"There are no legitimate regimes in the Arab Middle East." With this eye-opening first line, A Brutal Friendship promises something fresh; a Muslim Arab's insider's expose of the tyrannical governments that dominate his region. The previous book by Saïd Aburish, The Rise, Corruption and Coming Fall of the House of Saud, was an important, if over-the-top denunciation of the Saudi ruling family. And, indeed, here he does bitingly assess the regimes in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, plus the Palestinian Authority. As a free-lance Palestinian writer long resident in London, an independent-minded cosmopolitan who has made a reputation writing original books (including a full-length study on the bar at the St. George Hotel in Beirut!), Aburish is in a good position to document a sordid history that harks back to World War I.
But alas, his indictment is brief and superficial. Indeed, it only sets the stage for Aburish's true topic-finding a scapegoat for this dismal state of affairs. Here, to put it charitably, he is less than enlightening. His explanation for Arab tyranny dwells not on the foibles of Arab or Muslim culture, not on the premodern legacy of dictatorship, nor on the winner-take-all atmosphere that dominates politics in the Arabic-speaking countries. In fact, he has almost nothing to say about the motor forces of Arab life, for all his attention is focused outward.
Specifically, he indulges the usual Middle Eastern propensity to affix blame. Yes, nearly all the problems of the Middle East are due to a vast British and American conspiracy that aims to perpetuate what he calls "Western political hegemony" in the Middle East. At great length and with considerable feeling, he argues that the West does so not by relying on a mechanism so crude or transparent as direct rule, but by the much more clever technique of installing Arab puppets in power. Aburish has much to say on the texture of this relationship. He conjures up a scenario in which the Anglo powers instruct their Arab agents to keep the natives quiet by "suppressing and eliminating all opposition." The "brutal friendship" of the title consists of Arab stooges who "suppress their people to stay in power and use their control of their countries to provide a stability which serves Western political and economic interests."
The British and American governments are not alone in pursuing their greedy goals; Aburish also finds the oil companies complicit and he blames them for nothing less than the "moral degradation" of Arab leaders. Jointly, Western states and corporations brainwash their own populations and these, too stupid to see through the corrupt script of their leaders, respond by becoming rabid imperialists. Revealingly, the only Westerners Aburish praises for seeing through this vast deception are Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, two stars in the firmament of the conspiracist Left.
As for the Arab states, the author deems them nothing more than the West's "deputy sheriffs." Yasir Arafat, for instance, will never "be anything but a tool" in the West's hands. Or, more pungently: the present-day Arab elites are on the losing end of what he terms a "master-slave relationship." Aburish even sees Saddam Husayn in this light. Originally, "it was Western arms and financial support which made Saddam." Today, the Iraqi despot serves Western interests by maintaining stability within Iraq. However much of a bastard he may be, as FDR reportedly said of Batista, he's our bastard.
This "blame-the-West" perspective provides Aburish with a singular prism through which to interpret the contemporary Middle East. It causes Israel almost to disappear; however much Aburish loathes the Jewish state, he sees it as a fellow client of the West, and not a power in its own right. Blaming the West makes vanish the West's economic crisis resulting from the 1973-74 jump in energy prices. Western governments found that price rise "acceptable" because their Arab clients deposited the new money in Western banks and withdraw it mainly to purchase Western armaments - steps that negated most ill effects from the oil shock.
Blame-the-West assumptions also lead Aburish to the curious conclusion that Arabs are hopelessly passive. He finds the House of Saud so witless, he thinks it lacked the imagination to fund the Muslim Brethren on its own, but could only follow the CIA in doing so. By similar reckoning, the Kuwaitis have no real say over their oil production; it was a "US-inspired decision" that prompted them to pump so much oil in 1990 and led to the Iraqi invasion.
