KUWAIT CITY

Even in the annals of contentious Arab diplomacy, it is unusual for the vice president of one country to tell the foreign minister of another, "Shut up, you minion, you agent, you monkey." Or for a Saudi crown prince to tell the leader of Libya, "You are a liar and your grave awaits you." But these and other embarrassing televised moments of high-level quarreling have taken place at two summit meetings over the past nine days, and one can only wonder what comedian decided to call the second of those two meetings a "unity" summit.

By some measures, the Arab world has been through a period of relative stability over the past decade or two. Assassinations, coups and social unrest have virtually disappeared. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Palestinian uprising were glaring exceptions to that stability, but even they have failed to result in any change in Arab leadership.

Beneath the surface, however, the Arab condition is not well. Regimes that appear stable may be merely arthritic. Bombastic leaders are actually anxious, popular opinion is in flux. And the massing of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf waters and states, poised to impose a change of regime in Baghdad, has created paralysis in the Arab world by dividing it into those who support U.S.-led action against Iraq and those who reject it.

The first of the two meetings, the Arab League summit held in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, on March 1, was a stunning failure. In a rare public confrontation, which took place in front of millions of Arabs thanks to new Arab satellite television channels, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi accused Saudi Arabia of having made "an alliance with the devil" when it asked U.S. troops to protect it from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah replied in an intemperate fashion, calling Gaddafi "an agent for colonizers." Any chance the Arab League would reach agreement on how to deal with the most pressing issue of the day was lost.

A similar dispute took place during the Organization of the Islamic Conference meeting last Wednesday. Iraq's vice president, Izat Ibrahim, and Kuwait's minister of state for foreign affairs, Muhammad al Sabah, clashed over Kuwait's endorsement of the United Arab Emirates' call for Saddam Hussein's resignation. Kuwait believes that Hussein and his regime are the cause of the crisis in the region. Ibrahim, reflecting Iraq's uncompromising logic, used a traditional taunt: "May Allah curse your mustache," he told al Sabah. A Kuwaiti delegate called the Iraqi vice president's insults "the words of an infidel and a charlatan." The truth is that the Arab world is more divided than ever, and the looming U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has exposed the differing motives, fears and interests across the Arab world. It's not hard to figure out those divisions from listening to the Arab leaders at the two conferences.

Bashar Assad, in his speech at the Arab League summit, took the clearest position: The Syrian president urged Arab countries not to provide any support or facilities to the United States for its possible war with Iraq. After all, the Iraqi regime, like Syria's, is run by Baathists, and it is hard for Syria to support the demise of its fellow party. Assad also indirectly targeted America's strongest supporters -- Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Oman and the UAE. That position has a logic behind it. It maintains Syria's traditional pan-Arab ideological stand and connects with the Arab street's populist attitudes, allowing Assad to repeat to Syrians what they have been hearing for years. The language of Assad was that of the old guard and it dominated both the Arab and Islamic summits.

Syria is also aware that the end of the Hussein regime will be the beginning of an emphasis on issues that Damascus would rather not confront: Syria's role in Lebanon, its support for Hezbollah and some Palestinian organizations, and one-party rule in Syria. Furthermore Syria has been profiting from economic cooperation with Baghdad, both through trade and from fees from the pipeline that goes across Syria from Iraq. There is no guarantee the new regime in Iraq will be as cozy with Syria.

From Syria's perspective, the best tactic is to create tactical distractions, delay the American action in Iraq and keep international focus on non-Syrian issues. The hope is to avoid regime change in Iraq. If this proves unavoidable, Syria hopes for a quagmire in Iraq that will force the United States to call on the services of Syria in Iraq and in the region. Preserving the status quo within its own borders and bypassing the reform agenda is on top of Syria's list.

Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia share similar logic though from different positions. By nature, the Saudis are not adventurists. They will not openly back the U.S. effort to change the regime in Iraq by force, an attempt to maintain internal national unity. That's why, notwithstanding Abdullah's outburst at the Arab League, the Saudis have taken care not to align themselves with the Kuwaitis or the UAE. But their attitude remains ambiguous. The splits between rejectionists and supporters, younger and older members of the elite, and between religious and more secular establishments have complicated the crown prince's position. (One example of the crown prince's struggles: His efforts to open up Saudi natural gas fields to foreign investment have been stymied by rivals and entrenched bureaucrats.) Regarding the war, some Westernized Saudis want to endorse the U.S. position so the kingdom can have a voice in postwar Iraq. But refusal to join the U.S. effort has become a mechanism to help the Saudi crown prince avoid serious internal conflicts. Many Saudis cite internal conflict as the cause for the demise of the first and second Saudi states in the 19th century -- a history they would rather not repeat.

