'Aspirin for Us Muslims' Arab World Skeptical about Obama Overture

US President Barack Obama is eager to improve relations with the Muslim world. But many in the Middle East are skeptical that this week's presidential visit will be enough. While attitudes toward the US have improved since Bush left office, Israel remains a major hurdle.

The complexities of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US are on full view at Exit 5 on the Riyadh ring road every Friday. It is there that the US motorcycle brand Harley-Davidson has its Saudi Arabia headquarters.

At dawn, the parking lot in front of the Harley showroom fills up with cars driven by cheerful-looking men. They leave their sedans and pick up their motorcycles from the air-conditioned garage. They swap their white dishdasha robes for black leather gear and replace their red and white checkered headscarves with motorcycle helmets featuring the Stars and Stripes and skull emblems. Then they make their way via the Riyadh freeways out into the desert to the kingdom's oasis towns.

"It is more convenient to store the motorcycles and the clothes on our premises. We keep them in good condition, "says Marwan al-Mutlak, himself an avid Harley rider, who came up with the idea for the business.

"There is another reason," says one of his employees. "Not all mothers here like to see their sons riding motorcycles. And not all fathers want to see their sons in these clothes." It's fun to begin the weekend as an American. But not everyone wants to look like one at home.

A Tough Crowd

When US President Barack Obama travels to Riyadh and Cairo this week in a bid to repair America's relationship with the Islamic world, he will meet a tough audience. It is true that the American public opinion research institute Gallup has found that the image of the US administration has improved  in six selected countries in the region. The flags of the United States and Saudi Arabia may flutter in cozy harmony along the freeways of Riyadh. And the Egyptian government has even repaved the roads along which Obama will travel to the University of Cairo, where he will give his speech to the Muslim world Thursday.

Yet many Muslims have become cynical as far as America is concerned. The Muslim world is at odds with the US. And as a result of the economic crisis which has hammered the West, Muslims are feeling increasingly self-confident and experiencing a fair degree of schadenfreude. And that also applies to those who actually quite like America.

"I salute Obama. The new tone that he is taking is remarkable," says Khalil al-Khalil, a conservative scholar who lived in Los Angeles for 17 years and today teaches at the Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. "But I do not think he is promoting peace in the Middle East. I do not think that anyone is promoting peace, as long as Washington pampers Israel as it has done for the last 50 years."

The problem is not on the Muslim side, al-Khalil says. He points out that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in 2002 presented a peace plan that all Arab states agreed to and which almost all Muslims -- from Nigeria to Indonesia -- supported. That plan foresaw the withdrawal of Israel to the June 1967 borders and envisioned in exchange normal diplomatic relations with all Israel's neighbors. "Does anyone seriously believe that America and Israel will ever consider it?" he asks. "I don't."

The diplomatic "bantering" between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  was very interesting and for Muslims very depressing, says a Saudi businessman who studied communication sciences in Chicago. "They argue about a settlement freeze in the West Bank," he says. "As if the whole thing was about a freeze on settlements! The key issue is the removal of settlements, not about making permanent what is already there."

United against Iran

"As far as the Middle East conflict is concerned, I fear that it will only be my grandchildren who agree with America," says Mohammed al-Zulfa, a historian who graduated from Cambridge University and who is one of the most prominent reformers in Saudi Arabia. "In other areas, things will go quicker, for example regarding the rule of law and good governance, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- and Iran."

According to al-Zulfa, broad majorities in all Muslim countries -- not to mention their governments -- reject radical regimes like the Taliban. It is the same story with Iran's nuclear program. The simple fact that Obama is coming to Riyadh and Cairo shows that Obama wants to put pressure on the "moderate countries" in the region to follow the US line on Iran, al-Zulfa says. "Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah will continue to try to break this alliance. But it is a hopeless battle. The truth is that Obama will only address us moderate Muslims. He wants to force the extremists into a corner."

Iran is not just one of several dangers, says Khalil al-Khalil -- Iran, he feels, is " by far the main threat."

In 1954, the US and Britain brought Turkey, Iraq, pre-revolution Iran and Pakistan together in the so-called Baghdad Pact. The common enemy then was the Soviet Union. Washington is probably considering something similar today, says the historian Mohammed al-Zulfa -- only now the enemy is Iran and its allies. But not all the countries in the Islamic world are on the same page. Even for the charismatic speaker Obama, it will not be easy to speak to Muslims without addressing the issue of their deep divides. "I'm very curious to see how he does it," comments al-Khalil.

Greater Self-Confidence

In the wake of the global economic crisis, the shock that 9/11 triggered among Muslims has slowly ebbed away. "We are more confident today than we were during the years of the Bush administration," says al-Zulfa.

"And we are not entirely irrelevant," comments the Saudi businessman. "Obama does not only want our political support against Iran -- America and the West also need money from us."

At the London G-20 summit in April, Saudi Arabia was asked to help out with billions for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The price of oil, which has continuously risen over the years and is now back at around $60 per barrel after the 2008 crash, shifted the balance of power -- and not to the detriment of Muslims.

"Obama can sense that quite clearly, and he is making a wise move in seeking to heal the wounds which have divided us in recent years," says Mohsen al-Awaji. Al-Awaji, a Saudi dissident who mediated between the government in Riyadh and Saudi jihadists after 9/11, views Obama's diplomatic offensive in clinical terms.

"The question is: What medicine has Obama brought for us?" he says. "In actual fact, we need a strong antibiotic against the bacteria which infected us back then. I hope he has more in his doctor's bag than just a few boxes of aspirin for us Muslims."

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