Pragmatic politician speaks his mind

Jordan's former PM, Taher Al MAsri, argues that the US now has an opportunity to mend fences with Arab allies

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  May 6, 2003

|~||~||~|With the US-led war on Iraq winding down, attention is now focused on the future. With anti-American sentiment in the Arab world at its highest level in decades, the US will have to tread very carefully as it puts in place its post-war regime and turns its attention to the reconstruction of Iraq. With potentially very lucrative contracts at stake for the rebuilding of the country, speculation is rife about procedures for awarding the work, a situation fuelled by fears that the process will come down to favouritism by Washington. But the outlook need not all be doom and gloom, with some Arab businessmen optimistic that regional companies – not to mention US-Arab relations – will benefit. Arabian Business spoke with former Jordanian Prime Minister Taher Al Masri, now a member of Jordan’s upper house of parliament, about the reconstruction process and its political and economic implications for Jordan and the region.

“Yes it will be helpful. It will connect the new administration with many influential segments of Arab society,” says the former premier. “But I must warn that the rift is not between the American forces, or American [foreign] policy and Arab governments. The rift is between the Arab street and the Americans and the Arab street is not always concerned about such benefits or interests. In fact, the Arab street might look in a suspicious way towards such policies,” says Masri.

The rift, he says is much bigger and the anti-American campaign in this region, due to the Palestinian question and the Iraqi question, “is deeper in the history of the relations between this region and the United States.” The former premier emphasizes this is not only about Iraq but Palestine too. “So [awarding contracts to Arab companies] will help the governments in defending their policies towards Iraq. It could create a conducive atmosphere, but this is not the solution and this is not the remedy,” says Masri, a scion of a Palestinian family from the West Bank. “America, in addition to economic steps, has to take, more importantly, political steps—the resolution of the Palestinian question, democratisation, and leaving Iraq as soon as possible,” he adds.

But Jordan, where many people complain of a political malaise and a poor economic situation, might stand to benefit from post war construction. While he freely admits that Jordanian companies are much smaller in size, financial capacity and some times technical know how to compete in the Iraqi market, Masri believes Jordanian construction companies could get a piece of the pie, if they enter into joint ventures with foreign companies. “When it comes to consumer goods and pharmaceuticals they could benefit,” he says.

Masri says, the political future of Iraq should involve the United Nations. “There are forces close to the US pushing them to get the help of other institutions like the United Nations and the Arab League in order to absorb any pressure and mis-action on the part of the Americans,” says Masri. British Prime Minister, Tony Blair is on top of those people who are trying to do this and there are forces in America and especially the Pentagon who are resisting this, explains Masri. “I think at the end of the day the Americans will come closer to the British point of view and be the dominant political power…through the instalment of a pro-American government and the presence of a few thousand American troops.”

Such an eventuality may not bode well with Arabs. After Sept. 11, the US made a concerted effort to portray the American point of view through the Arab media, be it on Al Jazeera or through editorials. Yet Masri says it really amounts to very little at the end of day. “If we look at the state of the Arab street there is a terrible feeling of anger toward the US. The pictures that TV stations have been broadcasting, showing fire, destruction and so on, will absorb any kind of effort the Americans are putting,” he says. Referring to the year old US funded Sawa radio station, Masri says, “How can we believe that a light programmed radio station will sway us or convince us that the American picture is beautiful, when millions of Arabs have been watching for years now, what Ariel Sharon is doing in Palestine and the recent pictures coming out of Iraq? They should not kid themselves that this is working fine. The Arab street is terribly frustrated and angry at America and the effort should not be so superficial through an article, song, or encouraging an American way of life—it won’t work. We need political, economic, and social projects and solutions,” he explains.

A long American presence in Iraq will create problems, many observers contend. Masri agrees emphasising that “Iraq is a highly complicated political arena…surrounded by countries that would like to see the Americans go quickly.” In a compelling manner, he adds, “I think they should leave as soon as possible…countries surrounding Iraq already look on with suspicion towards the American presence. The Americans have already declared that they are here to reshape the map of the region,” referring to the US objectives revealed by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the US congress.

There is also something symbolic about the war in Iraq. “Baghdad was the capital of Arabs and Muslims for centuries and the capital of power and civilisation at the same time,” explains Masri. “To see American occupation forces no matter what they say—and they believe they are liberators—in the minds of everybody, they are an occupying force. To see them staying for a long time, is harmful to the American image and to the American purposes in Iraq and in the region,” he says.

When asked if he thought the Americans would deliver on their promise to leave Iraq and provide a much-awaited road map for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Masri did not seem too optimistic. “Our long history with them [Americans] does not promise that. We have experienced so many broken promises, so many betrayals on their part that we need to see actions not words. It is extremely difficult for all of us, to believe that a good and acceptable solution to the Palestinian question, which is the core of the problem in the region and not Iraq, will be solved according to Sharon’s wishes,” he said, “I certainly hope they keep their promise. We keep our fingers crossed and as I say I have to see it to believe it.”

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