Yesterday in his latest major speech on the Middle East, President Obama pledged American support for pro-democracy uprisings in the region. However, in the Gulf, commentators are criticising what they see as a safe choice. They insist that the speech didn't cover new ground, was short on policy prescriptions, and that the president missed a chance to apologise for America's history of supporting the dictators people revolted against. Has Obama then missed the chance of opening "a new chapter" in the US-middle East relationship?
A one sided resume of America's history in the Middle East?
According to the US president's speech the history of American's presence in the Middle East and its policies and conduct can be can be defined very easily "For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace."
History however is never that simple, especially since the US has been interested in the region since the 1920's, which makes it a bit more than nine decades. While today, the American administration welcomed the Middle East transformation from the inside, in 1977 Robert W Tucker, a famous American foreign policy analyst insisted the biggest American threat in the region would "arise from indigenous development to the Gulf. The rise of Arab nationalism or Muslim fundamentalism or any other force not sufficiently obeisant to US interest would threaten Americans economic and worldwide economic leadership."
Indeed America's presence in the Middle East is not benevolent only and certainly in part derives from the fact that the region is considered to be the world's largest energy source. Moreover its relationship with many of the countries has been extremely complicated going from friendly to conflictual. Iran is of course one of the best example of a fascinating and tormented relationship between the US and a Middle Eastern country.
When the Eisenhower administration was accused of protecting the shah in the 50's, US officials did not realise how much the support offered to the Shah would negatively affect its image: from then on and until the Shah's destitution a strong anti-American feeling rose amongst the Iranian population and spread across the region. Another example would also be the negative effect of the US support and promotion of the UN plan of partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in 1948.
Over the year's America made alliances in the gulf to fight enemies such as communism or the Taliban. Unfortunately the accumulation of tensions and sentiment of suspicion has badly affected the US-Middle East relationship. However their long shared history has also led to the creation of a tight bond. The people in the Arab world still look up to America, and perhaps what they wanted to hear was not so much praises about their braveness but rather a proof that America was now willing to be more truthful about the past in order to enable a more transparent relationship in the future.
The missing friends
Yesterday Obama said, "The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn - no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.
Obama certainly is right when he says that in "too many countries power has been concentrated in the hands of the few". But while Libya, Bahrain and Syria have been rightfully mentioned in his speech where were Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and Jordan?
The U.S. has had a good relationship with Saudi Arabia since 1974, when Richard Nixon became the first American president to visit the country. However it was in 2007 that the ties between the two countries became even tighter as Saudi Arabia was certified as an anti-terrorism ally. While the U.S. does not provide direct military aid to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, according to CNN, it maintains extremely close ties to the government, a monarchy led by King Abdullah.
The Obama administration announced last November it is seeking a massive $60 billion, 20-year weapons sale to the Saudis, which would reportedly include 84 F-15 fighter aircraft and almost 200 helicopters, as well as trainers, simulators, generators, spare and repair parts, and other related elements of program support. And yet Saudi Arabia is indisputably an authoritarian regime.
There is no elected parliament, public protests are banned, and the media is controlled by the state and has maintained a very poor human rights record. Human Rights Watch summarized the situation in its annual report: "Authorities continue to systematically suppress or fail to protect the rights of nine million Saudi women and girls, eight million foreign workers, and some two million Shia citizens. Each year thousands of people receive unfair trials or are subject to arbitrary detention. Curbs on freedom of association, expression, and movement, as well as a pervasive lack of official accountability, remain serious concerns."
Yemen's leader for 32 years has been one of America's most consistent allies in the "war on terror" and actively worked with the U.S. to target the country's large network of al Qaida operatives. Following the leaked WikiLeaks cables Saleh was accused of covering up U.S. military strikes in the country and offering American forces an "open door" to execute more attacks. However after months of demonstrations and popular unrest the president has announced that he will step down from power in 2013. Unfortunately, the president's decision will not change the fact that the suppression of the protests by his forces was particularly brutal.
Oman has been ruled by Sultan Qaboos Bin as a 'benevolent dictatorship' since 1970, he has established an absolute monarchy under which all substantial decisions are made by him. Even so, Oman is one of America's oldest Arab allies, and one of the few Arab countries with which a free trade agreement has been signed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even praised the "remarkable gains" made in Oman under the sultan's leadership. In February 2011 popular up-rising threatened to destabilize the country, but the regime quashed the movement and arrested many protestors.
The United States gave Jordan, another Middle Eastern monarchy led by King Abdullah II, $300 million in military aid in 2010 while on Tuesday, Obama controversially also pledged several hundred millions of dollars in aid to the King. In response to recent protests, King Abdullah II of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet and appointed a new prime minister. And, according to Human Rights Watch, violations of basic freedoms are not uncommon in Jordan. The group said in its annual report: "Torture, routine and widespread in recent years, continues, in particular at police stations, where complaints about ill-treatment increased in 2009 and again in 2010." There is also no freedom of speech in Jordan, with steep penalties for criticising the king or the government.