x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Middle East weighs Obama after emotional glow fades

The National asks locals in nine Middle East countries their views of Barack Obama.

Mr Obama speaking this week in the US. Many in the Middle East world continue to view all US politicians through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr Obama speaking this week in the US. Many in the Middle East world continue to view all US politicians through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abu Dhabi // As yet another wave of Obamamania swept the United States this year, the senator from Illinois was touted by many in the Middle East as the "Arab candidate" for president. His youth, race and lineage - the African-American son of a white mother from the Midwestern state of Kansas and a black father from the East African nation of Kenya - were seen as signs he would be more predisposed to understand the woes, and the promise, of the Middle East.

Yet as Mr Obama stands poised to formally accept the nomination of the Democratic party at its convention, which starts on Monday in the western city of Denver, that rosy view has been supplanted by a more sober assessment of how avidly Mr Obama might address the region's concerns if elected president. From the sun-baked hills of Amman to the besieged, walled-off neighbourhoods of Baghdad, dozens of interviews reveal a similar conviction: Barack Obama is, above all, an American candidate - the product of a system shaped by long-standing commitments, enduring principles and bureaucratic inertia that he is unlikely to alter even if he wins in November.

"Me personally, I like the dude," said Ahmed Omran, 24, a university student in Riyadh. "His message of hope and change is inspiring. I think it is such a refreshing departure from the policies of the current administration." Mr Omran, like most people interviewed for this story, prefers Mr Obama over his opponent John McCain, who is seen as a mirror of the deeply unpopular policies of his fellow Republican, George W Bush.

Yet while Mr Omran is enchanted by the stirrings of change that Mr Obama - a 47-year-old man who came of age during the political and social tumult of late 20th-century America - has set in motion, he knows both history and his region better. "When it comes to the Middle East, I don't think we will see any big change because American policy doesn't change under different administrations," said Mr Omran, author of the popular blog "Saudi Jeans".

In Manama, Noreen al Thawadi agreed wholeheartedly. "Obama surely seems to come with a different beat, but Arabs were too emotional about him," said Ms Thawadi, 23, a recent graduate in media studies from the University of Bahrain. "They got ecstatic after knowing more about his background, but their dismay was equal in volume when he repeatedly flirted with Israel. That shouldn't be a shock - every candidate for the White House does the same," she said.

There are competing - and in some ways equally distorting - prisms that refract Arab views towards both US presidential candidates. Many in the Middle East world continue to view all US politicians through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having watched 10 presidents, both Republican and Democrat, come and go in the past six decades, many Arabs such as Najeeb al Sharabi said it matters little who wins in November.

"For us, nothing good comes from America. The problem is Palestine, and it has never been sorted out," said Mr Sharabi, 34, as he bustled around his metalworking shop in Sana'a. Jamal Hossuna, a 45-year-old school teacher in Gaza City, expressed astonishment at the notion that anyone would think Mr Obama would do anything but serve the interests of Israel. "Why do you think Obama will be better for the Palestinian cause? We have never seen any US president really talking about ending the occupation and implementing UN resolutions," Mr Hossuna said.

Against this abiding pessimism, another prism is operating, however. Due to the echo chamber that is the international media, many in the Arab world are acutely aware that most Americans view the Islamic world through a post-Sept 11 lens of terror. Albeit sceptically, many express support for Mr Obama in hopes that he might help remedy that ignorance of Islam, however hamstrung he might be by the policies he inherits.

"Obama has different ideas, and his background will make him more tolerant towards Muslims," said Roya Zabani, 40, an Iranian mother of three children who has lived in Jordan for the past 15 years. His youth and education make him less prone to bias, said Hassan Beer, 64, a bookseller who has operated a kiosk in downtown Amman for 32 years. "We want someone from the younger generation because they are mature and better educated," Mr Beer said. "The older generation, products of an older style of education, are thick-headed. We don't want backward people who have the mentality of the 1970s and 1980s."

Despite these glimmers of enthusiasm, Mr Obama's approval ratings are strikingly low in the Middle East compared to those he enjoys in Europe and elsewhere. Thirty-one per cent of Egyptians said they had "a lot" or "some" confidence in Mr Obama, versus 23 per cent for Mr McCain, while in Lebanon, he was favoured 34 per cent to Mr McCain's 25 per cent, according to a survey in March and April of 24,000 people in 24 countries by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In Jordan, Mr Obama received 22 per cent to the Republican's 23 per cent.

In contrast, 74 per cent of Britains, 84 per cent of French and 82 per cent of Germans expressed confidence in Mr Obama, the survey showed. Of course, in the past eight years, Europe has experienced nothing like the upheaval in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the US backed Israeli effort to destroy Hizbollah, the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement going from bad to worse - all these have tainted most things American including - as evidenced by the polls - its presidential candidates.

Whoever succeeds Mr Bush will face a staggering bequest: Iran, Afghanistan and not least, Iraq. For his part, Mr Obama's qualified promise of a US troop pullout from Iraq in 16 months is opposed by prominent Iraqis. "Obama would bring back a better balance in the way the US deals with the world, but Iraqis, who are really concerned about the effects of a troop withdrawal, would prefer to see McCain elected, because we expect him to keep the soldiers here longer," said Haidar Swedi, 46, an independent member of Iraq's parliament.

Against these monumental challenges, some said atmospherics may count for a great deal. The leader of the world's strongest nation holds the keys to war and peace. His words can set the world on edge, and offend or befriend vast populations of people. To many Arabs and Muslims, the "us-versus-them-with-us-or-against-us-evil-empire" rhetoric of the Bush administration has deepened the struggle between the region's extremists and moderates, and helped drive a wedge between Sunni and Shia.

So it is not surprising that many want an occupant of the Oval Office who is less aggressive, more intellectually curious and less prone to alleged crimes against the English language. For Mansour Faisal, a 23-year-old Abu Dhabi banker, this means that Mr Obama, for all the limitations that he faces, is the best candidate. "He appears the most sympathetic and approachable, which could help change the image of the US," Mr Faisal said.

cnelson@thenational.ae * Phil Sands in Damascus, Omar Karmi in Ramallah, John Thorne on Algiers, Maryam Sinaiee in Tehran, Rym Ghazal in Abu Dhabi, Caryle Murphy in Riyadh, Suha Ma'ayeh in Amman, Nizar Latif in Baghdad, Mazen Mahdi in Manama and Mohammed al Qadhi in Sana'a contributed to this report.