Terrorism and tourism

International | Potential war crosses the lines of tourism in the Middle East

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

Watch the horizon long enough from this brittle stretch of beachhead and you will see a U.S. warship steaming toward the Suez. High-powered binoculars could pick out which ship, but the U.S. Navy cuts a profile distinct to the naked eye from the tankers, freighters, and dive boats that otherwise dot the glassy blue expanse of water where the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez mingle to commence the Red Sea.

Ships under the U.S. flag are steaming up through the Suez Canal as the number of U.S. troops in the region continues to climb in advance of war with Iraq. Beachgoers, mostly Germans, Italians, and Russians on holiday, seem more interested in underwater coral. But for Egyptians, war preparations do not go unnoticed. Morning papers carry two standard photos: Saddam Hussein in some official pose, and new U.S. troop arrivals in the Middle East and Gulf states. The media keep daily tabs as troop levels near the 100,000 mark, along with a steady diatribe against war in Iraq.

U.S. military action against Iraq would "open the gates of hell," according to Al-Ahram newspaper. Editorial cartoons, too, are about just one thing. In one, a sheik trudges away with an oil barrel on his shoulder and a bullseye penned to his backside. Bulletholes pierce both the oil drum and the target. In another, a cowboy, looking decidedly Texan in boots and spurs, shows his hand to the Saddam Hussein look-alike at a cardtable. Every card reads, "War."

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Egyptians in the street uniformly oppose a war, but not based on rank anti-Americanism. For them it comes down to the economy. In countries where oil and other industries are largely state-owned, tourism is a time-honored source of revenue for the average Middle Easterner. Under the cloud of war, visitors are down. In Sharm El Sheikh, bellhop Magdi Ramez says he can't remember seeing Americans. "We are not all terrorists," he chides.

Egypt has the largest population and second largest economy (after Saudi Arabia) in the Arab world-and it is a treasure chest of antiquities. Foreign tourism, however, fell drastically after the Sept. 11 attacks. Most fear that with war overseas revenues will slide further. Already the Egyptian pound has lost about one-third its value against the dollar in just over two years.

"We rely on tourism, and it will not recover from a war in Iraq," said one hotel manager. "Therefore we are refusing this war."

Economic concern is one of the reasons heads of state are urgently shuttling across the region. Two weeks ago (Jan. 5) President Hosni Mubarak met Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul at this seaside resort. Both leaders have made tepid concessions to President George Bush on Iraq. Yet here, with rampant construction that includes a new Intercontinental and a new Sheraton resort, Mr. Gul voiced both countries' bottom-line concern: "A war will be very costly for the region."

-Mindy Belz in Sharm El Sheikh


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