Nearly two decades after Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ posited theory predicted a “bloody” clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations and a prudent relationship gave way to precariousness post 9/11, it is ironically the Arab ruling elite though that continues to be the exception today. But, to what rule you ask? The Arab-Western rapport (i.e. as defined between the people of the two cultures) has generally been one mired with distrust and suspicion following the US led “War on Terror”. There have been countless stories of Muslims harassed, visas rejected or conversely, of Westerners targeted, bomb scares and a general sense of xenophobia. From a stereotypical projection of all Muslims as being ‘terrorists’ without understanding or making distinctions amongst them to a general perception of all “Americans” being evil, both sides can be seen making judgement calls that aren’t necessarily based on facts. However, regardless of this tumultuous liaison on the ground, Middle Eastern rulers seem to be actively working to prove Huntington was wrong; at least as far as the elites are concerned.
With strong political, business and personal ties, most Arab leaders actually have a “cozy” relationship with the West; a fact that is pointed to repeatedly in light of what many refer to as ‘America’s double standards’. The country is seen to make exemptions time and time again when it comes to its key allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, particularly on the question of democracy. This association though does come at a price and it is one that Said Aburish calls, a ‘Brutal Friendship’-one largely dictated by America and Europe. Be it the Cold War or now the War on Terror, Saudi Arabia has played a significant role alongside the US politically and financially since having first established diplomatic relations in 1933 in return for the unequivocal support of a super power. The West has on its part taken a keen interest to sustain the friendship in order to carve itself a niche in the Middle East with a strong military and trade presence as well as to have an influential Islamic voice on its side. It is hence a collaboration that is beneficial to all involved; whether or not to equal degrees though is a matter of contention. These ambiguities have nonetheless not stopped the rulers of countries like the UAE, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain from fostering amicable relationships with the West as well, based on mutual interests including trade and international relations.
More than strategic political alliances though, I believe the interest of the latter in developing and maintaining links with Arab elites is openly acknowledged to lie in one three lettered word-“Oil”. Naturally endowed with rich petroleum reserves, the majority of oil supplied to Europe and America is from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia (over a million barrels/day to US markets), making it imperative to enjoy good relations with its rulers in a stable political environment.
Also, in the same vein the ‘oil factor’ is and has been central to personal relations between Saudi Arabian and American leaders particularly due to the business interests of government officials. From George Bush Sr. who owned Arbusto Energy to Dick Cheney, former head of Halliburton (an oil and infrastructure company), profitable oil ventures and collaborations have cemented these links in my opinion.
On the other hand, Arab countries too have benefitted from Western resources. Soaring skyscrapers, business organizations and city development plans are signs of the influence the West has had on the Middle East and its personal effect on these rulers. Many Arab elites have either studied abroad or travelled extensively and have inevitably brought back ideas as is most obvious in the UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. These then coupled with on the ground business partnerships further strengthen personal ties between rulers, many of whom fund projects planned by Western companies, and their heads of states. This added layer of corporate alliances is vital for the development of economies and investment exchange and forms an important node.
Coming back to Huntington though, let me remind you that he might not have been entirely wrong regardless of the amicable government level links that exist between the two sides. The Israeli-Palestinian issue continues to remain a problem between these countries that are continually trying to balance their diplomatic relations with Arab allegiances and the West- a staunch supporter of Israel. Moreover, amidst the recent events surrounding the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ and growing frustration amongst Muslims, it is becoming harder for these rulers to ignore the Palestinian situation and entails that unless Obama takes a step forward soon, things may not remain hunky-dory for too long.
Even so however, keeping in mind the dimensions and strategic depth of the relationships the Arab elites share with the West including for many, a way of thinking imbibed during their studies or travels abroad, it is highly unlikely that political and business relations between the two will ever unfetter even if strained. But, today, what is more important is to encourage links between not only governments or leaders but people and if Obama can pull through on this goal- “My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." Then hopefully someday the exception will become the rule.