A driving question behind much of the anticipation for President Obama's Middle East trip is: how will he be received by the people? Naturally, the answers are mixed, but there appears so far to be an overall welcoming tone Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, based on Arab press reports. Arab News has a convenient round-up of statements from poll respondents in Saudi Arabia who express appreciation for Obama's Riyadh visit as a symbolic gesture, but who also issue caveats against hewing to past policies and rhetoric that alienates Muslims. One such example, from Arab News:
"President Obama's visit here is a good sign, especially when he is intending to reach out to the Arab and Muslim people; however, there has to be honesty in dealing with the Palestinian issue. Only with honesty in promoting peace in the region will he be able to win the hearts and minds of people here. My family and I watched Obama win the presidency; he seems to be a nice person and he talks of totally different plans for peace in the region. This is a good sign and I hope that he focuses on the Palestinian issue and on human rights. His message was 'hope' and I hope that he gets to spread his message to the region." -- Mohammed Abdullah.
And according to a Wednesday report from NBC News' Tom Aspell, many in Egypt are celebrating Obama's speech because of what it means for them as a Muslim nation deserving of respect. From Aspell:
Egyptians are immensely proud that President Barack Obama has chosen Cairo University as the site for his speech addressing the world's 1.5 billion Muslims on Thursday. They see it as a gesture of respect, and an acknowledgement that their capital is the seat of Islamic-Arab culture.
Workmen cleaned the university's gates this week as students hurried across the manicured campus. Final exams are only days away, yet the talk was all about the American president's visit.
Chris Good at the Atlantic rounds up word from more outlets:
A headline from state-run Iran Daily declares, "Obama to Get Mideast Talks Back on Track," while, according to Saudi English-language outlet Arab News, Obama's trip "evokes hope for the future" in Saudis. A sub-head in Pakistani newspaper Dawn declares that Obama looks to revive peace talks "while a US confrontation steadily builds with Israel." Both Iran Daily and the Iranian Islamic Republic News Agency ran stories on Obama's discussions of Iranian nuclear-energy ambitions -- both of them posing Obama favorably.
However, some Arab media outlets paint a different picture, with a more critical tone that suggests the enthusiasm for Obama's visit is confined primarily to official quarters, and that among other groups there is more of a mixed bag. Human rights advocates, for example, have expressed concern with the administration's venue choice, claiming that the visit will condone much-criticized Egyptian policies against political dissidents, Al-Ahram Weekly notes.
Al-Ahram's report also includes statements from a rather cynical taxi driver named Anwar, who may represent a viewpoint held in more unofficial quarters:
For Anwar, the Obama visit is not particularly reason to rejoice. In fact, Anwar, is not interested in the speech that Obama will deliver. "What message and what speech? And what will we do with his words when Iraqis are being killed and when Israelis are killing Palestinians?" Anwar asked. He added that Arabs should expect nothing from Obama or from anyone, "no matter what they tell us".
Public speeches are not good platforms for policy-making. However, they are suitable for articulating values. No offense, but nobody in the Middle East really cares about Obama's ancestors or youth years, or his views on other religions. What we care about - and what the US president should explain on this trip - is whether the US government believes that habeas corpus and the Fourth Geneva Convention, for example, apply with equal force to Arabs as well as to Israelis.
The disparity is perhaps explained by Huffington Post Contributor Noha Khattab, a vice president at Amwal Al Khaleej Investment Co. in Cairo, who writes:
Egyptian society is segmented along very clear lines dictated by cultural and socioeconomic metrics. Among other things, discussions in the upper quartile of society center around Obama's visit being a 'fresh start' to US relations with the Middle East, while discussions in the 'blue collar' segment of society center around how much scolding of Egypt the speech will carry.
And for his part, Huffington Post Blogger Omid Memarian reports Wednesday on the implications of Obama's venue choice, citing rather vocal critics:
"It is a mistake to speak about Islam in the framework of any given country but, to me, Cairo may be the worst choice," explains Olivier Roy. "Addressing Muslims from Cairo is supporting [President] Mubarak who has a political agenda; it means to endorse his political agenda and it means also makes the issue of Islam hostage of the Middle East crisis, which for me is a mistake. So, in this sense, Indonesia would have been better."