What do you think about President Obama's attempts to woo the Arab world?
Melissa Van Maasdyk
Will President Obama’s recent address to the Muslim world make a difference to public opinion of America in the Middle East? According to polls conducted in 2006 across the Middle East, the Bush administered US was seen by 72 per cent of people as the biggest threat to the region, second only to Israel. If we look at a similar 2009 poll, which was conducted before Obama’s Egypt speech, the perception of American threat had already gone down. So he has begun the long process of restoring American soft power. As you know, the Middle East pays a great deal of attention to America, and can be very sensitive to what’s perceived as a lack of American respect. President Obama, in both his Cairo and Istanbul speeches, has shown deference and sensitivity to Middle Eastern culture. Did this have an effect on the elections in Lebanon? I think that Lebanon is an incredibly complex country with intertwined political dynamics at work. So I don’t think the speech in itself had any direct effect on the outcome of those elections.
Presumably you feel the same way about Iran’s elections? Absolutely. The Bush administration consistently condemned the 2005 elections in Iran. This time the Americans took a very calculated and careful posture by not showing any signs of interference. Instead they let internal dynamics take their course.
How do you think Obama will deal with Iran? It doesn’t matter who the Iranian president is, the Americans have no alternative but to have relations with Iran. This is due to various factors, including the small matter of Iraq. I don’t buy the argument of the Bush administration that said Iran needs to be democratic for the United States to have relations with it. There have been many dictatorships that America has had no problems dealing with. Will the recent nuclear energy deal between the US and the UAE change any political dynamics? The ties between the US and the Gulf states are already solid, so this nuclear deal adds yet another dimension in relations between the United States and the UAE. Having said that, it could complicate America’s position on the Iranian nuclear programme. It knocks the wind out of the American argument that Iran – an oil rich country – doesn’t need nuclear power. Now here they go selling nuclear technology to the UAE.
With the financial crisis, does the US need the Middle East more than ever before? Given our globalised world, I don’t think any country can make itself free of the need for any other parts of the world. Some areas tend to be more important than others, because of location, resources or strategic position. So the Middle East has consistently received more attention from the United States than, say, Africa.
Are you optimistic about relations between the Obama administration and the Middle East? Or is this just a honeymoon period? I don’t have reason to believe that this current positive trend is likely to reverse, unless the US gets more bogged down in the financial crisis, or another crisis occurs that we can’t anticipate.