Obama Rumbles in Cairo, Murmurs in Riyadh


President Obama's speech in Cairo (despite some minor pronunciation slip-ups) no doubt re-affirms his oratorical skills and time-tested ability to deliver powerful speeches, dense with ethical messages, a sage understanding of issues and, more than anything, moderation and pace.

However, while Obama was up to to the challenging task proving that classic liberal American pillars of freedom of religion, democracy, tolerance and progress can also be sensitive to Muslim values and identity, this is a necessary but insufficient condition to further convincing the Arab world that America's interests have them at heart.

After all, talk is cheap.  The incredible amount of hype that had amounted in the build-up to Obama's expected speech in Cairo stemmed from his pre-election promise to reach out to the Middle East in way that would be a stark departure from his predecessors.  In many ways, his speech truly was bolder than many former US presidents' public statements on the region.

However, part of many moderate Muslims' disenchantment with U.S. foreign policy stems from America's actions--not her words.  The peppering of his speech with "shukran" and "asalam alaikum", the encyclopedic, laudatory run-down of all the major contributions of Islamic civilization to culture and science in modern history, the poignant quotations of the Holy Quran to add breadth to a talking point and the many, many analogies of the plight of Muslims to different time periods of turmoil in the United States all demonstrate a deliberate verbal campaign to foster a new acceptance and trust of America.

But none of these beautiful verbal arrangements will be credible without corresponding policy action.    While all eyes seemed glued to the tv sets in the direction of Cairo for the megalithic, one hour ceremonial "dawn of a new era" of diplomacy in the region, I find myself having been more intrigued by learning more about his brief stopover in Saudi Arabia prior to landing in Egypt.  

Saudi Arabia, one of the most oil-rich countries in the world and a key US economic ally is also the homeland to some of the most famous terrorists in the world (many with high-class or royal family connections), boasts an abysmal human rights and freedom of speech record and also happens to be home to the most religious Muslim site on earth, Mecca.  A difficult game of Chess.

And this is perhaps the very fault in America's foreign policy attitude of lumping together a "MENA" region (for whatever that means) for the sake of categorization.  The simplification of this region as a single unit (in the case of the speech, "Muslim countries", whatever that means, and as absurd as "Christian countries") in rhetoric is incoherent with US ground-level policy, which has always had quite different and multi-pronged strategies according to each country and/or subregion.  This is where the discrepancy lies, which is causing an increasingly bitter aftertaste after so many saccharine speeches on behalf of US presidents.  US foreign policy in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait has nothing to do with US foreign policy in Palestine or Lebanon, for example.  

So what signs of change can be made from Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia?  Prior to this visit, the only real coverage of the President's interaction with KSA had emanated from his faux-pas ceremonial bow to the Saudi King Abdullah at the G20 summit in London.  While most recent coverage of his quick stop in Saudi Arabia has been eclipsed by anticipation to the Cairo leg of the journey, some noteworthy things resulted.

Rather than the fanfare that greeted him at Cairo University, it seems the KSA visit was quite a private affair.  In the same style as last year with then-president Bush, Obama was escorted to King Adbullah's Arabian horse-filled ranch at Jenadriyah.  Members of the press accompanying the President were under strict orders given to the State Department by the Saudi Government, which included the following (courtesy of the Friday Lunch Club blog):

—11:29 a.m. ET yesterday, State Department e-mail to White House reporters leaving today for Riyadh: “U.S. Embassy Guidance for Journalists — Dear Members of the White House Press Corps, The Saudi government is permitting journalists accompanying President Obama entry into the country without a visa or the usual customs procedures. While in Saudi Arabia, therefore, journalists are expressly prohibited from leaving the hotel or engaging in any journalistic activities outside of coverage of the POTUS visit. Those who do so risk arrest and detention by Saudi authorities.” 

— 3:50 a.m. ET today, State Department e-mail to White House reporters leaving today for Riyadh: “Correction: U.S. Embassy Guidance for Journalists — The U.S. Embassy in Riyadh Saudi Arabia would like to recall the inaccurate guidance issued to the White House press corps on June 1.”

According to The Kuwait Times, the US President was quoted as saying "I am confident that working together that the United States and Saudi Arabia can progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest."  Then the King presented Obama with a the kingdom's highest honor, entitled the King Abdul Aziz Collar (ironic wording), which he awarded to the president.  They "sat together in gilded chairs, sipped cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee from small cups and chatted briefly in public before retreating to hold private talks on a range of issues."

Retreating to hold private talks really stuck in my mind after reading the little coverage of the Saudi Arabia stop.  If we wish to see a dramatic departure from earlier Bush policies in the Middle East, then Saudi Arabia, the major player GCC country, does not seem to fit the emblem of this new page turned, and Obama's trip (from what was seen on the other side of the closed doors) did not step in great deviation from his predecessor.  But the truth is, the United States has always played a double-game in the Middle East between the resource-rich and the conflict-prone, the disjointedness of which only surfaces when terrorism plots get connected to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

So what are my hopes for Obama?  I hope that he will put positive pressure for freedom of press, human rights and transparency not only on conflict-prone countries that the United States sees as a security threat in the region, but also on the resource-rich Gulf states with whom the US currently engages in a mutually beneficial economic situation.  This would truly demonstrate his commitment to these values.  If he indeed hopes to wean the United States off foreign oil dependency into more innovative energy technologies, perhaps he will be in a more advantageous position to do so.  As the United States plans to diversify its economy off oil, bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia will change as well, and most likely, demands from the United States will diversify beyond petroleum barrel pricing negotiations and Israel.

1 Response on "Obama Rumbles in Cairo, Murmurs in Riyadh"

  1. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of
    justice is no virtue."
    Barry Goldwater

    Without liberty you can’t have justice and I’m sorry Mr. Obama your words lacked any honest support to liberty in our region.