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'What Went Wrong?' : Arab Power on the Wane Despite Oil

THE ARAB WORLD: First in a series

July 14, 1985|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The golden days of moneyed power have ended for the Arabs as suddenly as they began. Today, their influence is on the wane, and Arabs have entered a period of disillusioned self-examination, asking, "What went wrong?"

Just a few years ago, in the 1970s and the early 1980s, the Arabs were widely regarded as an emerging world power. Egyptian troops had crossed the Suez Canal. Oil sheiks had humbled Western economies. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of neighboring but non-Arab Iran had treated both the U.S. and Soviet governments with contempt and gotten away with it. The Lebanon-based Palestine Liberation Organization had become the world's best-known, best-armed, most prosperous guerrilla organization, a law unto itself.

Seemingly Illusory Dream

The 167 million Arabs embraced their decade of destiny with a cocky exuberance. Their history was one of men and deeds, not ideas, their dream one of power more than unity, and from the deserts of Arabia to the cities of the Maghreb, there began a frantic dash toward the 21st Century. It was a revolution of the spirit that cried out for ideas and unity. Without them, the dream built on money and religion was to be elusive and perhaps, it seems now in 1985, illusory.

Oil did not produce political power. The Camp David accords and other initiatives did not bring peace to the Middle East. Today, Lebanon is engulfed in self-ignited flames. Iraq and Iran are using poison gas and aerial bombardments to destroy each other. The Palestinians are in their third diaspora--first expelled from Israel in 1948, then from Jordan in 1970 and from Lebanon in 1982. Five wars with Israel have brought 3,000 square miles of Arab land under Israeli occupation but yielded not an inch of Palestine for Arabs. Khomeini, who briefly symbolized the hope of the Islamic revival, has become, in the eyes of most Arabs, little more than a scoundrel, a brutal old man who manipulates religion for political purposes. And the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, dominated by the Arabs, is unable even to agree on how to shore up world oil prices or how to maintain its own slipping share of the market.

"Nobody was ready for all the money that descended on us, and right now the Muslim world is a mess," said Bahrain's minister of development, Youssef Shirawi. "We accepted the manifestations of a modern civilization but refused its rulings. We accepted technology, for instance, but not science. People became confused, and they ran away to find comfort in Islam."

The Arabs, a tradition-bound people who prize conformity more than individuality, forgot that only two things made their region important to the Western nations--oil and the presence of Israel. They had little else to export, culturally or otherwise, that the world wanted, and when they lost control of the oil market and proved unable to destroy Zionism, a piece of their dream--and some of the world's attention--slipped away.

Today, all too often, it is only the religiously inspired fanatics who capture the headlines. Yet the crimes of terrorists--including the murder of at least 280 Americans in the Middle East in the last three years and last month's hijacking of TWA Flight 847 over the Mediterranean--do not reflect the tenets of Islam or the character of the vast Arab majority. Such actions, produced by the frustration and ignorance of a tiny minority, are regarded by many Arabs as a stigma on a society that values justice, compassion and tolerance as fervently as any other.

For most Arabs, this fanaticism represents further proof that secular systems have failed them. What they wanted was Western technology, but not at the cost of losing their Eastern identity or culture. What they now see is an Arab world drifting away from its heritage, awash in materialism and selfishness, and the vision makes them uneasy.

Turning to Religion

Confronted by the pressures of a Western-style, oil-induced modernity that challenged traditions and values, many Arabs are doing what other people have done in times of crisis: They are turning to religion.

The muezzins' call rolls from the mosques like thunder, summoning the multitudes with a message of hope:

God is great.

I testify that there is no God but one God.

I testify that Mohammed is His Prophet.

Come to prayers.

Come to success.

God is great.

No God but one God.

What the call to prayer promises is a return to simpler times and a "perfect" life for those who abide strictly by the revelations that Mohammed, then an illiterate merchant, is said to have received from Allah 13 centuries ago and set forth in the Koran.

For the orthodox, coping with modernity does not require intellectual development or imaginative solutions. Indeed, in Islamic institutions, the very word innovation is heresy, because nothing is new; all knowledge is in the Koran, and even modern science is viewed as something of an atheistic tool.

Differing Definitions

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