U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Chicago April 14, 2011.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Chicago April 14, 2011.

Obama to pledge Millions of US dollars in aid to back the Middle East

Barack Obama's widely anticipated speech will see him try to rehabilitate the image of the US in the Middle East by repositioning the country as a solid supporter of newly-emerging Arab democracies. His speech comes amid criticism that the US has been too slow to support the uprisings, and has adopted contradictory approaches in its dealings with different countries.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said that the president saw the recent developments as a great opportunity for America and the values it promotes. "In the last decade, our focus in the region was largely on Iraq, which was a military effort, and on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against al -Qaida," Carney told reporters. "That fight against al-Qaida continues, but there is an opportunity in that region to focus on advancing our values and enhancing our security, and that's what the president looks forward to discussing in his speech."

The speech is expected to last 45 minutes, a long one by Obama's standards. Media and commentators are already comparing America's new position and policies to its behaviour after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So what are the key points that Obama is expected tocover in his speech?

The president is first expected to announce that as an act of support for the new wind of democracies brought about by the Arab spring, the United States and the EU have agreed to pour billions of dollars into the Middle East. At a time where the West is particularly affected by a slowdown of the economy, it sounds somehow a little risky.

It is however his most important speech on the Middle East since Cairo in 2009, when he called for a new beginning in relations between the US and the Muslim world. While Obama was at first seen as a breath of fresh air, following the mandate of George W. Bush, his support in the region has since dropped drastically. In the hope to re-establish himself as an ally of the people, the speech will mainly deal with the Arab spring, hailing the benefits of democracy, the need for human rights to be respected, while asserting the need for freedom of speech. America's long-time support for authoritarian regimes in the region will then undoubtedly be pushed to the side.

Senior Obama administration officials, briefing on the speech, said he will take a fresh look at the Middle East after a decade of tensions and divisions, probably by coming back on the main key events that have marked the region's recent history. With the winding down of the Iraq war and the death of Osama bin Laden, "we are turning a page", one official said, highlighting the weight of the pro-democracy movements' in America's vision of the future within the region.

Officials in the White House have also suggested that the best way to support democracy was through economic reforms. The US is said to be planning to relieve Egypt of up to $1bn in debt and lend or guarantee up to $1bn while it will expect the World Bank, the IMF and other multilateral institutions to provide a further $2bn-3bn. The idea is to turn Tunisia and Egypt into models of success to encourage others to pursue democracy. It can however also be seen as an attempt to try and do with these countries what failed in Afghanistan and Iraq. By the same token, as the US and Europe are talking more and more openly about a withdrawal of their troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent up-risings have given them a good reason to stay active and present within the region. A US official confirmed: "It is the beginning of a long-term effort,"

While some will be praised, let us not forget that others will be reprimanded as Obama is also due to devote a big portion of his speech blasting countries such as Iran and Syria.

Yesterday, the US Treasury announced sanctions targeted at Syria's president Bashar al-Assad over the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters inflicted by his regime, while six other Syrian officials were also added to the sanctions list.

Talking about the sanctions, David Cohen, the acting Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence explained that "the actions the administration has taken today send an unequivocal message to President Assad, the Syrian leadership, and regime insiders that they will be held accountable for the ongoing violence and repression in Syria,". The US move came a day after the European Union imposed fresh sanctions against Syria but did not include Assad.

It will also come as a response to the highly criticised and unilateral position of the US in the Middle East for engaging in military action to bring down the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, but refusing to become sucked into a similar action in Bahrain and then Syria. The administration has also faced criticisms for being slow to cut ties with traditional US allies such as the former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

As well as enticing help from the EU and the world's most important financial organisations, Obama is also expected next week to urge the leaders of the G8 countries, which include France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada and Russia, to provide aid when he meets them at a European summit.

Controversially, on Tuesday, Obama also pledged several hundred millions of dollars in aid to King Abdullah of Jordan, who a few months ago rapidly managed to quash the anti-government protests supported by the region's democracy movement. Obama's decision to support a regime that is still understood in the region as being oppressive could raise questions about America's true intentions and the value of the billions of dollars to Egypt and Tunisia as incentives to the democracy movement.

Finally, the speech will give Obama the opportunity to express his continued hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He will further discuss the issue with the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, at the White House tomorrow, and is expected to address the conference of the Israeli lobbying organisation Aipac on Sunday before leaving for Ireland and Britain.