Yemenis hopeful for Obama’s “change” in the Middle East [Archives:2008/1207/Front Page]

November 13 2008

By: Alice Hackman
SANA'A, Nov. 12 ) Although most Yemenis admire first African-American president-elect Barak Obama and hope that he will re-think American foreign policy in the Middle East, they do not expect sweeping change in the region during his first term.

As the fervor of last week's presidential elections slowly fizzles out and Obama prepares himself to move into the Oval Office next January, hopefuls the world over have started drawing up to-do lists for the new Democrat president. When Yemen Times took to the streets to record Yemeni impressions and expectations of America's next president, it found that Yemenis are no exception.

At the top of their list of priorities are the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the improvement of relations between the U.S. and the Arab world after eight damaging years of the Republican George W. Bush administration.

For this is how Obama is generally viewed: not the answer to all the world's problems, not the harbinger of global peace, but better -definitely- than the last U.S. president.

“I think Obama will be better in general than the last American president, because nobody can be worse than [George W.] Bush,” said Ghayda Ahmed, 24, “But we will have to wait and see, because we can't judge from now.”

Yemenia Airlines employee Hamza Al-Sawari, 62, agreed, “If [Obama] abides by what he said in his campaign, he will regain the prestige of America. If he doesn't and continues like Bush, he will destroy both America and the world.”

Yemenis stress that, when Obama takes up office in a little over two months' time, he will have to mend damaged relations between the U.S. and the Arab and Muslim world.

“The last president's policies were rough and racist, but hopefully the new president will be good for the Arab world,” said Ahmad Al-Shami, 30, a trader in Baba Al-Yemen.

Accountant Naser Abu Baker, 27, believes that Obama will improve relations with the Muslim world: “I think that with Obama, there will be less hatred for Islam and Muslims than there was under former U.S. presidents; I say this based on the current political climate and his lack of strong ties to the Hebrew state.”

Yemenis admire the ambition and determination of a black man who was able, thanks to a remarkable wave of public support, to win the presidential race to the White House, but are aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

“[Obama] is very ambitious, and it is good when a black man runs in the elections and wins,” said graphic designer Ibrahim Al-Sherif, 23, “He will have to focus on his country's economic problems first before turning his attention to improving relations with other countries, but I think he will do his best.”

However, despite Obama's inspiring speeches and ambition, a large portion of Yemenis interviewed think that it will be hard for Obama to implement drastic change to American policies in the Middle East.

“I do not believe that he will bring about great change and I don't hope for anything from him. He may be able to alter some of America's foreign policies [in the Middle East], but it will be hard because most of these are based on previous agreements and treaties,” said Abu Baker.

“American policy in the Middle East, and in Yemen, will never change,” agreed chemist Amal Al-Makalih, 39, adding, “[Obama] is going to be harsher than Bush, because he will have to prove himself as the first U.S. president of Muslim and African descent.”

Although expectations were realistic, hope -a central theme to Obama's presidential election campaign- was also prevalent in Yemeni reactions to the U.S. election results. When asked what they would request from Obama if they were given the chance, an astounding number of Yemenis asked for world peace.

“We ask him for peace in the world. Perhaps he will be better,” said Al-Shami.

And, despite the cynics, some remain more optimistic than others: “I think [Obama] likes Muslims because his grandfather was Muslim,” said Hayat, 19, an English teacher, “I think there will be change in U.S. policy in the Middle East, because he said he wanted to stop the war and is interested in development and improving the U.S.”

Hamza Ghala Ba'a, a 25 year-old trader in the old city, was also hopeful: “He is the first black president in the U.S. and maybe everything will change. When we heard him speak during the election campaign, we felt he was different, a serious person.”

“From his massive public support, [Obama] must be good man with a good program,” agreed 19 year-old Daris, a baker, “We hope he looks after the interests of the Arab countries, the issues of Iraq and Palestine, and supports the poor, because if he does it will help to fight terrorism.”

In the wake of an unpopular Bush administration, Obama has captured the world's imagination, Yemen included. For the Middle East, hopes are high that he will withdraw troops from Iraq, close Guantanamo and negotiate with Iran, but Yemenis are aware that the new president will have to tackle the U.S. economy first and, although hopeful, most do not expect U.S. regional policy to change overnight.

In his victory speech last week, Obama himself warned that change would be gradual: “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.” Only time will tell if he is able to bring about the change so desired by many, both in the United States and abroad.