Oil is one thing - unity is another

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Wednesday, November 8, 2000 Neighbors

Oil is one thing - unity is another

By Zvi Bar'el

"The leaders in Baghdad have become a gang instead of a government and the revolutionary regime is a regime of exploitation and domination. From a regime that worked to serve the Arab nation they have developed into a gang that threatens it and is wasting its resources. This is what the Iraqi regime has given the Arab nation: It has committed aggression against its Muslim Arab neighbors; it has ignored the Zionist enemy; it has wasted the economic resources of the Arab nation and has spilled oil in Kuwait's drinking water; it has set fire to Arab oil wells - not Israeli ones; it has harmed human rights ... It suffices to say that the Arab nation was on the brink of complete unification until the Iraqi regime rose up against it and smashed this opportunity when it invaded Kuwait and since then the fate of the Arab nation has changed and not gone back to where it was. Toppling the Iraqi regime is the first step not only in the liberation of the Iraqi nation but also the liberation of the Arab nation as a whole, which because of this regime has fallen captive to Israel and Zionism.".This is not a quotation from the annual report of the Kuwaiti or Saudi government. Dr. Abd Alathim Ramadan is one of the most important publicists in Egypt, who publishes his column in the weekly "October." This strong attack on Iraq, in which he described in two closely printed pages all of Iraq's sins, was written before the events on the Temple Mount, before he imagined that Egypt would host the Arab summit conference, in which one of the participants was the deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Council, Izzat Ibrahim, who invited the Arab states to embark on a jihad (holy war) against Israel.

Attacks in the Arab press on the Iraqi regime are nothing unusual, even in Egypt, which tries to keep up the appearance of being fair to all the Arab states. But when such things are published at a time when Jordan has announced its intention to renew its trade agreement with Iraq, and when in the month in which the article is published the prime minister of Jordan is making the first visit by an Arab head of state to Iraq and calling it "Jordan's strategic rear," when Syria is planning to re-open the oil pipeline from Iraq that was shut down in 1982, when Turkey is talking about repairing the railroad line to Baghdad and when Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Harazi is visiting Baghdad for the first time - it is possible to cast doubt on that Arab unity that tried to look so good at the summit conference.

The case of Jordan is the most interesting example. Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abu al- Ragheb returned last week from his historic visit to Baghdad with a fistful of contracts that will bolster the kingdom's shaky economy. Among other things, Iraq will sell Jordan oil for $20 a barrel (as opposed to the market price of about $33 a barrel); Jordan will get an oil grant worth $300 million; the extent of trade between the two countries will increase from $300 million a year to about $450 million; an oil pipeline will be built from Iraq to Jordan that will end at Zarqa in Jordan; Iraq will make greater use of the Aqaba port, where the Jordanian authorities have already ordered a cut in port taxes and service charges for Iraqi goods, and in the meantime Jordan is also planning to operate regular air service between Amman and Baghdad with the Jordanian national airline.

A large portion of these agreements were made according to the rules stipulated by the UN sanctions committee. At the time, Jordan was granted special permission as compensation for the large debts that Iraq left in Jordan. Before the Gulf War, the Jordanian government had acquired Iraq's debts to Jordanian merchants and manufacturers. It compensated the merchants from the state coffers and it is charging this to Iraq in oil and other benefits. Jordan also got special permission for the flight of the plane carrying the Jordanian aid mission and it informed the United States of its intention to hold the visit of the Jordanian prime minister to Iraq. However, even though these are legitimate agreements, or at least agreements that do not constitute real violations of the sanctions policy, the grandiose way in which they were executed carries an unambiguous message: Not only will Jordan pursue its interests to the full in its relations with Iraq, it is also the country that will serve as an example to other Arab states. While the others are demonstratively sending airplanes to test the limits of violating the sanctions, Jordan is sending its prime minister.

And this is the healthy anomaly in the Middle East. A week before this visit to Baghdad Jordan signed a free trade agreement with the United States and thus became the fourth country in the world that is partner to such an agreement, along with Israel, Canada and Mexico. This agreement could well be of great commercial significance if European or Japanese firms decide to transfer production to Jordan to enjoy preferential trade conditions with Jordan along with the cheap work force. The Israeli manufacturers who are operating in Jordan will also no longer need to transport raw material and finished products back and forth from Israel to Jordan and back to Israel again in order to export to the United States and benefit from the free trade agreement with Israel. The United States saw no contradiction between the trade agreement it has signed with Jordan and the trade agreement Jordan has signed with Iraq. The American consideration was a diplomatic one and was aimed at supporting a country that has signed a peace agreement with Israel, in a situation in which the United States needs every Arab vote that will support its policy in the region.

The interesting aspect is that Iraq, too, did not see any contradiction between signing a trade agreement with Jordan and the fact that Jordan has a peace agreement and a trade agreement with Israel. According to Jordanian sources, Jordan was not asked to make any political concessions in return for the agreement in Iraq, "which evinced understanding for Jordan's special status." Iraq, the representative of the Arab jihad against Israel, is imposing limitations only on Jordanian companies that operate jointly with Israeli companies, but the Jordanian businessmen have found ways to bypass this.

"It may be argued of course that were the trade agreements between Jordan and Israel operating at a higher volume, and Jordan were able to export more to Israel and the territories of the Palestinian Authority, we would not need this connection with Iraq. But this is a ridiculous claim," says a Jordanian businessman with extensive trade connections to Israel. "Jordan's connection with Iraq is a historical relationship, but beyond this Iraq has advantages that the Israeli and Palestinian markets don't have. Quality control, the easy passage without security checks and the possibility of making barter deals for goods in exchange for oil with government guarantees, all make the Iraqi market into an especially attractive one, and when a country has to make and provide a living you bypass political considerations if they constitute an obstacle. Jordan has made its contribution to the Palestinian issue, like all the Arab states, and now it has to feed the two million Palestinians who live in its territory. If this living will come from Iraq, so be it, and if it will come from Israel or from the furthest corner of the world, so be it. You can talk from today to tomorrow about Arab unity, but when Lebanon imposes a tax of 107 percent on imports of Jordanian flowers into its territory, and the economic cooperation agreement between Jordan and Egypt is practically meaningless, the Arab states have no business telling us whether or not it is moral to cooperate with the Iraqi regime."

"It's true that there is seemingly a paradox here," says a source at the Jordanian Diplomatic Institute, who read Ramadan's article in the weekly October. "How is it possible to cooperate with a regime that led to the great split in the Arab nation when it attacked an Arab sister-state? But it must be recalled, if it may be said, that thanks to Saddam the great unification of the Arab states took place. This was the first time such a large Arab coalition was created on an Arab issue. Furthermore, thanks to that war most of the Arab states agreed to adopt the peace strategy and participate in the Madrid conference. Today, after Iraq has signed the trade agreement with Iraq and is wanting to expand its trade with Turkey, it may be said that it is indirectly joining the states that do not oppose the peace process. It has even adopted the decision to cancel the boycott of countries and firms that have relations with Israel, even if it is not declaring this outright."

The series of new agreements between Jordan and Iraq gives Jordan a new dimension as the leader in the process of reconciliation between the Arab world and Iraq. After the Jordanian prime minister visited Iraq, he set a precedent that other Arab leaders can imitate. No one will be able to complain if the president of Tunisia or the president of Yemen, Algeria or Lebanon, decides to visit Baghdad. Jordan has taken a step here that even the president of Egypt has not dared to take, and even with tacit American permission, without sanctions on the part of Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, and in coordination with Syria


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), November 08, 2000

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