Finally, blaming the West leads Aburish to present a topsy-turvy version of the Middle East, where the good are bad, the bad are good. The West's allies he castigates as "hideous" and "abominable." To King Husayn, a perpetual Western favorite, for example, he ascribes "dictatorial inclinations." The Egyptian campaign against fundamentalist Muslims Aburish finds "unprecedented" in its violence, somehow overlooking the far greater force that adversaries of the United States have deployed against them (such as Sudan in 1970, Syria in 1982). Our author finds that Iraq's perpetual prime minister in the 1940-50s, a British favorite, was "arguably the most unpopular twentieth-century political leader" in the Arab countries, conspicuously denying this honor to Saddam Husayn. Quite the contrary: Aburish praises Saddam Husayn (even though a supposed Western lackey) for his "eradication of literacy, his health care programmes and his championing of women's rights."
And Saddam is only one of several enemies in whom Aburish discovers hitherto unrecognized virtues. He fondly remembers Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt for articulating a genuine Arab spirit of independence and democracy, establishing standards for "what is desirable, achievable and sensible" that still stand. This love affair with Nasser is so out of keeping with his outlook (plenty of conspiracy theorists see the Egyptian as a Western stooge) that one can only ascribe it the sentimental feelings associated with the author's memories from the heady days of his own youth (he was seventeen when Nasser reached power).
Aburish also approves of the fundamentalist Muslim movements - again, arbitrarily ignoring all those analysts who insist on seeing them as American agents. For no apparent reason, Aburish judges them legitimate. Indeed, they are the Arabs' one remaining hope: "Islam has emerged as the only force," he says, who are prepared to take on the West and its Arab lackeys.
For a fan of Nasser, a resident of London, and a cynic, Aburish shows a surprising sympathy for the fundamentalist program. When Walid Khalidi, an affiliate of Harvard and other establishment institutions, calls on the moderates of all religions to work for an equitable solution to the Jerusalem problem by banding together to fend off the claims of all extremists, Aburish dismisses Khalidi as the servile spokesman of elite interests. For the unvarnished truth, he turns to Muhammad al-Mas'ari, a raw Saudi fundamentalist who dispenses with Khalidi's niceties and flat-out claims all Jerusalem for Islam. Aburish not only endorses Mas'ari's goal but comments that there is only "one Muslim attitude towards Jerusalem" - total Muslim control of the city - and insists that this goal "it is shared by fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists alike."
To anyone not versed in matters Middle Eastern, the conspiratorial and extremist bent of A Brutal Friendship might make it seem like the slightly deranged musings of one out-of-touch intellectual. Unhappily, its outlook cannot so easily be dismissed. However outlandish his book may be, it represents the mainstream of Arab thinking, as expressed repeatedly by leading politicians, military officers, religious authorities, journalists, and academics. The central lines of his argument - that the Arab plight results from Western greed and hatred; or that Jerusalem belongs exclusively to Muslims - have great resonance on the Arab "street." Aburish may appear to inhabits the fringe of the Arab political spectrum, but he actually stands smack at its center.
Therefore, however implausible his message, it needs to be taken seriously by all who hope to understand the Middle East. In polished and pleasant English prose, without euphemism, A Brutal Friendship makes available to the outside world what many Arab Muslims are currently thinking. The publication of this screed takes away one more excuse for Americans to ignore the murky currents of Middle Eastern thinking.
Those currents offer little basis for optimism. True, the illusions of Nasser's day, when vast numbers of Arabs thought they could gain world-straddling power through domestic socialism, alliance with the Soviet Union, and the destruction of Israel, have died. But nostalgia for that period remains strong, a reluctance to take responsibility for oneself is still weak, and the reliance on elaborate conspiratorial models stays widespread.
Bernard Lewis, the great scholar of Middle Eastern history, has often remarked that in the 1990s, "for the first time in centuries, the course of events in the Middle East is being shaped not by outside but by regional powers. . . . The choice, at last, is their own." To which those of Aburish's conspiracist mentality perversely reply: No thank you, we don't want this power, but prefer to remain subject to the phantasm of Western imperialism.