Shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) attempted to broker a last-minute agreement with Saddam Hussein in a bid to prevent another war in the Middle East. To mark this month’s publication of his autobiography, My Story, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE reveals for the first time, in this edited extract from the book, how that top-secret deal was offered…and rejected.
World exclusive by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum
After the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991, the entire Gulf region was hurt, winner and loser alike. All were trying to bury their pain and rebuild what had been destroyed. Iraq was weary of wars and yet still Saddam Hussein, the defeated leader, could not sleep easy.
In 2003, the Americans returned to the Middle East. They wanted to build a region based on their own concepts, especially after September 11th, 2001, an event that changed how they saw our region and rearranged their priorities. I knew that war with Iraq was a goal for George W. Bush. We tried to convince him not to invade. I asked him to invest his money and energy into helping the people of Iraq rebuild their schools and hospitals and pave their streets instead, but I realised he was resolute in his decision to use force. We did not believe that he (Saddam) owned weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), as London and Washington claimed. Even General Colin Powell, who was US Secretary of State at the time, later expressed his regret for the destruction that the Americans inflicted during the Iraq invasion. He was to admit that the weapons inspectors did not find any trace of the alleged WMDs and that the justification for the war on Iraq was flawed and a blot on his political career.
I warned the Americans about engaging in warfare in the region, saying, “Do not open Pandora’s Box. There are many surprises in it.”
I requested the Americans give us a chance to intervene. I asked, “What do you want from Saddam?”. I knew that the consequences of a war, on the region in general and on Iraq in particular, would be disastrous. I tried to convince the Americans to allow our leaders to negotiate. After all, we are Arabs, sharing similar traditions and traits, and we understand how Saddam and his kin actually think.
I decided to visit Saddam in person. I took a flight from Dubai to Bahrain, and from there travelled by sea towards Basra. We met in one of his hideouts and we began an honest and direct conversation. We spoke about everything: areas on which we agreed and those, rather more numerous, on which we disagreed. I reminded him of the lingering repercussions of war, knowing very well that I was advising a man who had spent a good deal of his life in conflict. It was obvious that he could not win against the United States and if he did not do something to prevent the impending attack, Iraq would lose everything. I tried to use logic and reason with him. I said softly, “If you are forced to leave the presidency in order to protect Iraq, then do it. Dubai is your second home and you are always welcome there.”
He looked at me and said, “Sheikh Mohammed, I am talking about protecting Iraq, not myself.” I could only respect that basic attitude – though I profoundly disagreed with his concept of ‘protection’.
Our meeting, which was honest but tense, lasted for about five hours, during which Saddam got up and left four times, breeching protocol. Every time he came back, he would ask for some Arabic coffee before we continued our talk. I still recall the taste of it. He terrified everyone who attended the meeting with us, including Abed Hamoud, his private secretary. Every time he left, I would pray to God that we would get through this latest hiatus. Saddam would not sit in the same place for long. He was afraid of being shot; he knew that he was a target for many potential assassins.
When the meeting ended, he escorted me to the car, opened the door for me, and said goodbye – something that I was told he did not usually do.
Saddam had grossly miscalculated. He thought that instilling terror and panic, using the sword, was the right way to manage things. And because everyone around him lived in fear, they were not brave enough to be honest about the true capabilities of his forces. They preferred to make him believe that he had the ability to fight the Americans. No one can rule with the power of fear for long, and Saddam paid a heavy price for this. His people paid a much heavier price, time and again.
The United States and the United Kingdom came in with their powerful tanks, artillery and air power, and once again Iraq began to bleed. Iraq lost many souls and decades of development. The Americans and British lost more than a trillion dollars, around 5,000 dead and some 35,000 wounded. Iraqi casualties were a hundred times that, along with a whole decade of lost development and terrible schisms in its society. From Iraq there emerged groups who went on to terrorise the entire world.
Just as history has taught us time and again, there are no winners in war.
My Story: 50 Memories from Fifty Years of Service by Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is out now on Amazon UK.
PHOTO CREDIT: All pictures copyright Explorer Publishing 2019