Arabs warily hopeful about Obama

Middle Easterners laud US choice of president from minority group but fear policies will stay the same.

Obama 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Many across the Middle East heralded the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday but expressed reservations about how much he will actually change US policy in a region where anti-American sentiment spiked during the Bush administration. Those doubts have become more pronounced in recent weeks with the Gaza offensive by US ally Israel that killed over 1,250 Palestinians. But Obama still retains a great deal of goodwill in the Middle East from people who feel his multicultural background allows him to relate to the region better than past US presidents. Saleh al-Mohaisen, a Saudi who runs a jewelry store in Riyadh, said he was "overjoyed" when Obama was elected and will be following Tuesday's inauguration because "it's such an important event." "I wanted to send him a letter by courier to wish him well and explain how Muslims and Arabs feel," he said. "I felt that he could understand Arab suffering." Al-Mohaisen said Obama's failure to denounce Israel's Gaza offensive made him more wary of the new leader, but not enough to change his general opinion. "I love him despite his silence," he said. "I feel we share the same blood." Obama expressed concern about civilian casualties during the Gaza offensive but largely remained silent, saying there could be only one president speaking for the US on foreign policy issues. Iraqis also expressed mixed feelings, with some saying Obama represents a significant new page in US history and others questioning how much American policy will change in Iraq. "Today is a big day for America when a black president takes office," said Ali Salam, a 45-year-old owner of a stationary store in Baghdad. "This is real democracy and the results of the people's struggle." Muna Abdul-Razzaq, a 37-year-old primary school teacher in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, said Iraqis have bad memories of President George W. Bush "who destroyed Iraq." "We hope that Obama will be more responsible," she said. But Muhsin Karim, a 50 year-old official in Iraq's Oil Ministry, said "I don't expect a big change in Iraq because America is a state of institutions, where Obama will find few options to change anything." He said he doubted Obama would withdraw US troops from Iraq in 16 months as he promised during the campaign. Arab League chief Amr Moussa congratulated Obama on Tuesday and urged the new president "to put the Middle East as a key issue on his agenda." Iran also represents a significant challenge to Obama in the region because of tensions over its nuclear program. The incoming president has said he wants to step up diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict, an approach praised by some Iranians on Tuesday. Mahnazi Abbasi, a 27-year-old housewife in Teheran, said she hopes the two countries will "resume relations, and then we will be able to get a US visa and visit there." Other Iranians were less optimistic about a thaw. "Obama cannot do anything to change relations with us," said Rahmat Sabouri, a 24-year-old auto mechanic in Teheran. "Iran does not like Israel and Obama likes it. The two cannot get along with each other." Still, some people hold out hope that Obama will fundamentally transform US policy toward the Middle East. "Everybody loves him," said Abdullah Hiyari, a 21-year-old taxi driver in Amman. "I am hopeful that he is really going to change things for the better in the region."