19 May 2011

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


When Barack Obama came to power, he faced the burden of hugely inflated expectations. When it came to last night's speech about the Middle East, at least in the region itself, he faced the opposite problem: expectations were low, cynicism was high, and many Arabs were unaware the speech was even happening. The US suffers a credibility gap in the region.

The Middle East has changed greatly since Mr Obama made his famous speech at Cairo University in 2009, in which he spoke of the achievements of Islam, argued that there are universal aspirations to democracy and human rights, but stopped short of criticising the authoritarian rule of specific US allies in the region. That speech was praised by the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Among Arab audiences, common reaction was 'nice words, but let's see the actions'.

Given the extent of the changes in the Middle East since then, what is striking about Mr Obama's speech is just how similar it is to those Cairo remarks. So what, if anything, was new?

On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Mr Obama's tone was fairly dovish by US presidential standards, but his policy recommendations were little changed. His use of the phrase '1967 borders', which was immediately caveated 'with mutually agreed land swaps', has provoked much comment, but in reality the US policy was virtually the same under George Bush. This policy was also embodied in President Clinton's parameters and appears similar to the vision laid out in the 2003 road map. Bush envisaged 'mutually agreed changes' to the borders.'

What was missing?

It was what President Obama did not say that was most interesting. He did not explicitly say Hamas had to recognize Israel, which has been one of Quartet's three demands of the group since its election in 2006. Instead he said the Palestinians had to come up with a 'credible answer' to Israel's legitimate concerns about this, suggesting a compromise formula may be possible (Hamas leaders have already said they will seek a state on 1967 borders but their Charter calls for the destruction of Israel). At the same time, though, he did not reiterate his previous insistence for an end to Israeli settlement-building - something he backed down on after staunch opposition from Mr Netanyahu.

For Mr Netanyahu, who is in Washington today, the subtle shift on Hamas will be worrying. For the US public this counts as a very dovish speech. However, even Mr Obama's most pro-American, moderate Arab allies are disappointed that he was unable to persuade, and unwilling to compel, Mr Netanyahu to extend a settlement freeze.

Stronger words for some

The other main difference with the 2009 speech is that Mr Obama singled out countries and leaders by name, calling on the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, until recently a US ally, to transfer power, and on the Syrian president, Bashar Assad to lead a transition to democracy or 'get out of the way'. It was not clear exactly what the US would do to back these calls up, but the imposition of new sanctions personally targeting Mr Assad the day before gives the words more teeth.

Mr Obama also had mild criticisms for a US ally, Bahrain; his stumbling over this part of the speech led many to speculate that these were hard-fought last-minute edits. He said dialogue could hardly work when the leaders of peaceful opposition parties were in prison, and he condemned the destruction of Shia mosques. In the current context, when UK and US officials have been relatively quiet about human rights abuses in the Gulf, even these mild criticisms were noteworthy.

Some have criticised him for not singling out Saudi Arabia, but the criticism of Bahrain, together with statements about women's rights, the use of tribal patronage and religious freedom, all send messages to the Gulf states.

Actions not words

Overall, the impact of the speech will be limited; people will be waiting to see progress on the ground. Policies have begun to change this year. Notably, the US can claim it influenced the Egyptian military not to shoot, and called for a peaceful transition - but these nuances were largely lost on protestors faced with American-made tear gas. Support for the no-fly zone in Libya is also important, but runs into Arab scepticism about Western intervention in oil-rich countries.

So far this year - for once - the Israeli-Palestinian issue has not taken centre stage in the region. But Arab views of US policy will be largely determined by whether any progress can be made on this key issue.