MIDDLE EAST: Reactions to Obama’s speech


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Reaction in the Middle East to President Obama’s speech on U.S. policy toward the region ran the gamut from surprise to support to disappointment. Following are selected, edited comments from observers in some of the region’s nations:

“It was not expected that Obama would criticize any of the U.S. allies, but he did so when he talked about Bahrain and called for a dialogue with the opposition while calling for the release of prisoners. Obama set a new approach toward the Middle East … opening a new chapter with the Arab world.”


— Hassan Sahili, student at the Lebanese University in Beirut

“Emotionally, President Obama’s rhetoric and eloquence appealed to the ears of his audience across the world. But Obama fell short of my expectations when he referred to Syrian and Bahrain authorities. I expected him to be more serious and harsher in his criticisms of President Bashar Assad [of Syria] and Al Khalifah in Bahrain. Both these countries are run despotically and heavy handedly. Bahrain … is the U.S.A.’s ally, and Syria is not an ally of the U.S. Both governments are fiercely and brutally suppressing their own people. I expected President Obama to … clearly put pressure on both governments to cave in to the demands of their own people.… The U.S. in particular and the West in general are treating the regional countries with double standards, as the violation of human rights in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are ignored or neglected while the human rights breaches in Iran are highlighted. Anyway, President Obama has got a historic, golden and unprecedented opportunity to seize his place in history … if he addresses the democracy in all countries in the region” equally.

— Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University

‘This very reference to Iran is an indication of Iran’s undeniable upper hand in the region in the wake of the recent insurgencies in the Arab and Islamic countries. If my premise had been wrong, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain would not have tried so much to cut the cultural and spiritual influence of Iran in the Middle East.” — Dr. Ahmad Bakhshayesh, political scientist in Tehran

‘I think it’s [Obama’s] dream to change the world in a peaceful way. The Middle East is very complicated. America is heavily involved. He’s clever and smart. He achieved what previous administrations never could. He’s moving toward fundamental change. He has all means to move forward in this direction. It’s not easy to shift from the old politics to the new politics. The new method would represent the new ideals. All these presidents — Mubarak, Ben Ali, Assad, Saleh — it was a scandal that people like that were allied to the United States. It is important to serve and protect not only your national interest, but your image.’ — Mustafa el Labbad, head of Al Sharq Center for Political and Regional Studies in Cairo ‘Overall, [the speech] was good. I think from my point of view, the fact that he repeated the slogans of the youth in Yemen, Tunisia, Syria and Egypt … is important. He is repeating what the people were asking for. However, I thought he was going to go a little further to say there is a serious division. He indirectly mentioned that the American focus on free trade and fighting terrorism was not enough. I hoped he would have said there were gaps in our approach, there were flaws to our approach. That’s what I was hoping to hear. [His focus on Syria] a disappointing — he gave Bashar Assad a choice: Either you lead the reform, or you leave. We know that [Assad] can’t lead reform. [Obama] didn’t use the same strong language that he used in reference to Mubarak. Even the reference to Saleh was stronger than the one with Assad. He’s giving Bashar Assad room to maneuver, and giving him time.’ — Dr. Mohammed el Masri, political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University

‘For a speech with unprecedented specificity, Obama’s rhetoric won’t consistently be met with action. … Obama’s rhetoric only has teeth where America’s unchanged interests lie. [Even with insisting on] 1967 borders … a strong-willed speech from Obama without the will to twist a few Israeli arms along the way will do nothing to fix the Israeli-Palestinian question.’ — Anthony Haddad, 25, student in Beirut ‘For decades, we saw U.S. administrations turn a blind eye to the practices of dictators in the Middle East for the sake of stability and the sake of serving U.S. interests. Now we see a new U.S. policy.… The U.S. administration has decided to side … with the people of the region and not with the dicatorships. If the U.S. is going to side with the long-term interests of the region, it has to be with the people trying to free themselves, attain their rights and regain their diginty. This will have an impact on the regimes in the region. He said not everyone is going to like it [i.e. Saudi Arabia], but they must learn to live with it and adapt to it.… I think that he said what he said about the Palestinian issue [because he knows] that this weighs very heavily on perceptions of U.S. policy. He said quite clearly that things cannot continue as they are. He said that, because Israel is a friend, whatever it does affects U.S. foreign policy that much more.”

— Riad Kahwaji, military analyst and director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Affairs, a think tank in Dubai and Beirut.


— Borzou Daragahi and Roula Hajjar in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran


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