Osama bin Laden enjoys popularity with both the poor and the rich in the Arab world
“You’ve got to understand that those people are heroes. Street poets compose verses glorifying their courage. Those Muslims would long have been canonized if our governments hadn’t sold out for the Americans,” said a man dressed in white as he sipped at his coffee, which was served in a handmade silver cup. “Those martyrs sacrificed their lives for our happiness by launching a preemptive strike against America. The operation was an act of self-defense. Take a look at Iraq and Afghanistan: the infidels invaded those countries, spilling lots of blood of the innocent ones,” added he.
The conversation took place in a fancy restaurant in Doha, the capital of an oil-producing emirate of Qatar. I was speaking with a prosperous Saudi businessman who arrived in Doha to cut a deal… with a U.S. company. The businessman was referring to the “heroes” who carried out a large-scale massacre in New York on September 11, 2001. The Saudi businessman did not look like a bloodthirsty extremist ready to detonate a bomb. On the contrary, he looked rather elegant in his custom-made clothes. He drummed his fingers studded with diamond rings on the table as he calmly spoke about his brother who had gone to Iraq to fight against the Americans about a month ago. His son wants to follow suit but he has no combat experience, and therefore he is going to join the army to become duly trained for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
“Osama is well above all the saints for us”
Poverty-stricken populations in countries of the Middle East are thought to be a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism. The underdeveloped nations of the Middle East are alleged to be full of envy at the West for its high standard of living. The poor would stop joining terrorist organizations and begin building democracy in Western style once they become rich, according to some analysts. Well, the theory holds water to a certain extent. I remember an angry crowd of Afghans in a refugee camp in Peshawar shouting at the top of their voices: “Osama bin Laden is our father! The Americans believe he is a murderer but we see him as a saint, he is well above all the saints for us! Osama is digging water wells for us, he is buying medicine for our women, and he is giving away food to our children. He is a real Muslim, and we’re ready to die for him!” No matter how paradoxical it may appear, bin Laden’s popularity in the richest states of the Gulf region is even higher…
Qatar is a tiny monarchy that is absolutely loaded. It has vast reserves of oil and gas and a population of about half the million people. There are four foreign workers for each Qatari; two million foreign nationals work as taxi drivers, road sweepers and construction workers. A workday lasts five hours; offices empty in the afternoon. Doha is a beautiful city with lots of fountains and carefully planted palms along the wide avenues. Shortly after the start of the Iraqi war, U.S. military stationed in Qatar were instructed to refrain from wearing uniform in the street. “It’s best to look like regular tourists, without causing enmity of a local population,” read the orders. The Americans had never enjoyed much popularity with the people of the wealthy emirate in the past. Lately the overall attitude toward the U.S. has become a downright hatred. The 9/11 hijackers are privately referred to as the Magnificent 19, a local pun on the Hollywood classic Magnificent Seven. Although the possession of the pictures of those people can land one in jail, many a citizen keep the pictures (featuring the hijackers with the WTO Towers on fire at the background) at home next to the Koran.
“Mullah Omar has a penchant for the Hammer”
“To say that only the poor fight for Islam is complete bull,” said Muhammad, the owner of a shopping mall in Doha. “All of those nineteen heroes were born into very well-off families, they had everything in their lives yet they opted to die for the sake of the people. Lots of our businessmen, store proprietors and even military officers left for Iraq to fight. Qatar-based McDonald’s restaurants are packed with patrons. You can see the young people drinking Coca-Cola in the streets. They listen to Madonna and surf the Internet using the Windows software in Arabic,” added Muhammad. On the other hand, a love of American foods and pop culture does not mean a love of America.
“Bin Laden loves Coke too, and Mullah Omar adores Hammer SUVs, so what’s so special about it?” said the 18-year-old Abdallah, a son of a wealthy businessman, while giving me a lift in his Mercedes. “The point is that the Americans impose not only their goods on us, they also impose their life style. That’s why we’re going to fight against them until we kill them all,” added he.
Qatar aside, the people in Kuwait, a small emirate that was liberated by the U.S. in Operation Desert Storm from the Iraqi occupiers in 1991, show their approval for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to opinion polls. “They’re just as ungrateful as they can be,” said an official at the U.S. Army Press Office in Doha. “They got everything they wanted from us. And now they tell us to get lost right in our faces,” added he. According to a recent opinion poll conducted by a British think tank in Oman, Osama bin Laden would win a free and democratic election hands down should it be held in that country.
Will the oil prices skyrocket to $200 per barrel?
The Bush Administration apparently believed that they should spread American cultural values far and wide to defeat the enemy in terms of propaganda, the way they did in the time of the Soviet Union. Big Mac winning the war on terror, so to speak. However, U.S. propaganda did not seem to work in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries of the Gulf region. American jeans and colas have never been in short supply out there anyway. As it turned out, the poor in Sudan and Afghanistan do not pose a serious threat to the U.S. On the contrary, the wealthy businessmen in the Gulf monarchies are a clear and present danger because they furnish suicide bombers with petrodollars. The governments of those countries pledge their friendship to America, they allow U.S. forces to be stationed in their countries yet millions of their citizens took to the streets following the 9/11 attacks, chanting “Allah is great!” Many people in those counties celebrate the date as a holiday. Even the Arab oil tycoons who owe their prosperity to high oil prices believe that America buys the Middle East crude at far too low a price. “The infidels cut down oil prices on purpose so that they can rip us off and resell the crude to Israel. The true price of oil should be at least $200 per barrel,” some of the tycoons were quoted as saying. An ordinary Arab taxi driver points at the flag of the U.S. Embassy and tells me disapprovingly: “America is bad.” The rich Arabs seem to share the viewpoint. So the situation is even more dangerous because it is the rich who donate their dollars to pay for satellite phones, vehicles, modern weapons and state-of-the-art explosives used by suicide bombers in Iraq.
“We’ve been trying to corrupt them, but they’re really hard to corrupt,” sighed a press officer at a U.S. Army base and lit a cigarette. “U.S. Department of State launched the publication of a frivolous magazine called Hi!, which is targeted at the Arab youths. But they don’t read it, the sales are a disaster. Likewise, they don’t want to watch CNN in Arabic – everybody is watching Al-Jazeera instead. And all al-Jazeera seems to show is the footage featuring slain Iraqi children and dead bodies of U.S. servicemen. We’re losing the information warfare to Islamists and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said the officer.
The fact that Osama bin Laden and the jihad ideology are hugely popular both in a war-torn Iraq and the Gulf States awash in oil revenues does not get lots of publicity. It is thought that terrorist organizations mostly recruit penniless fanatics who are driven to despair by poverty. In other words, give them good jobs and they would never become suicide bombers. However, the case of the oil-producing monarchies of the Middle East indicates the opposite. Money or the lack of it is just part of the problem. But who is willing to admit it?
Arguments and Facts
Translated by Guerman Grachev