Vice President of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum reveals in a new book set to be published Monday that he had offered late Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein asylum in the UAE prior to the US invasion of 2003.
“Dubai is your second city,” he told the former ruler, recalled Sheikh Mohammed in his book “My Story … 50 Stories in 50 Years.” Saddam, however, refused the offer.
Sheikh Mohammed speaks of his life, work and responsibilities, touching on Libya, Syria and Lebanon in excerpts exclusively published by Asharq Al-Awsat.
He recalled that he visited Beirut at a young age with his siblings. “I was fascinated by it when I was young and have grown deeply sad over its fate,” he said. “In the early 1960s, its streets were clean, neighborhoods beautiful, its markets modern. It was a source of inspiration for me. I had a dream for Dubai to become like Beirut some day.”
Unfortunately, Lebanon “has been fragmented and divided along sectarian lines. Beirut is no longer the Beirut I knew and Lebanon is no longer the same,” lamented Sheikh Mohammed.
He said that two major developments in Lebanon have been imprinted in his memory. The first, he said was the eruption of the country’s civil war on April 13, 1975. The 15-year conflict left more than 150,000 people dead and 300,000 wounded and Lebanon incurred more than $25 billion in damages.
No sooner, had the first bullet been fired that violence spread throughout Beirut and the capital was soon divided along sectarian lines. “This was the beginning of the end,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
None of the efforts exerted by Sheikh Zayed succeeded in bringing together the rivals to negotiations. “Along with my father, I used to help him in the negotiations, but we started to despair due to the ongoing failure. Comprehensive Arab intervention took place to ensure that this beautiful country would not be destroyed,” he added.
June 1976 witnessed a changing point in the civil war through Syria’s intervention.
He recalled the convening of Arab summits in Riyadh and Cairo in 1976 that culminated in the formation of an Arab Deterrent Force of which the UAE was a part of and that was aimed at reaching a ceasefire in Lebanon.
Sheikh Mohammed said that only “temporary solutions” were reached at the Arab summits and the “roots of the problems were still buried below the surface.”
“Those were burdensome days,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “I did everything in my power to prepare my men … I told them that ‘we are headed for peace, not war, in order to save a friendly and brotherly people and not to serve sectarian interests.’”
“I cannot describe the horrors of war. From my own experience in fighting, I can say that it is not the solution for anything,” he stated.
The second most remarkable memory he has of Lebanon took place in 1982 with the Israeli invasion of the country. The development turned the country into an open battle between the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Syria and Israel.
“Even though the invasion, which began in June under the command of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, was expected, its horrors were not,” said Sheikh Mohammed.
After two months of fighting, a ceasefire was reached that culminated with the PLO’s withdrawal from Beirut to Tunisia. Despite this withdrawal, Sharon insisted that some “2,000 terrorists” remained in Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut and so it was after the departure of the last Palestinian fighter that the Israeli army occupied West Beirut on September 15. This was followed with the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre on September 16 and 18 that left hundreds of innocent civilians dead.
“I have never accepted the idea of killing and shedding of blood,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “I have never understood why such things happen in our world. I had kept in touch with all partners in the region. I knew that a massacre was going to happen. When I saw the images of the victims, especially the women and children, I realized that our efforts have been in vain.”
Many years later, “Lebanon is still, unfortunately, a pawn many players are toying with. The Lebanese youth are still paying the price of regional conflicts and Lebanon is still an arena for settling never-ending conflicts and scores,” he added.
Invasion of a brother
“The invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 was a shock … I relayed the news to my older brother Sheikh Maktoum. I then declared a state of emergency for all armed and security forces. I spoke to Sheikh Zayed and witnessed his anger and sorrow. How could Saddam do such a thing? What was his next move?” recalled Sheikh Mohammed.
“We never imaged that Saddam would dare to invade a brotherly neighboring country that had a history in standing by his side. Saddam’s move was a changing point for the entire region.”
“We received tens of thousands of Kuwaitis and opened our hotels and residential buildings for them. Many of our people opened their houses to them.”
He recalled how the UAE’s ports became harbors for the forces of Operation Desert Storm that was launched by US forces on January 16, 1991 to liberate Kuwait from Iraq. Emirati forces also helped support the coalition to liberate Kuwait.
