Waiting for Obama The Arab World Looks to a New America

The US has long been a model for many parts of the Arab world, but the Bush administration's foreign policy led to rifts. Now, the region has high hopes from America, but they aren't sure what to expect from President-elect Barack Obama.

It's about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, which is roughly the distance from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara. One hundred years ago, California was the El Dorado for the Americans, a land on the horizon, far off near the edge of their map and yet at the center of their fantasies. Today, the Gulf Emirates occupy a similar place in the imaginations of the Arabs. Rich. Modern. Bold. The Emirates are enlightened where much of the Arab world is repressed and held back by its self-imposed restrictions. Many a young man in the slums of Cairo, in the prisons of Baghdad or behind the walls of Palestine has dreamt of speeding, wild and free, along the road from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in an SUV or in a convertible earned through his own hard work.

The coastal road, known as highway 11, recently received new signs similar to those in the US, including emblems like those used in the Interstate highway system, indicating whether a driver is going "northbound" or "southbound." The step was not an arbitrary one. Even though the British controlled this part of the world for centuries, modern Gulf Arabs have always looked to their protective power, the United States, emulating its capitalism and megalomania. The skyscrapers of Dubai and the checkerboard urban landscapes of Doha and Kuwait are concrete acknowledgements of their role model.

"I love everything about America," Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, said two years ago. His words reflected the sentiments of a growing class of ambitious Arabs who are tired of being seen as the eternal losers in world history. He spoke on behalf of those who are simply interested in doing business and have long felt alienated by the leftist and nationalist ideologies of pan-Arabism, by Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and by the Palestinians' obsession with victimhood. But despite the rapid pace of progress in this futuristic region during the last eight years, the current administration in Washington has made things difficult for these modern Arabs. This explains why the sheikh of Dubai followed his words of adoration with a much-quoted caveat: "I love everything about America, except for its foreign policy."

Fresh Ambivalence

Now a man is about to move into the White House whose father was a Muslim from Kenya and whose middle name is Hussein. Any Arab who did not support the black outsider from the start quickly became an Obama fan when a supporter embarrassed Republican candidate John McCain by saying, at a campaign rally, that she did not trust his Democratic rival because, as she claimed, he was an "Arab."

And now Obama is the president-elect. But if the 44th president of the United States were to believe that he has the unqualified support of Arabs, and that they will be willing to go along with anything he dreams up to solve the region's raging conflicts, from Palestine to Iraq to Syria, and most of all Iran, he would be cherishing an illusion. Arabs are pleased that Bush is history, and that they will no longer have to endure his sermons about democracy and freedom, and yet they consider Obama, the president of a weakened world power, with fresh ambivalence.

The elites on the Gulf are bursting with self-confidence as big as the skyscrapers in Dubai, lining up next to each other, growing taller and taller, as if there were no limits.

"Obama? A good speaker, but he lets others think for him," says Sultan al-Kassemi, 30. He is sitting in the lobby of the Mina al-Salam Hotel in Dubai, dressed in a snow-white dishdasha, constantly moving his right leg back and forth and folding and refolding his headdress, sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right. Two mobile phones and a string of prayer beads are on the table in front of him. He quickly rattles off his opinions about the US president-elect: "He supported the Kyoto Protocol. How does he expect to do that without making his fellow Americans suffer? He wants to withdraw from Iraq in 16 months. How is that supposed to work? He wants to talk to Iran but is opposed to giving any part of Israel to the Palestinians. How can that be?"

Obama Is a Mystery

Kassemi, a member of the ruling family of the small emirate of Sharjah, studied in Great Britain and knows the world. Every Sunday, he writes a much-noticed column in National, a newspaper that models itself on the Al-Jazeera television network: a free voice in a part of the world that has had little tolerance for a liberal public in the past. He accuses Arabs of not investing generously in Palestine. And he criticizes the Palestinians for having become so comfortable in their role as victims of the Israelis, instead of taking charge of their fate. He loves to shatter the conspiracy theories that abound in the Arab world. He writes that it was a mistake to drive the Jews out of Arab cities, and he says that it is a disgrace, the way Christians are mistreated in Iraq. He enjoys the cascade of cleverly worded phrases that seem to bubble from his lips with such ease.

Fog rolls in to a construction site in Dubai. The Arab world is eager to find out what the Obama administration holds for it.

Fog rolls in to a construction site in Dubai. The Arab world is eager to find out what the Obama administration holds for it.


Diplomats and foreigners in the Gulf region love Kassemi's columns for their fresh spirit, a sign of his confidence that although the Assads and Mubaraks of the world may have more power than he does, he is their superior when it comes to words. It is a small, well-educated elite that confidently observes the goings-on around the world. Ironically, these days this enlightened way of thinking ends precisely where one would not expect it to end: with Obama. Obama is a mystery, says Kassemi, suddenly becoming serious, his leg now twitching dramatically.

Obama became a mystery when he made a decision that hit the Arab world with a small bomb -- when the president-elect appointed Rahm Emanuel to the position of White House Chief of Staff. Elsewhere in the world, it was acknowledged that Emanuel had been chosen because of his reputation for toughness, directness and getting the job done. But a new conspiracy theory stemming from Emanuel's supposed biography has since spread throughout the Arab world. Isn't he an Israeli? Didn't he serve in the Israeli army? Isn't he a lobbyist for Israeli interests? And doesn't this mean that the world can expect to see more of the same unconditional unilateralism coming from Washington?

