Arabs view PLO, Arafat as big losers in Hussein's showdown with the West

January 09, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In Arab eyes, Saddam Hussein has won at least one battle against the United States: He has successfully implanted into public consciousness the idea of linking the Persian Gulf crisis to the fate of Palestinians.

Mr. Hussein wins on the publicity front. But thanks in part to him, the Palestinians lose. And among the biggest losers of all are the Palestine Liberation Organization and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, one of Mr. Hussein's few steadfast allies.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz has promised to raise the Palestinian issue today when he meets Secretary of State James A. Baker III in Geneva. If he does, Mr. Aziz will be waving the flag of a cause that, according to many Arabs, Iraq has grievously harmed.

"We don't think anybody who has done so much harm to other Arabs could do much good for the Palestinians," a member of the Saudi royal family said. "The Palestinians are desperate. They are like somebody who has been in the desert for 40 years and found a water cooler, but they don't realize it's empty."

In the five months since Iraq overran Kuwait, the PLO and the 5.5 million Palestinians living in the region have suffered their most severe economic and political reverses in years. They are being impoverished, while their cause, at least for the short term, has been marginalized; the goal of a Palestinian state has changed from the No. 1 regional problem to being a distant No. 2.

Most of the immediate effect has been to people's livelihoods. Tens of thousands of Palestinians working in Kuwait have lost their jobs and savings. Thousands more in other gulf states have come under suspicion as members of a potential Iraqi fifth column and in some cases have been ordered out.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, some Palestinian physicians have been dismissed by the Ministry of Health for no reason other than their nationality. The Ministry of labor has made it clear that no additional Palestinians will be granted work permits, in order to favor laborers from countries supporting the kingdom politically.

"The people left are on pins and needles," said a Palestinian who has worked here for many years. "The ministry is saying, 'If you want someone, get an Egyptian.' "

For lack of choice, Palestinians are returning to their families in Jordan or the Israeli-occupied territories, where many people already face economic ruin. Households there were dependent on the money relatives sent from their jobs elsewhere in the region, and people returning face slim prospects of finding full-time work.

Mr. Hussein initially convinced Palestinians that the best way to obtain an independent Palestinian state was to support his military adventures in the Persian Gulf. But the subsequent economic hardships are generating second thoughts.

"The general view is that he's got something wrong in his geography," said an Arab faculty member at King Saud University in Riyadh. "If he meant to help the Palestinians, he went the wrong direction."

Palestinian support for Iraq reflects a buildup of frustration with the West, which Palestinians complained was uninterested in their plight. Embittered by what they saw as a lack of attention, Palestinians were attracted to Mr. Hussein, an Arab leader willing to defy the West.

Mr. Arafat publicly staked the fortunes of the Palestinians to Iraq beginning in May. Frustrated by what the PLO saw as a lack of results from its talks with the United States, Mr. Arafat became Mr. Hussein's biggest public supporter.

Mr. Hussein hosted an Arab summit that championed the PLO, a meeting that encouraged Mr. Arafat to consider Iraq's military muscle a potential counterweight against Israel. Mr. Arafat also moved more of the PLO's bureaucracy to Baghdad and, according to Arab accounts, became more dependent on Iraq's financial support.

It was at private sessions during the Arab summit that Mr. Hussein began accusing Kuwait of stealing billions of dollars worth of Iraqi oil. Two and a half months later, Iraq invaded.

By siding with Iraq, Mr. Arafat has turned himself into a pariah elsewhere in the Arab world. While none of the governments has announced a change in official policy, Mr. Arafat has been barred from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the states that were the PLO's most important source of funds.

"Yasser Arafat was showing up every other day and then stabbed his hosts in the back," one professor said. "There was an understandable sense of betrayal."

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