“I personally visited the Desert Storm command center several times,” said Sheikh Mohammed. “My mission was to limit the number of civilian casualties. Neither the Kuwaiti people nor the Iraqi people wanted the invasion. It was reckless act. I was keen to ensure that the people did not pay the price for this stupidity.”
Saddam was forced to withdraw his forces after a successful military operation and the “Emirati forces had the honor to be the first troops to enter Kuwait to liberate it. Had the war gone any longer, we would have paid with our lives to see its liberation.”
“The invasion ended with a humiliating withdrawal of the Iraqi forces. It was not the end, however. It was the beginning of a new phase in the region marked by the collapse of its major countries and fragmentation of great armies. The invasion of Kuwait was the major historic error that forever altered the shape of the region.”
No one wins in war
“I still remember the end of the exhausting war between Iraq and Iran that left more than a million people dead.” When a war ends, its memory lingers for years to come, said Sheikh Mohammed.
“At the time, Saddam was at the peak of his pride and glory. I still remember how he frankly expressed his reservations against me to Sheikh Zayed. He said I leaned too much to the West and did not treat Arabs properly.”
“Sheikh Zayed then asked me to meet with Saddam as was his habit to settle any differences that could affect our interests,” he added.
The meeting eventually took place and “after some pleasantries, Saddam charged that he had a report that implicates me in supporting Iran in various ways. He then placed the report in front of me.”
“I answered him that I did not need a report and that I was sitting right there with him,” he said. “‘If you mean arms shipments, then I challenge anyone to prove that. If you mean food aid shipments, then, yes. You do not need these reports because our ships go there and to Iraq as well,’ I replied.”
“Saddam was shocked at my words because they were bold. He was used to hearing what he wanted to. Perhaps my response was surprising to him because he had formed a weak impression of me.”
“We became friends after this confrontation,” revealed Sheikh Mohammed.
“This was followed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and bridges of communication then collapsed. In the world of politics, however, you must leave one small channel open for times of crisis. After Kuwait’s liberation in February 1991, the Gulf was treating its wounds and rebuilding what was destroyed.”
“Iraq grew weary of wars and Saddam, who had suffered successive defeats, slept with one eye open. In 2003, the Americans returned to the Middle East. They wanted to build a model that meets their own vision in wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that altered their view of the region and changed their priorities.”
“I knew that the invasion of Iraq was among President George W. Bush’s goals. We tried to dissuade him against invading Iraq. I asked him to maintain his efforts to support the Iraqi people by building schools and hospitals and paving roads. I knew, however, that he had already made up his mind to resort to force.”
“I asked the Americans to give us a chance to act accordingly. I then asked them: ‘What do you want from Saddam?’ I sensed that the region was on the verge of war and I was prepared to do anything to avoid it for the sake of the people. The Americans replied that they wanted to search for weapons of mass destruction.”
“I knew that the consequences of the war would be felt in the entire region, especially Iraq. It would be destructive. I tried to convince them to task Emiratis to carry out negotiates. We Arabs are alike in our traditions and understand how Saddam and his like think.”
“I was determined to personally visit Saddam… We had a clear and frank discussion. We spoke of everything I agreed with him on and others I did not. I reminded him of the ghost of war and I knew that I was addressing a man who had spent most of his life waging wars. It was obvious that he could not win the war against the Americans and that if he did not do anything to avert the impending invasion, Iraq would be lost. I tried to use reason with him.”
“I told him that if he was ultimately forced to leave Iraq, Dubai was his second city and he was always welcome there. He looked at me and said: ‘But Sheikh Mohammed, I am speaking about saving Iraq, not myself.’ I held him in much higher regard after he said this.”
A five-hour tense and frank meeting ensued with a visibly agitated Saddam.
“When the meeting ended, he escorted me to my vehicle and bid me farewell. I heard that this was not usual of him,” said Sheikh Mohammed. Sheikh Zayed offered Saddam asylum in Abu Dhabi in a last-ditch effort to avoid the invasion. It was in vain, as the US and Britain soon invaded and Iraq was again left to bleed.
“Saddam miscalculated. He believed that planting fear and terror and using violence were the best way to rule. Everyone around him feared him and no one ever had the courage to tell him of his military’s real capabilities,” he recalled.
