Cover Story

THROUGH ARAB EYES

America gave her "blood and treasure," in the words of Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers, to free the oppressed people of Iraq. So why are we regarded as suspects rather than saviors?

Issue: "Iraq: After the rout," April 26, 2003

In the narrow, crowded alleyways of Doha's old souq, shoppers can find anything their hearts desire-provided they don't desire an American flag. From Barbie to Madonna and Rambo to Reagan, bits of Americana are inescapable and yet somehow inappropriate at the same time, crowded on shelves next to worry beads and black veils. Afternoon prayers waft from a nearby minaret like Gregorian chants in an open-air cathedral, but the mournful notes are practically drowned out by the latest 'N Sync playing on a boom box.

Hassan Sabeh roots around under his counter in search of the Stars and Stripes. His shop sells a bit of everything, including the flags of obscure little countries that most Westerners couldn't spell, much less find on a map. He did a brisk business in Iraqi flags before the war started-sold out, in fact, despite the Qatari government's close ties with the United States.

He admits that overdemand can't explain the absence of American flags from his shop, however.

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"No one wants to buy this flag," he says with a shrug. "Already America is everywhere in this country. I think people don't need a flag to remind them."

Indeed, the reminders are ubiquitous. If the souq attests to the relatively benign influence of American culture, the rest of the country-like the entire Gulf region-bears more ominous signs of American military might. Giant U.S. transport planes lumber constantly in and out of Doha's international airport, supplying the nearby base where thousands of Americans direct the war against an Arab neighbor. Hotels and restaurants swarm with Americans either involved in the war or covering it. And over and over again, the Qatari news channel broadcasts a long, wordless montage of images from the war: American jets, missiles, ships, tanks, and soldiers burrow their way into the public consciousness as if Qatar itself were under occupation.

It's that sense of being overwhelmed that may explain the mixed emotions of many Arabs toward the war in Iraq.

Even the friendliest governments and the staunchest opponents of Saddam Hussein can't help feeling impotent or insignificant when America flexes her military muscle. The quick, decisive war has proven that America can have her way in the Middle East, that nothing but her own goodwill can restrain her. Americans expect the world to be grateful for that goodwill, and after the fall of a brutal dictator, many in the region are grateful.

Still, there's a nagging sense of diminishment, a feeling of lost autonomy. Goodwill, from the receiving end, feels a lot like charity, and it's hard to maintain a sense of pride when living off the charity of others.

In short, while the Arab world is a better place with Saddam out of the way, to many people here it seems a little less Arab, a little less their own.

No one can fault the Qatari government if the man on the street is less than enthusiastic about the war in Iraq. The emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, is one of the most progressive, pro-Western rulers in the Muslim world. Even in the midst of the conflict next door, he convened the Third Annual Conference on Democracy and Free Trade, importing U.S. and British lawmakers to lecture Arab leaders on the connection between freedom and wealth. His government permits women to work, vote, and drive cars. The press is relatively outspoken, while the Shariah religious courts are relatively subdued. Foreigners can drink alcohol and worship as they choose. Golf is a national obsession, and KFC is nearly as popular as kebabs.

The emir's devotion to Western ways has won him powerful enemies as well as friends. Osama bin Laden has singled out Qatar by name, urging Muslims to rise up against rulers like Sheikh Hamad who betrayed their religion by befriending America. That's caused jitters in this rich little state with no natural enemies and a crime rate near zero. Police are everywhere, their weapons on prominent display. At the Doha airport, visitors' bags are screened as they get off the plane, not just when they get on. Visa applications, once a quick formality in the arrivals hall, now seem to bear much closer scrutiny. Lines can stretch for hours.

Even outside its own borders, Qatar has paid a price for its public identification with the United States. At Frankfurt's sprawling airport, one of Europe's busiest, U.S. airlines have been relegated to just five gates, far from the airport's hub, where travelers are subjected to an extra search even after they've cleared the main security checkpoint. Carriers like American and United, the weapons of choice on 9/11, seem logical enough at this distant outpost, but next to them sits tiny Qatar Airways, now perceived as just as likely a terrorist target.

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