Kim Ghattas is an international affairs correspondent for the BBC based in Washington D.C. and the author of The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power. She writes a column for Foreign Policy magazine. Previously based in Beirut, she covered the Middle East extensively from 1998 to 2008.
No matter how much President Obama worked to disentangle the US from the Middle East, or led from behind as he tried to encourage the region to chart its own course, the Arab world kept tugging at his sleeve.
His vision, including a nuclear deal with Iran that would ostensibly allow the US to decrease its military footprint, was smart and strategic – but the region wasn’t ready, and the Obama administration’s approach was too academic, divorced from the reality of complex relationships.
American influence is deeply embedded in the Middle East, for good or ill, through historical ties, military alliances and civil society exchanges. US elections are always closely watched in the Arab world, because living on the receiving end of American foreign policy can have life or death consequences. People follow the ups and downs of the campaign, the polls, the debates; the region’s hopes and dreams then fall and rise with the results, and with every action taken by the new president.
When George W. Bush invaded Iraq, and Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad, some people in Syria told me they hoped this meant statues of their own autocratic leader, Bashar el Assad, would soon be toppled in Damascus.
Elsewhere in the region, I witnessed hope about the signal it sent to have the entrenched dictatorship of Saddam come to an end almost overnight. Until, of course, disillusionment and bitterness set in with the post-invasion debacle.
When Barack Obama was elected, he stirred hope in the heart of young Arabs as they watched, starry eyed, his speech in Cairo in 2009. What precisely they were expecting is unclear, intangible, but their hopes derive from a long-held reflex in parts of the Arab world of looking to the US as a savior. And though they were again disappointed, Obama still remains more popular than his successor and predecessor.
Yet young people’s expectations of America are simultaneously tempered by the lucid understanding that American foreign policy is driven by constants of its national security interests: so ahead of American president elections, Arabs will often also say they expect nothing new from the next occupant of the Oval Office.
The election of Donald Trump was different. The level of angst and disbelief generated by his rhetoric during the campaign were palpable every time I traveled to the region and the concerns were soon confirmed by the new administration’s travel ban.
Despite the chaos and disruption the ban caused for thousands of Arabs, young and old, not a single Arab government denounced it, no Arab officials advocated for the thousands caught up in the chaos at airports or refugee camps, or families suddenly separated by the Atlantic.
While the survey shows that 70 per cent of young Arabs view Trump as anti- Muslim, the governments in many Arab countries sought to downplay both the ban and the rhetoric, with a Saudi royal advisor issuing a statement saying Trump was a “true friend of Muslims” and that the travel ban was “a sovereign decision aimed at preventing terrorists from entering the United States of America”.
The impact of being barred from the US will, of course be felt most by young Arabs deprived of access to the land of opportunities, not their leaders. So it is no surprise that 83 per cent of respondents have an unfavorable view of the man who is not only narrowing their horizons but also cozying up to those same leaders who are failing to provide jobs and opportunities for their young populations.
The disconnect between some Arab leaders and their people – the same one which fueled the uprisings in 2011 – may widen as transactional alliances between the US and Arab countries are bolstered on the basis of security and military cooperation. Though last year’s survey showed that stability had become the number one concern, a stability built on more repression will not be sustainable. With the US seemingly no longer interested in raising the issue of human rights, young Arabs may feel increasingly trapped and frustrated.
Though the US gets plenty of criticism for double standards and for turning a blind eye to abuses by governments when it suits its national security – or economic – interests, civil society activists in the region also know their only outside source of support in their calls for more freedom is the US, not Iran, and not Russia.
If Russia’s standing is rising in people’s eyes, while America’s is slipping, it is likely because of some respondents’ desire for a reliable partner that delivers, the way Russia has done consistently for Syria’s president for example, alongside Iran. Indeed, views of Russia and the US often mirror the Saudi-Iran regional divide. In those countries where Iran has strong proxies, like in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, a majority considers the US an enemy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s military strike against Syria, after the survey, in April 2017 in reaction to the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons, provoked jubilation, not only amongst Syrians opposed to Assad but also Arabs across the region who resented Obama for abandoning Syrians to their fate. Trump’s affectionate nom de guerre on social media is now Abu Ivanka al Amreeki, Father of Ivanka the American.
The region and its youth are an unpredictable, emotive judge of America, opinions fluctuate with changing expectations of what they want the US to deliver. Two years ago, the US was still seen as a top international ally, right after Saudi Arabia and the UAE, now Russia is at the top. With Trump himself proving just as unpredictable and impulsive, people’s views and anxieties about him and America will shift often during his time in office.
THE EXPERT COMMENTARY
Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017.
Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including lack for job opportunities and the threats posed by extremism.