In comparison to other regions in the world, the Middle East attracts a large part of US foreign policy attention and has often presented it with its most enduring challenges. In the last decades, protecting the US interests within the region has become a complicated task as America has to deal with the rise of fundamentalist and anti-Western ideoligies, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terrorism, Afghanistan and the rise of Iran as a regional and potentially nuclear power, while all the time consolidating its bases in a region that is one of the world's main energy sources.
While the region is affected by complicated and often volatile sub-state and intra-state relations, it is also divided with regards to its view and relationship of the United States and the West. While Israel is considered to be the strongest ally of the United States in the region, most of the Arab States have a more negative vision of the super power.
Taking a closer look at their mutual relationship it is however interesting to see how distorted their vision of one another is. While the US suffer the worst popularity ratings in the Middle East and Northern Africa, the recent political changes in the region demonstrate a will from the people to become more integrated into the international community by having regimes that follow the rules of the game, increasing these countries' possibility of becoming more important and credible international players. While in appearance rejecting many of the American associated ideals, those countries also demonstrate a will to absorb, learn and reciprocate the West, as democratisation is seen as a compulsory hurdle in the world of international actors who have a voice that counts.
The US and the Middle East
As recent poll ratings prove, it seems that the Obama administration has inherited some of the most negative ratings in local opinion polls that the US has ever seen. The dramatic shift of opinion seems to date back from the 2003 operation in Iraq as it provoked widespread discussion and controversy within the region.
A study by the University of Maryland shows that in 2008, after conducting research in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates , 88% of the population interviewed saw the United States as "one of the two states that posed the biggest threat to them," the other state being Israel at 95%. When asked how much confidence they had in the United States, 70% responded that they had no confidence.
Interestingly, these answers were more related to American foreign policy within the region than to American values per se. It then seems quite natural for the United States to try and change people's opinion. One of president Obama's first tasks was then to promise change, but change not only in America's perception of the region, a change that will also enable American's close circle to see the Middle East in a new light.
In 2009 The US president famously addressed three important speeches to nations of the Middle East. He started in March with a discourse addressed to the Iranian people, continued in April when he addressed Turkey and finally in June of the same year with his speech in Cairo. Throughout his speeches Obama reiterated his respect for the Muslim world but also for Islam, insisting that America is not at war with the religion itself and also insisted on the US will to balance its support for Israel with a stronger support for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state.
America's promises of new beginnings were however not warmly received by the leaders in the region and the population remained suspicious. The Obama administration seemed trapped in old rooted obstacles deriving from the difficulty that the US has always had when it comes to changing its foreign policy in the Middle East. As a consequence it has been difficult for the administration to translate its aspirations into concrete actions. With Obama today giving a speech on the region with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will be interesting to see if his administration has come up with a new, more productive and efficient strategy in conflict resolution.
The Arab Spring and the West: what implications?
In the Middle East and Northern Africa, the US is still suffering from poor ratings (recent polls conducted after the revolution in Egypt, showed an increase in anti-American feelings. On the other hand, these revolutions, which aim at the overthrow of authoritarian regimes that had dominated the political scene for decades, were driven by human rights demands, economic grievances such as mass unemployment, legal rights groups union federations, urban and rural workers.
One of the unusual key points of the Arab spring was that the population openly first voiced their discontentment in Tunisia and Egypt, countries that had been known to take measures to liberalize their economy. Those countries subscribed to a neoliberal ideology, and subsequently went down the route of economic liberalization. They opened their countries up to multinational corporations, and advertised their country as "business-friendly" and "tourist friendly". In the case of Tunisia for example, in the years preceding the demotion of Ben Ali, there was a surge in private clinics providing cosmetic plastic surgery while offering a leisure resort environment. These were primordially aimed at a growing section of the European population that is willing to have surgical procedures at a cheaper rate that in their country of origin.
Tunisia had thus been praised by the West for its secularism and its choice of economic policies for years. The sadder fact however certainly is that when faced with the prospects of democratic reforms or the prospect of economic liberalization, Arab countries opted for the latter, as their attempt to "modernize" their countries enabled them in the eyes of the international community rationalise and legitimise their tight grip on power.
Unfortunately, these economic policies, when met with endemic corruption and fraud from government personnel and parts of the elite have not only caused increased poverty and unemployment, but have also failed to promote any kind of democracy or openness. While Arab peoples were praised, by many Western leaders, for deciding to take their destiny in their own hands, too many authoritarian regimes are tolerated as being legitimate and thus supported. The Arab spring and this new wind of belligerent behaviour from the people of the Middle-East is in that sense a reflection of their desire to have access to the same privileges, at a domestic but also at an international level than any other players.