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How WikiLeaks Has Turned The Arab World Inside Out

Leaked diplomatic cables reveal feigned amity, eagerness for the U.S. to take on Iran

Arab leaders eye Iran's Ahmadinejad (Daniella Zalcman)


While its founder makes bail in London, WikiLeaks' revelations are setting off a unique game of truth and consequences in the Arab world, where leaders are used to playing up their brotherly ties for the sake of Arab and Muslim unity.

Nearly every Arab government has been caught in the transcripts revealing policy stances – and points of view -- they would never have uttered publicly. Turns out that many Middle East leaders regularly feign friendship amidst rather clear regional divisions, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians lined up against Qatar, Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.

Beyond the cringe-worthy personal details (who knew that Libyan leader and ardent African nationalist Muammar Gaddafi has a blonde Ukrainian nurse by his side?), the broader impression that some Arab regimes generally distrust, if not loathe each other, is not new. What WikiLeaks reveals is how acutely aware American diplomats are of the risks of anachronistic national leaderships that continue to resist reform.

Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm reported, for example, explanations of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak's waning popularity: "shortages of basic foodstuffs, external political pressures and crackdowns on political adversaries." Civil society crushed, fraudulent elections played out for a media muzzled by press laws, restrictions of personal freedoms, intelligence services that operate outside the law – all handily acknowledged only in private (until now) by American diplomats. An Al Arabiya online article cites an American State Department acknowledging that the cables would cause "major damage," and that rebuilding trust with foreign officials would be a challenge.

The cables also reveal that while Arab leaders are fighting reform at home, they are privately pushing the U.S. militarily to stave off the perceived threats of Iran and Hezbollah. The Now Lebanon website reports that Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr was cited in one correspondence offering advice to American officials on how Israel could defeat Hezbollah. He added a pledge to keep the Lebanese army out of the fighting, perhaps the most dangerous revelations yet to emerge in a country where Hezbollah has threatened unspecified action if its members are convicted by a UN-backed tribunal in the February 2005 killing of Rafiq Hariri.

Jordan's King Abdullah appears to be punching above his country's weight, repeatedly imploring the United States to attack Iran. One cable-writer describes

Amman's actual position on Iran as an "octopus' with tentacles that "reach out insidiously to manipulate, foment and undermine the best-laid plans of the West and regional moderates." Following the cable's publication, an unnamed government official denied the report to The Jordan Times, saying that Jordan rejects "any military action against Iran." The King subsequently stated that he is now looking for "practical steps' to improve ties with Iran and has been invited to visit Tehran.

Regional leaders are still reeling from the fallout, and wonder if the revelations will hinder their ability to carry out foreign policy in the future. "If diplomats and leaders can't exchange their views freely on the matters that affect them, then we are all in trouble," senior Saudi royal family member Prince Turki al-Faisal told a conference of leaders from the Persian Gulf region. In especially vivid language, WikiLeaks reported the Saudi desire to target Iran, as King Abdullah privately urged the United States to "cut the head off the snake" on the other side of the Gulf.

American Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly left for the Gulf where he had a series of meetings in which he softened the snake comment into "general support in the region for applying the sanctions to Iran and for doing what we can to make the sanctions effective."

In Yemen, longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh joked about covering up the fact that the United States is using access to his country to bomb what may or may not be Al-Qaeda militants. Another cable stated that Saleh is using American-trained special forces and equipment against Yemeni rebels in the north. "The key is getting in there before there's a crisis, with economic assistance, with building partnership capacity," Gates said when asked about what could be done in Yemen.

The poorest Arab country with an estimated $1300 per capita income, Yemen has some 350,000 internally displaced persons who had their UN food rations cut in half this past spring because international donors failed to fulfill their pledges. Meanwhile, a weakened government is fighting its own heavily armed people in long-term wars in the north and south along with a flourishing Al-Qaeda presence.

However embarrassing or damaging the WikiLeaks cables are, the Arab world is a region that desperately needs more people to speak frankly, in both private and public.

Kristen Gillespie


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