; and Ras Al Khaima, easternmost of the seven emirates and bordered by the Jebel Al Akhdar (Green Mountains), offer clean, unspoiled beaches and all the physical amenities of major, modern cities.

What was, until the early 1970s, one of the most remote corners of the world, now attracts not only a year-round tide of American, European and Asian business-people, but also a rapidly increasing winter tourist traffic from Europe.

As the UAE government official remarked, "things are happening" during our visit. For two days the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental Hotel is filled with polite but tight-lipped US military personnel, clutching their walkie-talkies and guarding newly-appointed General Joseph B. Hoar, successor to "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf as commander of the US Central Command in Florida.

The Marine general is making his initial courtesy calls on UAE officials and, as we later learn from the newspapers, at the same time his staff is preparing a new target list for possible air strikes if Iraq does not stop obstructing teams of UN inspectors looking for nuclear weapons facilities. As was the case last year, we find that the State Department political adviser newly-assigned to his staff is an Arabic language specialist with whom both of us have served in embassies overseas. Unlike members of the Schwarzkopf entourage we encountered in the area last year, however, this group is in civilian clothes rather than desert camouflage.

Ironically, on the last two days of the American group's visit, the hotel also fills with Iranians accompanying their deputy foreign minister, Ali Mohammed Besharati, conveying a message from neighboring Iran, with which the UAE traditionally has retained close commercial and uneasy political relations.

Unmistakable Uniforms

As unmistakable as the American desert fatigues of a year ago is the uniform worn by the bearded young Iranians--white shirts worn under Western-style suits, but never ties. Like the muscular young Americans, the dark-suited Iranians move mostly in groups and frequent the dining rooms, where all hover lovingly over lavish buffets that would do credit to chefs in the most luxurious American and European hotels.

Fellow guests in the hotel include former world heavyweight champion Mohammad Ali and two colleagues. Mohammad Ali being a common name in the area, Arabs call the former Cassius Clay "Mohammad Ali Cly-ee." He is in the UAE to invite its ruler to open the newly constructed Zayed Islamic School in Chicago, for which, according to local newspapers, Sheikh Zayed contributed $9.5 million to the youth foundation established by America's famous convert to Islam.

One night, enjoying a sudden relatively cool wind, we take a stroll through the hotel's private marina. On the beach are dozens of young men and women enjoying a noisy barbeque. Aha, we think, here at last are the seemingly mild-mannered American forces at raucous play. On approach, however, their accents reveal that the revelers are the British accountants who have descended en masse to investigate BCCI.

Meanwhile, over the Islamic weekend, the war scare subsides. The 44 UN inspectors in Baghdad are spared a fourth night sleeping in their besieged buses. US planes en route to Saudi Arabia bearing armed helicopters are recalled in midflight.

The UAE officials upon whom we call to say good-bye seem just as pleased with the arrival of the delightful fall weather as with the fact that war is averted, at least for the time being. Perhaps they suspect there will be other hot and sticky days, and more alarms from Iraq, before cool weather and tranquil times arrive in the Gulf to stay this year.

By now, however, they are fully aware of the momentous nature, in terms not only of US domestic politics but also of long-awaited Middle Eastern political and military stability, of the Bush administration's successful faceoff with Israel's American lobby. For the first time in our memory they express real interest in the US political system. They press us for details of how the Israel lobby, its 114 deceptively named political action committees, and its media allies managed to keep the US government at bay and the American people in the dark until they were challenged by a direct appeal from an American president to the American people.

Our interlocutors are baffled that members of Congress who quietly accepted campaign contributions from these stealth PACs in return for voting against their consciences and against the obvious desires and interests of their own constituents are not arrested.

It is unsettling to compare the swift detention of Pakistani bank managers, while their dealings in the UAE are probed for violations of the law, with the apparent indifference of our own government and media to documented circumvention of the law by the Israel lobby in the US. It signals an obvious contempt for democracy and the rule of law by US public servants and elected representatives.

Like the BCCI scandal, American democracy looks different when viewed from the Middle East. The laws of their own countries, hopefully, will release their frozen savings to thousands of small investors victimized these past four months by the machinations of BCCI managers and the bank regulators. International law, hopefully, will restore their human and civil rights to millions of Palestinians victimized these past four decades by the machinations of the Israel lobby and elected American officials.

Divine law, perhaps, will determine the punishments appropriate to both kinds of crimes.

Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. A separate article will examine the rise and fall of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

Photograph (Downtown Abu Dhabi)


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