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Posts Tagged ‘Obama’s Cairo speech’

Duke Senior’s Crib Sheet on Obama’s Initial Reception in the Middle East

August 30, 2009 1 comment

Edith Chen, now a senior, studied and lived in Amman, Jordan from February until early May of this year. Jordan is the primary US ally in the region, and the close relationship between the governments have made the royal family’s legitimacy  more tenuous.

This is Edith’s always-relevant assessment of how Jordanians received President Obama’s June 4th address.

The upper middle class is generally more skeptical about Obama’s ability to change US policies in the Middle East (Christian, Muslim, and Palestinian Jordanians alike).

A man in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman watches the US Presidents address to the Middle East and Muslims June 4th.

A man in a Palestinian refugee camp in Amman watches the US President's address to the Middle East and Muslims June 4th. The Guardian

The prevailing issue to Amman’s Jordanians has always been Israel-Palestine, which is unsurprising given the large Palestinian urban and refugee population. Thus Obama’s silence during the Israeli air attacks on Gaza really set back Obama’s credibility as the “anti-Bush” (at least when I first arrived, and Gaza was still a fresh topic of discussion). I think whether Obama can follow up his support for a Palestinian state in speech with actions (and exert pressure on Israel) will be critical if he wants to reach out to Jordanians.

There is also some privately expressed skepticism towards the Jordanian monarchy, which is seen as too cozy with the US government. This feeling is even stronger for Palestinian-Jordanians. It’s noteworthy, however, that skepticism towards governments is common in the Middle East, since during my time there, I has also encountered complaints about the governments of the Gulf states, Egypt, Iran, and even Turkey, trying to inject their influence and ideology in regional affairs.

Regarding whether Obama’s message can effectively reach the people, it is a matter of local consciousness than the effectiveness of his message. Something I noticed in my family was that the nightly Turkish musalsal seems to have priority instead of the news. I don’t think I ever saw our TV tuned into a news channel during my 3 month stay, except during the Pope’s visit, and I’ve never seen a newspaper in the home; so I am not certain how or if they keep up with  political developments. I don’t know if this apathy towards politics is common to the urban upper class. The inertia of cynicism–that the more things change the more they stay the same–is a challenge Obama will have to beat if he wants a more receptive and enthusiastic urban audience in the Middle East.

Working class Transjordanians, or Jordanians without Palestinian lineage, (such as taxi drivers, store keepers) have expressed more positive attitudes towards Obama. But I believe these responses may be due to a self-selective sample. The ones who aren’t keen on Americans are unlikely to engage in conversations with us. At another time, a Palestinian driver (originally from Kuwait before the first Iraq war) was outraged that he was stuck living in Jordan and complained about the country and its shortcomings relative to life in a Gulf state.  His outburst was so intense that we didn’t want to bring up the fact that America is the reason he was forced to evacuate Kuwait.

Bedouin Transjordanians seem to have a positive attitude towards Obama, but not the US government. As tribal Transjordanians, they have a higher esteem towards the monarchy and respect the king’s traditional ties to the US. For instance, my host family’s Bedouin grandfather used to travel with King Hussein and named his sons after the princes. For the Bedouins I believe the Iraq war was a major factor that hurt their perception of the American administration, since there was a time before Iraq’s sanction that they helped the Jordanian economy by providing subsidized oil. Hence, many other students were also surprised to find their Bedouin households decorated with portraits of Saddam Hussein. Likewise, my Bedouin grandfather said Obama was a good man and so was Saddam, while Bush was majnun (so in the twist of analogy meant he approved of Obama on some level). How Obama handles the Iraq situation might be important in changing their perception about the US. A continued perception of the US as an aggressor and an occupying force will hit the traditional tribal sensibilities the wrong way.

As senator, Obama toured the Middle East to engender enthusiasm for a new era of US-Arab relations.

As senator, Obama toured the Middle East to engender enthusiasm for a new era of US-Arab relations. Handout/Getty Images Europe

Satellite television beams in 24-hour global news into most households, even in the remote Badia where the Bedouins lived and herded. Therefore, Obama’s approach of giving direct speeches would be an asset in winning his case with those in the Middle East. Unlike my Amman host family, my Bedouin family kept up to date with news development and frequently watched CNN and al-Jazeera. Bedouins also have more political leverage on a per-capital level, since the electoral districting system was designed to give more power to the tribes. More than this, social and political connections, or wasta, awards Transjordanians with priority for government jobs. As a result, how they perceive the situation will be influential. But the Jordanian tribal political system is so complex and I’m uncertain as to what this might mean.

In short, what Obama decides to do about a Palestinian state will be the foremost determining factor in how he will be received by Jordanians. The diversity of actors in Jordan could also create numerous problems in the country that is one of America’s most helpful allies in the Middle East: exacerbated tension between Palestinian-Jordanians and Transjordanians; diversion of resources and support from other areas of social development and modernization. These issues of contention could possibly jeopardize Jordan’s national stability and generate support for opposition political parties. The monarchy also has a history of “protecting” the country from another Black September with crackdowns on civil liberties and rollbacks of the budding democratizing process.

If Obama can clean up the previous administration’s mistakes in Iraq, Guantanamo etc. in a responsible manner and seek dialog with the region’s important players, the President could repair the perceptions.

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