Saudis are also aware that their country's religious laws and character, though central to the regime's legitimacy, are also under attack by a United States that is intimating it will shake up the Middle East. Bush said at his news conference Thursday night that change in Iraq could be a "catalyst for change, positive change" in "that troubled part of the world." Many Saudis wonder what that means. They fear that after a war in Iraq, the issues of religion and politics, fundamentalist wahhabism and democratic changes will go to the top of the U.S. agenda. In this context, Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in delaying war in Iraq and will only cooperate with the United States in a reluctant spirit. It may hope to play a stabilizing role in postwar Iraq. Or it may hope that there will be just enough problems with post-Saddam nation-building to force the United States to give up talk of wider democratic reform in the region.

Egypt, the largest of the Arab states, is concerned with its regional stature, as well as its own internal succession. Once preeminent in the Arab world, Egypt has lost its leadership role to smaller countries such as Qatar, the UAE and even Syria. (Egypt wasn't enthusiastic about having the Arab League meeting at all.) This stands in contrast to 1990-91, when Egypt was able to lead. A new Iraq, integrated with a more influential Gulf Cooperation Council and bolstered by a partnership with Jordan, could further diminish Egypt's regional role.

In many ways Egypt is hoping for the maintenance of the status quo in Iraq, that is to say containment without a change of regime because it is difficult to predict the reactions Egyptians will have to a new regime in Baghdad. Popular opposition to war was expressed by half a million people at a peaceful demonstration organized by the ruling party in Egypt last Wednesday.

The smaller states of the Persian Gulf are more comfortable with the United States, and their leaders have proven more nimble than many of those from larger countries. While the Arab summit was dominated by the language of the Arab street, the call for Hussein's resignation by the UAE's Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Nahayan was the most significant statement made. It was a call for peace through a change of regime in Iraq. According to Zayed, the only way to avoid war is through the resignation of Hussein and his associates. Unfortunately, the Arab summit shuffled the UAE initiative under the table and the Arab League secretary general, Amr Moussa, ignored it. The UAE call gained momentum with the endorsement of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, but only after the summit's final insignificant communique. This is proof that the summit did not represent all Arabs and did not accommodate all views. In addition to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE, it is clear that Jordan, Oman and Morocco support the U.S. effort to change the regime in Iraq.

The Arab League summit created a committee of foreign ministers to deal with the war issue, but left the group open for voluntary membership. The committee is supposed to go to the U.N. Security Council to voice Arab concerns over the coming war. It could also have dealt with Baghdad. Yet the committee is too divided to have any impact. It is chaired by Bahrain, which supports the UAE call for Hussein's resignation, while its members also include Egypt and Syria, who make it difficult to carry out that mission. What does such a committee mean without tools and without any impact in Washington or in Baghdad?

The Arab world, especially the larger Arab states, has invested heavily in trying to stop a war and prevent regime change in Iraq. Yet if the region (along with the French and the Germans) had invested similar energy into persuading Hussein to leave power, the Arab world (along with the French and Germans) would have a better reception in Washington and more influence during the next stage of events, both in the rebuilding of Iraq and on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arab leaders could have invited the Iraqi opposition to the Sharm el-Sheik summit. They did not. Nor did they hold out a vision of Iraq's reintegration with its neighbors after a change of regime. Events are moving fast, and the summit was behind on every issue.

The Arab summit was the latest indication of a lack of leadership in the Arab world, where dissension has become the rule rather than the exception. It has produced discord between rulers as the recent summits have demonstrated. It has also caused conflict between elites within the Arab states, between religion and politics, development and stagnation, tradition and modernity. Our region is passing through one of its most fluid times. No one knows how it will all look when it's over. It is clear it will look different. Maybe when Arab leaders meet at the next summit, they ought to discuss how the deterioration in education, science and technology, creativity, research, privatization, economy, the rule of law, and freedom have contributed to the broader failure of the Arab world. Shafeeq Ghabra is a professor of political science and president of the American University of Kuwait, which is due to open in the fall of 2004.