Exclusive: Obama’s Middle East Trip: New Dawn or More of the Same?

by ALI H. ALYAMI June 1, 2009
“The moral footprint of the United States has always been vast. Our next president [now President Obama] has an unprecedented opportunity to lead through example by inspiring and supporting those who would reach for freedom and by being tough and effective with those who would impede freedom's march.” Carter advice for Obama, Washington Post 12/10/08.
 
M any Arab and non-Arab intellectuals, democracy promoters and human rights activists would agree thatthere is no other region in the world where freedom’s march is more impeded than in the Middle East. President Obama’s upcoming journey to Saudi Arabia and Egypt on June 4th could be the most important trip he will ever make to the region.  The president has a unique opportunity to establish a new American-Arab era of hope and true partnership that his predecessors failed to establish. Past nearsighted U.S. policies have supported autocratic Arab regimes, and have not brought peace, democracy and stability to the Middle East. Despite these failures, the majority of Arab people have not lost hope in the United States’ ability to foster democratic change.
 
Contrary to the public opinion polls suggesting that the Arab people abhor the U.S., most Arabs admire American culture, democracy and ultimately individual liberty. This distorted view of Arab opinion is the result of contrived literature and advice from those financially influenced by corrupt Arab regimes. Most Arabs are politically and economically disenfranchised and, like many peoples, look to America for salvation.
 
In his January 27th interview on the Saudi owned Al-Arabiya Satellite Channel, the President promised these Arabs he would be “…somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well.” The President’s anxiously anticipated speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 is his chance to fulfill this promise. By doing so, he can address the trampled hopes and dreams of these Arab people and win their hearts and minds.
 
Pro-democracy Arabs were encouraged by President Obama’s victory speech on November 4th, when he beamed, "Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.” They believed these words would serve as the foundation for future U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Proponents of democracy in the Arab World were further encouraged by his Inaugural Address on January 20th: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”  The Arab people will find out on June 4th whether President Obama will indeed lay the foundation for a “new way forward” or continue the American strategy of praising the Saudi and Egyptian oligarchies for their leadership in the Arab and Muslim Worlds  
 
By visiting Saudi Arabia and Egypt, President Obama will be in a strong position to urge the two most politically, culturally, religiously and economically influential states in the Arab and Muslim Worlds to share power with their disenfranchised people. Calling for democratic reforms from the capitals of these two close American allies will inspire and re-invigorate the dampened spirits of pro-democracy advocates across the Arab World and beyond. The President can set the stage for a new era of U.S.-Arab relations in which the Arab and American peoples can share democratic values that have proven successful, profitable and peaceful in U.S. relations with Europe, Asia and Latin America. The President needs to know that most Arabs, like other peoples, are yearning for and can gradually acclimatize to democratic processes and savor their liberation from the yoke of tyrannical rules.
 
Autocratic Arab regimes as well as their supporters and financial beneficiaries in the West and elsewhere, argue that free elections in the Arab world would bring religious extremists and anti-democratic elements into power. They use Hezbollah and Hamas as examples of what Arabs would do if they were free to elect their representatives. In reality, extremists in Egypt and Saudi Arabia gained prominence due to the regimes’ oppressive policies, embezzlement of public wealth and politics of nepotism. Most Arabs and Muslims, especially youth, women, businesspeople and religious minorities, loath religious extremism, and the strict implementation of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia in particular. The overwhelming majority of Saudis and Egyptians are not extremist Wahhabis or members of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists.
 
The success of the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Egypt will depend on his understanding of the root causes of problems in the Arab world, and his willingness to refute the decades’ old and well rehearsed excuses the Arab regimes have used to manipulate every American president for the last sixty years. President Obama must recognize that the Arab-Israeli conflict has nothing to do with the multitude of problems plaguing Arab societies: oppression of women, poverty, terrorism, religious extremism and intolerance.
 
Yes, there are anti-American sentiments among many Arabs; however this is mostly caused by U.S. Administrations’ support for Arab despots, rather than America’s support for Israel as Arab regimes and their controlled media want the world to believe.
 
Many people understand and can appreciate the problems President Obama faces, but few would applaud him for supporting autocratic Arab regimes whose policies and institutions are responsible for problems in the U.S. President Obama can serve his country best by steering its support away from undemocratic regimes and reach out to modern and pro-democracy Arab men and women who are able and willing to propel their societies to a better and safer future. Sixty years of supporting autocratic Arab regimes has only brought extremism, terrorism and 9/11. The choice for President Obama is very clear: continue policies that have failed or put forward a plan that will serve the best interest of the U.S. and its democratic values. 
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Dr. Ali H. Alyamiis a native of Saudi Arabia where he worked for Aramco, the oil industry in Saudi Arabia. He is a graduate of Claremont Graduate University in Southern California; the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia.; former director of the Middle East Peace Program of the American Friends Service in San Francisco and former Senior Follow at the Saudi Institute in Washington DC. Alyami and his family are residents of the State of California.  
 

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