How an Obama Presidency Might Change the Middle East

Die Zeit newspaper

5 June 2008

By: Adel Al Toraifi

It’s hard to say how many Middle Easterners knew about Barak Obama before the Iowa speech last January, nevertheless, there appear to be plenty now. The news of an African-American candidate was surprising from a country which is negatively perceived in places like the Middle East. Obama’s message of hope and change found its way not only to American audiences, but to a broad population of affluent middle-class Arabs. They see in him the kind of hope that the “American Dream” meant forty years ago when America was the face of democracy and the land of opportunity to many people in the region. In almost all of the Arab media coverage of the Democratic nomination race, Barak Obama received a stunning approval from Arab viewers. From Islamists, such as Hamas in Gaza Strip, to liberal intellectuals and writers, such as the prominent Arab columnist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, Obama is hailed as a savior of what remains of America’s image and fair judgment.

Yet, it is important to note that despite this warm reception, some in the region, if not the majority, think he is too good to be true. The rise of an American politician, who holds an Arabic rooted name “Barak” from a Muslim father , and who went to an Islamic school in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, seems talking directly to the hopes and inspirations of most Arabs and Muslims. Perhaps this is what makes them skeptical of his chances of becoming the next president. A large number of politicians, journalist and ordinary citizens are dismissing his chances, citing racism, Anglo-American culture, inexperience and in some cases Zionism, as main obstacles to his presidential bid. But what happens if he was to succeed in winning the presidential race?

In my opinion, Barak Obama would present a great change for the region. He might not solve all of the region’s protracted conflicts, and there are plenty of them, but he would certainly change the way that America is perceived and viewed in the Middle East and that is in itself a great challenge. The public perception of the United States is vital in Saudi Arabia and many parts of the region and a change from what the Bush administration has offered over the past eight years will be highly anticipated. If Obama keeps his word about respecting the sensitivities and complexities of the region’s politics, withdraw from Iraq, stimulate the peace process and offer a better alternative to the people of the region, he will definitely win hearts and minds.

Presidents Carter, Bush 41 and Clinton all earned some respect, and in some cases admiration, in the region for their efforts to bring peace and reconciliation, and Obama would be no different. Even though no American president could ever satisfy all the demands and hopes of the Arabs, whom we have to agree, are skeptical of peace with Israel, a serious American effort to bring the Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiation table would certainly have an impact on the region. As for Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, an American president who is willing to sit with them, with no pre-conditions, might seem desirable, but it may not be to their advantage. An active American foreign policy which advocates peace and coexistence in the region would put intense pressure on those countries and organizations that thrive on anti-Americanism and will deprive them of their strongest argument.

The Middle East will certainly see interesting changes during an Obama presidency.


About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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