Opinion polls give you numbers. But the coffee shop we recently visited in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia gave us the reason behind them.
When we walked into the small establishment in the oil-rich Gulf city, the air was heavy with fruit-flavored shisha smoke. Like most cities, the patrons automatically assumed we were American.
With the assumptions made, the chatter automatically turned to Middle East politics. Though barely audible over the blasting Arabic music, everyone had an opinion on the U.S. involvement in the region.
On this day, things were oddly back to normal. For a brief moment about a year ago, a flash of our Canadian passports was met with disappointment. Barack Obama had just given his "new beginning" speech at Cairo University. While sipping Turkish coffee, people were suddenly eager to talk about his middle name, his childhood in Indonesia, the country with the largest population of Muslims, and what this could mean for US-Arab relations.
A year ago, everyone was hopeful. But, as the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll showed earlier this month, negative views for Obama went from 23 percent last year to 62 percent this year. Of course, this was more than apparent in Dhahran. The conversation quickly got heated over talk of Israel and disillusionment towards American policies.
Obama has done the near-impossible domestically by passing the stimulus and health care bills. But, it was the international community that bought into his campaign slogan more than American voters. For them, change in the form of a peace process hasn't come quick enough.
"Israel-Palestine -- there is no question in my mind that the bulk of the shift in attitudes towards the Obama administration in the Arab world ... is due to disappointment on this central issue," says Dr. Shibley Telhami, who conducts the Arab Public Opinion Poll, at a Brookings Institute event. "This is the prism through which Arabs view the U.S. and I think that remains to be the case."
That's why we're eager to travel back to that Dhahran coffee shop now that Obama lobs his third Hail Mary pass.
It's no coincidence that the U.S. announced this week's round of peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just days after the United States withdrew the last of its combat troops from Iraq.
Forces in Iraq still conger images of Abu Ghraib in people's minds, discrediting the Americans as negotiators. With this latest move Obama positioned himself as close as an American President could to being a neutral third party.
If he can ease tensions, everyone will feel it from Jerusalem to Jakarta.
Israel-Palestine is often cited as a "regional" conflict. In reality it affects the world. It's one of the key reasons behind Iran's quest for nuclear weaponry. It was cited by the suicide bombers in the London tube. In Canada, it even led to a riot at Concordia University in Montreal.
In our travels to over 50 countries, our assumed identity constantly draws the conflict into conversation over Turkish coffee in the Middle East or fruit juices in Indonesia. Even in Kenyan markets where people cite Obama's middle name with pride, the Middle East peace process is always underlying the issues.
The Israel-Palestine conflict draws interest everywhere because resolving it would ultimately mean greater security for the world. Greater stability in this region would extend goodwill to the roughly 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. It would undermine Iran's nuclear ambitions and terrorist groups that act in the name of the cause.
Obama has already done the impossible by tackling two of most controversial domestic policies in America. By tackling this issue, maybe he can deliver the change people looking for the world over.
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