“I remember how Bashar Assad visited Dubai in the late 1990s. His father, Hafez, was still in power and was possibly living his final days. It was only a matter of time before Bashar came to power. I wanted to spend more time with him away from the prying eyes of his entourage.”
“He joined me in my car, which I drove myself, and we headed to one of the major department stores for a stroll…. No one bothered us. We spoke of the future of technology and its role in development. He showed great interest in investing in technology for serving his country. He assured me that he will make changes in Syria. I forged a good relationship with him after that day.”
“A few years later, he again visited Dubai. This time as President Bashar Assad. He asked me how the government of Dubai rules its city. He had a great desire to develop the administration and government in Syria. I spoke to him a lot about Dubai and its openness and how our governance focuses on the private sector… I told him that we hoped to build a model for the Arab world. He expressed his deep admiration for Dubai, saying that he wanted to replicate the experience in Syria.”
“Indeed, Bashar Assad tried during the early years of his rule to open up the Syrian economy. He allowed the people to open bank accounts in foreign currencies and invited foreign investors to Syria. I remember sending a delegation to inspect real estate investment opportunities there. They came back to me with good ideas.”
“After that, Bashar started living in a different world as he watched his country drown in blood.”
I want Dubai in Africa
Sheikh Mohammed recalled his relations with late Libyan ruler Moammar al-Gaddafi.
“I remember how he once called me to tell me that he wanted to build a new Dubai in Libya and for it to act as the economic capital of Africa.”
“After the US invasion of Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction that it alleged that Saddam possessed, Gaddafi came out before the world to declare that Libya had a nuclear program.” He asked that it be removed, paving the way for prosperity in his country.
“We were among those whom he approached. He asked me to help him build a new Dubai in Libya as part of his drive to become open to the world.”
Sheikh Mohammed recalled how he dispatched an envoy, Mohammed al-Qarqawi, who was then head of his executive office. He arrived in Libya and was escorted to Gaddafi’s residence in Tripoli. “There, he saw the Libyan leader sitting in a large office and surfing the internet in a way that showed that he had little knowledge of what he was doing.”
“After his little show, Gaddafi told him that he greatly admired what Sheikh Mohammed has done in Dubai. ‘I want to do the same thing in Libya. I am asking you to invest in Libya.’ …. He gave the impression that he was not very aware of the world and history. He seemed to be surrounded by a team that kept facts from him, either out of fear or deliberately. I suspect the former. He spoke at length and tended to ramble. He said that he did not admire any state or any president. He spoke his mind very firmly in a way that did not broach argument or discussion. He did not speak like a leader.”
“After receiving Qarqawi’s report, I personally went to Tripoli. On the first day, we went to the Old City, It makes you sad. How can a country this rich be like this? Sewage was running in the streets and garbage was strewn everywhere. At its worst point in the 1950s, when water was scarce and people did not have electricity, Dubai was never this miserable.”
“I then visited Gaddafi in a tent in Sirte city. Just like last time, he spoke for a long time. Later that night, we headed to a square in Tripoli, but we were met with hysterical crowds after someone leaked the news of our visit.”
The security entourage was forced to use violence to disperse the people. “I never wanted them to disperse them in such a way.”
“Afterwards, Gaddafi wanted to show me the Jabal al-Akhdar region in northeastern Tripoli. We road a plane with his son Seif al-Islam and head of internal security and military intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi, who was known as a violent man.”
“As the plane took off, Senussi turned to me to inform me that it had been years since he last rode an aircraft. I asked how come, and he replied that he was constantly a target for attacks. Silence then fell over the plane as each of us weighed the words he had just uttered. Did he want his first plane ride to be with us?”
“Seif al-Islam then started talking and he seemed more learned and informed than his father. He said that he always thought of the type of economy that his father had adopted. It was neither socialist nor communist, not even capitalist. He said that he had spoken to his father about the importance of returning the land to the people and for Libya to be more open to the world.”
“The visit ended and the Libyan people remained in our hearts. We wished to help, but matters were not all right. We withdrew from talks about a new project when we realized that we were running around in circles. The horizon was clouded with corruption and we were going to be used a propaganda in his media machine.”
“Gaddafi did not desire change, he only wished it. Change does not need speeches, but action,” stated Sheikh Mohammed.