Global Policy Forum

Saddam Makes Most of Rival's Publicity Disaster


By Michael Theodoulou

Times (London)
October 16, 2000

The speedy resolution to the bizarre Saudi Arabian Airlines plane hijacking at Baghdad's Saddam International Airport was a windfall publicity coup for the Iraqi leader. The Saudi hijackers voiced opinions close to President Saddam Hussein's heart by denouncing the monarchy in Riyadh, expressing solidarity with the sanctions-hit people of Iraq and condemning "the presence of the American and British armies" in Saudi Arabia. It comes after a tremendous run of good fortune for Baghdad in recent weeks.

To the dismay of the United States, flights have been arriving almost daily at the airport from the Arab world and beyond, shattering the decade-old air embargo and Iraq's sense of isolation. High oil prices have brought increased revenues and world markets need Iraq to keep pumping at maximum capacity.

Across the Arab world, while there may be little love for Saddam personally, there is the conviction that sanctions have failed and are hurting only innocent Iraqis. The Middle East crisis has also deepened the burning sense of injustice in the Muslim world at perceived double standards. Washington is seen to be hell-bent on enforcing every word of every United Nations resolution against Iraq while failing to enforce those calling on Israel to withdraw from occupied Arab lands.

By treating the passengers like VIPs, including those from hostile countries such as Britain and Saudi Arabia, Saddam will claim a moral victory over hostile states still intent on enforcing the embargo. The words of one British passenger must be music to his ears: "I feel slightly guilty about their hospitality because I know what sanctions have done to their country," Siraz, 25, a press officer from Birmingham, said.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, pointedly refused to thank Iraq: "I would not thank any government for carrying out its clear international obligations," he said.

It sweetened the sense of satisfaction in Iraq that the hijack was a public relations disaster for Saudi Arabia, where attention is focused on the embarrassing breach of security at Jedda airport. The kingdom, one of Baghdad's arch Arab enemies, has been hosting American and British warplanes enforcing the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. They have been bombing targets in Iraq since December 1998 after Saddam's refusal to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors.

For Baghdad, the Saudi hijackers also established a surreal diplomatic first in flying to a country with one of the world's worst human rights records to vent their grievances against their homeland.

In a facility rarely granted to hijackers, they were allowed to appear before television cameras, where they looked unsuitably relaxed.

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