January 27, 2023

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US President Biden faces a 'complicated picture' on his first Middle East trip

US President Biden faces a ‘complicated picture’ on his first Middle East trip

US President Joe Biden is welcomed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Labit at Ben-Gurion Airport in Lod on Wednesday. He is going to Saudi Arabia after completing a two-day trip to Israel.The film is solid

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a huge billboard with Vladimir Putin’s face and the words ‘We support Russia’ appeared in the center of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It is not clear who was behind it. A few hours later, after a triumphant tweet from the Russian embassy, ​​the matter disappeared from the streets again.

‘A stunt’ smiles Michael Wahid Hanna (49), an analyst at the renowned think tank International Crisis Group. He grew up in the US to Egyptian parents, is fluent in Arabic and has published extensively on relations between the Middle East and the US. On Friday, US President Joe Biden will visit Saudi Arabia as part of his first visit to the Middle East.

Hanna doesn’t think the average Iraqi is really on the bench for President Putin. “He has other things on his mind besides the latest developments in Donetsk,” he says via video link from New York.

Polling: Tricky stuff

Still. From a survey based in Saudi Arabia Arabic News A quarter of those polled in the Middle East blame NATO for the war in Ukraine, the Youkov polling agency found. Only 16 percent see Putin as an aggressor. The largest group (more than 40 percent) say they don’t know, and 13 percent see US President Joe Biden as the main culprit.

Hanna explains that conducting such a survey in fourteen Arab countries is a tricky business. ‘Many people live in dictatorial countries like Kuwait or Qatar. What dare you say on the phone? Self-censorship can play a role.

What is clear is that large parts of the world are less likely to support the West or NATO. According to Hanna, this sentiment can be traced in part to a long tradition of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. He sums up: “Because of Washington’s continued support for Israel, Palestine is a fertile source of anti-Americanism against Israel. Then you have Invasion of Iraq (2003), and the whole thing War on Terror Then continued.’

Michael Wahid Hanna Statue ICG

Michael Wahid HannanImage ICG

Double grading

TV viewers in the Middle East This spring, major US television channels portrayed Ukrainian refugees in the first weeks of the war as ‘more civilized’ than their fellow victims in Syria or Afghanistan. ‘It undermines unity, and leads to accusations of double standards: one war in the West is judged differently than another.’

America’s role as a policeman has led to a ‘multipolar’ order in the international arena where governments alternate doing business with the Americans, Russians, Chinese or other high bidders. Many heads of state, including those in Africa and Asia, are reluctant to condemn Putin’s invasion because there will come a time when they will want to do business with him again. “We think eventually a deal will be struck (with the Russians, Red.), so we are not going with a completely anti-Russian stance,” UN Ambassador to Pakistan Munir Akram said earlier this year.

Russia is a reliable partner

Hanna also sees this pragmatism in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Washington’s traditional allies, Saudi Arabia. The US withdrawal, which began under President Obama and continued under his successors, is an opportunity to expand the arsenals of their partners. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has repeatedly visited Moscow to sign purchases of fighter jets and missile defense systems. Egypt is building its first nuclear power plant with Russian loans. It is also worth noting that the United Arab Emirates, which has a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, did not want to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. They abstained from voting.

‘The idea that Russia should be a reliable partner is gaining momentum,’ says Hanna. It stems from the Syrian civil war. Putin has been helping President Bashar al-Assad through thick and thin and successfully. That relationship dates back to the 1970s when Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, forged ties with the Soviet Union. That consistency and efficiency command admiration.’ Instead, the Syrian rebels immediately declared their solidarity with the Ukrainians. ‘Where you stand against Syria largely determines where you stand against Russia.’

The analyst finds the same contradiction in debates about US involvement. ‘One person prefers fewer interruptions, the other more. In the latter camp, you’ll find people who think Washington should have intervened in Syria and should now do more to curb Iran’s power. Suddenly we saw Muslims cheering when America’s ally Israel attacked Assad regime targets. It’s a complicated picture.’

America’s expectations are high

Or take Egypt. Hillary Clinton (then Secretary of State, Red.) flew to Egypt eleven years ago during the uprising in Tahrir Square, and no activist was willing to meet him. They don’t want anything to do with her. Fast-forward the tape to 2022 and you’ll find that well-known blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah is in prison and his sister is pleading for help with the same ministry in Washington.

Hanna has argued for years that Arab commentators have high expectations of America. Slowly, intelligently, through trial and error, they fix that image. During this war, the daily worries about rising prices prevail. Due to Russia’s blockade, wheat and grain imports have been halted. Another famine threatens in Yemen. “Of course the Americans hope to blame Moscow,” he says. “But most will think: negotiations should start soon, so that this war can end as soon as possible.”

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