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Can Obama change Arab sentiment toward the US?

Can Obama change Arab sentiment toward the US?

US President Barack Obama will address the Muslim world on June 4. But Arabs ready to listen?

June 3, 2009 6:44 by

US President Barack Obama is making his first official visit to the Middle East this week. He couldn’t have chosen a more politicized month. Both Lebanon and Iran will be staging elections on June 4 and June 12 respectively, Kuwait’s newly appointed members of parliament have staged walkouts at their first session on Sunday, and finally, the GCC monetary union will sign an agreement on June 7, with or without the UAE’s participation.

But in spite of the elections and the agreements in the region, the most anticipated event this month is Obama’s speech at Cairo University on June 4, where he will address the world’s 1.83 billion Muslims.

US and Middle East relations have always been strained due to America’s foreign policies and its support of Israel; but relations and dialogues suffered tremendously when the US waged its war on terror in the region. Former US President George W. Bush’s rhetoric toward the Arab world, and his refusal to meet democratically elected Arab leaders the US disapproves of, increased Arabs’ negative sentiment toward the US.

Obama’s handling of the Middle East and the Muslim world, however, is a marked shift from the previous administration’s approach.

“[M]y job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world that the language we use has to be a language of respect,” Obama said in his first interview as president to Al Arabiya.

“[T]he language we use matters,” he continued. “We cannot paint with a broad brush a faith as a consequence of the violence that is done in that faith’s name.”

In spite of his approach, Arab sentiment toward the United States has shifted marginally since the Bush days. The Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, a survey conducted by the University of Maryland and Zogby International, found that 77 percent have a “very unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” attitude toward the US, a 6 percent drop from 2008’s results.

The poll surveyed 4,090 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates from April to May 2009.

The Arabs “are listening, they are hopeful – [but] they are not in love,” says Shibley Telhami, a professor of Mideast affairs at the University of Maryland and principal investigator for the annual Arab Public Opinion Survey.

And even if they were in love, sentiments across the Muslim world are varied and rooted in political and cultural differences. According to Hala Mustafa, editor of the Cairo-based Democracy Review, “It would take a magician to deliver a speech to satisfy them all.”

Perhaps the president’s two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may improve Arab sentiment toward the US; but seeming that former presidents had pledged to solve the conflict, but failed, it is unlikely Arabs will believe Obama is capable of change until there’s proof on the ground.

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