In the Oval Office of the White House, President Bush consults with his top national security advisors in mapping out a decisive strategy toward the “Axis of Evil.” Inside the hot, bustling bazaars of Tehran, Iranian citizens converse about the preparation for war while shopping for rugs and handspun goods. And in the wood-paneled common rooms of Yale’s residential colleges, students discuss the humanitarian concerns of military airstrikes on Iraq.
With the specter of war looming ominously over Iraq, the Middle East has been bracing for another violent showdown in the region. Yale students from different parts of the Middle Eastern landscape have been monitoring the news with personal concern, awaiting the results of this precarious game of political brinksmanship.
An imperfect picture
Dashrath Dhawan ’03, a history major in Trumbull College, grew up in the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a small country bordered on the west by Saudi Arabia and on the east by the Persian Gulf. His parents left India in 1980 to move there, and his father imports food products from around the world and distributes them in the Middle East.
He recalls the heightened war alert during the Gulf War, when his family taped up their windows as a precaution against a biological weapons attack. He said all the television channels had been switched to CNN, and that he did not want to go to school during that critical time, but his father had urged him to do so. Normalcy returned to the region a few weeks after the fighting ceased.
If a war breaks out in the region, Dhawan said, the U.A.E. is poised to lose a lot of money in tourism revenues. Dubai is a popular tourist destination for foreigners during the winter months.
Dhawan said he feels that something should have been done a long time ago with regards to Saddam Hussein and believes that there may be other more pressing concerns in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I’m all up for getting Saddam out of there, but then you have to get his son out of there,” Dhawan said. “He’s 10 times as ruthless, and has military support.”
He added that he feels that Americans are not getting a full picture of what is going on in the region.
Fear and uneasiness
Virginie Marier ’05 is currently at home in Saudi Arabia on a leave of absence. She lives with her family in the Eastern Province, in a company compound known as Dhahran. They moved to the country in 1996; her father works as a surgeon for an oil company.
Marier said in the event of war, her parents do not plan on leaving the country unless Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities become a target of terrorist attacks. Her father’s company policy does not force any employee to stay or leave if a war were to break out, though many men chose to remain there during the Gulf War.
“Although people might be feeling uneasy about the ongoing talks of war, the quality of life in Dhahran has not changed dramatically,” Marier said in an e-mail. “Security measures are more elaborate since Sept. 11 — and we hear more fighter jets overhead (we are located near an American war base) than usual, but rumor has it hostilities will only begin after the holy month of Ramadan, so perhaps we need not worry just yet.”
Marier said some Saudis fear President Bush is capitalizing on the tragedies of terrorism to wage a war against the Islamic faith instead of against terror cells. In addition, she said that while Saudi Arabia had agreed to permit American forces to use its military bases during an Iraqi invasion, the daily newspaper Arab News recently reported that authorities have reversed their decision and are now seeking a “political resolution to the Iraq crisis.”
Marier said she believes Saddam Hussein has deceived the United Nations and has ignored international arms policies, and that he represents a genuine threat to the world. While she does not enjoy seeing war as a means of conflict resolution, she realizes it may be necessary.
“If Bush means to abolish Hussein’s regime and confiscate his weapons of mass destruction and nothing else — not wage a war against Islam or against the Iraqi people — then I believe his approach is appropriate at this time,” she said.
Growing up during conflict
Omar Christidis ’04 was born in Syria and spent the first 18 years of his life growing up in the capital city of Beirut, Lebanon. Although he said he is one of the less politically active Middle Easterners on campus, he tries to stay aware of the conflicts taking place throughout the region. His father works at the American University in Beirut.
He said living in a country like Lebanon has provided him with a different perspective of international relations.
“Living and experiencing warfare and not living in the hegemonic power has given me a better view of political life,” he said. “[There is] real political interaction between countries and nations. Being sheltered isn’t conducive to understanding how nations work.”
When he was a young boy, Christidis said he joined in a protest of Operation Desert Fox outside the American embassy in Beirut. In 1998, the United States launched cruise missile attacks against military targets in Iraq during Operation Desert Fox, in response to Iraq’s continued failure to comply with U.N. resolutions. Christidis remembers that there was a great deal of singing, chanting and banner holding, and the embassy had been sealed off.
Christidis said the Gulf War coincided with the Lebanese Civil War, a time he recalled as very tense politically. He remembered sleeping in the hallways of his home rather than in the bedrooms to avoid the danger of shellfire piercing the windows.
Despite the risks, Christidis said he still plans on returning home over winter break even if America decides to strike Iraq. He said violence and conflict in the Middle East tends to be very localized.
Christidis said he feels strongly that a war should not occur, even though he believes it looks probable.
“I would like to maintain hope and be optimistic that a war on Iraq would not happen,” he said. “Why didn’t [Operations] Desert Fox and Desert Storm do what this was supposed to?”
At a crossroads
Orkun Sahmali ’06 and Sezgi Bice ’06 are two Yale students who hail from the culturally diverse Mediterranean state of Turkey. Though thousands of miles away from the region, they both have been closely watching the developments with Iraq to see how their homeland could be affected by a possible war.
Sahmali, who is from the capital city of Ankara, said Turkey’s location — lying at a crossroads between the European and Asian continents — has made it a “geopolitically strategic point” in this scenario, resulting in increased political pressures. He said that Turkey, though a Muslim country, has a “desire to be Westernized,” and would likely follow the U.S. position on Iraq because of economic interests.
Sahmali said, however, that public opinion in Turkey has been questioning the real motives of the United States, pointing to factors like oil. He added that America’s ambiguous foreign policy has begun to cause disappointment in the belief of democratic ideals.
“Many in Turkey wonder, ‘Why is the U.S. taking these drastic steps against Iraq but not toward these other [dangerous] regimes?'” he said.
Bice, who grew up in the historic city of Istanbul, said many Turks do not favor military action against Iraq unless Hussein attacks another country. She added that it is difficult for Turkish citizens to support Iraq, and many recognize that Saddam Hussein is a “despot.”
Describing her parents as “very concerned” about the potential war, Bice said the fighting could spell serious financial consequences for their country. Turkey is currently mired in an economic downturn, she said, and the outbreak of hostilities would drastically reduce tourism, the state’s largest source of income.
Sahmali said a unilateral attack on Iraq could inflame anti-American sentiment in the country, making it easier for radical Islamic fundamentalists in Turkey to convert people to their cause. He also said the uncertain political future of the Iraqi state is scary to many in Turkey.
Both Sahmali and Bice said they are planning to fly home to Turkey over winter break, whether or not the region turns into a theater of war.
As the Bush administration sounds the drumbeat for decisive military action in Iraq, these Yale students will be paying a little extra attention to the news, ensuring that their families and communities back in the Middle East are safe and sound. For them, the impact of war hits closer to home.
“Living in the Middle East, warfare doesn’t generally change my plans,” Christidis said. “It’s something we live with on a daily basis.”