Accessibility links

Arab World Awaits Obama's Mideast Trip

  • Elizabeth Arrott

President Obama's visit to the Middle East next week is being greeted with far less enthusiasm than four years ago, when hopes were high for a new era in U.S. - Arab relations.

When the U.S. president visited Cairo in 2009, he was hailed as a son of Africa, a man whose middle name "Hussein" hinted at a fundamental shift in America's relations with the Islamic and Arab world. He even spoke an Arabic phrase during his address at Cairo University. "As salamu alaikum," he said.

In the audience that day was former intelligence officer General Sameh Saif al Yazal. He remembers thinking "We got a good one," and change was imminent. Fast forward four years: "The expectations were very high, but when you see it physically, it was much less than that expectation," he stated.

Among the disappointments was what many in the region saw as Obama's slow response to the "Arab Spring" uprisings against long-time U.S. allies, as in Egypt, and not enough help - especially economic - in the aftermath. One Cairo resident argued it is important for American and Europe to help now because “they helped the dictatorships.”

Al Yazal says the perception that the U.S. continues to side with the interests of governments rather than the people has not gone away. "The feeling now that the Americans are working for the Egyptian administration and the other administrations without looking at the street people - what they want," he added.

Close collaboration with Yemen's government, for example, allows the U.S. to carry out drone strikes on suspected terrorists. But civilian casualties from strikes gone wrong have deeply alienated many ordinary Yemenis.

Yet for the most part, Obama has earned praise for scaling back America's military role in the region. Outside observers, like professor Christian Donath of the American University in Cairo, welcome the U.S. limits.

"The Obama administration has done a relatively good job in being very careful in its approach to Syria given that there are a number of competing interests in Syria. And I think for now one of the most important things we can do is focus on the humanitarian crisis," Donath explained.

Donath believes concern for humanitarian issues and economic outreach directly to the people could do much to improve America's standing. But he notes that one thing colors almost everything the U.S. does in the Arab world - America's close ties with Israel, which will be the focus of Obama's trip this time.

"Fundamentally this will be quite difficult for the U.S. to improve our relationship with the people, which seems what we are trying to do," added Donath. "Without somehow addressing the Israel issue and we're not. We haven't been doing that."

Even if Obama can help revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians during his trip, few expect the regional dynamic to change any time soon.

Show comments