Emanuel was born and raised in Chicago. He is Jewish, and his wife converted to his faith. The mistrust is sparked by his father's biography. The senior Emanuel was a pediatrician and, before the establishment of the State of Israel, a member of Irgun, a militant organization that committed attacks on Palestinian Arabs and the British.

Criticism of Iran

The Gulf Research Center, one of the most influential think tanks in the Arab world, was founded by Saudi Arabian businessman Abd al-Aziz Zaghir. The organization is in many ways reminiscent of the liberal Brookings Institution or the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, with its comfortable working conditions, intellectual atmosphere, and the humor and irony with which employees converse with one another.

Mustafa Alani was born and raised in Iraq. He was in prison under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and he eventually went to London, where he lived in exile. He is the Senior Advisor and Program Director, Security and Terrorism Studies, at the institute. According to Alani, Arabs see Obama as inexperienced, which makes them nervous. This perception, says Alani, is mostly the result of his appointment of Emanuel, whose parents left Israel to immigrate to the United States in the 1950s. From an Arab standpoint, this does not bode well for a resolution of the Palestinian conflict, which, as Alani points out, is the heart of all conflicts, which the Americans and European should begin to realize by now. And doesn't Obama want to quickly bring US troops home from Iraq, Alani's native country? And doesn't he want to talk to Iran, without even hinting at what concessions he would be willing to make?

Calling Alani a critic of Iran would be a gross understatement. He shares his deep dislike of the mullahs with the elites in Sunni Arab countries. When asked about Iran's nuclear program, Arab politicians' official answer is that Israel should also get rid of its nuclear weapons. But that, says Alani, is not the real problem, because the region has had experiences with both Iran and Israel. "The Arabs have waged wars against Israel. Israel has never used its nuclear weapons. The Arabs trust the Israelis, but they don't trust the Iranians."

For the time being, these same Arabs apparently do not trust the incoming president of the United States, who has not yet internalized this difference.

"Has he given you a real scare?" Alani's colleague Eckart Woertz, the German chief economist at the Center, says with a smile. "Well, then we can talk about the economy now."

It is hard to say what worries the Arabs more these days -- world president Obama or the world's crisis of capitalism. Dubai's major developers, with operations from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, are said be in financial difficulties. How serious they are can only be surmised. Candor prevails in the Gulf region, but not transparency. And because the sheikhs are keeping their cards close to their chests, they are surrounded by a sense of dark foreboding. Last Thursday, a bank in Dubai decided that it would no longer issue loans to foreign employees of companies like Emaar and Nakheel, which are building the Palm Islands and the Burj Dubai, soon to be the world's tallest building. A large wave of layoffs is expected. According to the Moody's rating agency, Dubai's debt levels have reached more than 103 percent of its 2006 GDP.

The oil rush on the Gulf acts as the foundation of the region's modernity and a condition for its oases of free thought. It is to the Arab world what the California Gold Rush was to America more than 100 years ago: the historic proof that this country is blessed and can fully exert the economic power of a new type of civilization. Dubai, the capital of the Arab economic miracle, is still sparkling. The Burj Dubai, already almost 800 meters (2,624 feet) tall, is brightly lit by spotlights every night until midnight, and the world's largest shopping center was opened two weeks ago at the base of the tower.

Dubai hardly has any oil, which distinguishes the emirate from its neighbor Abu Dhabi, which exports more oil every day than Germany consumes. In other words, Dubai will not fail, partly because Abu Dhabi always comes to the rescue when the emirate runs into difficulties.

Plus, insists Sultan al-Kassemi in parting, the emirates are a long-lasting model of success. The crisis of capitalism can delay the process for a few years at best.

American Expertise

This part of the world, says someone who ought to know, is like a university where there are no examinations for anyone, and where the only activity is the scientific study of errors, mistakes and stupidity.

John Duke Anthony is giving a speech at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in Abu Dhabi, another institution that promotes the free exchange of ideas and opinions. His audience consists of a large number of men in dishdashas, a sprinkling of women, and a few men from the American embassy, who are listening stoically to the kind of speech no Arab diplomat would put up with for very long.

Anthony is part of the US foreign policy establishment. He has trained generations of diplomats before they were sent to Yemen, Saudi Arabia or Iraq. He exemplifies the enormous expertise the Americans have accumulated about this part of the world -- and that remained criminally unused in the last eight years.

America, says Anthony on this evening, had no enemies in the Islamic world after World War II. Those were golden years. In 1945, the United States supported Iran when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin threatened the country. And then the United States supported Indonesia when the Netherlands sought to continue subjugating its colonies. During the 1956 Suez crisis, Arab leaders saw America, despite its ties to Israel, as an ally in their dispute with the European colonialists.

He is apparently trying to say that history is full of points of contact and surprising discoveries. Nothing has to remain the way it is today. Transformation and change are always possible, in principle. Isn't this the leitmotif of the 44th president?

President Barack Obama, says Anthony, gazing off into the distance over the heads of his audience, will change the tone in the Middle East. Just the tone, they ask in response?

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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