main content

Global briefing

  • The election of Barack Hussein Obama is a turning point in American history. "Obama is not the first black American capable of being president; he's the first black American who got the chance to prove it."
Abu Dhabi 24

You make the news

Send us your stories and pictures

e-poll

‘Racial tensions everywhere have been subdued a little’

Caryle Murphy Foreign Correspondent

  • Last Updated: November 05. 2008 11:13PM UAE / GMT

Riyadh // “Congrats to Abu Hussein.”
That is how Ahmed al Omran took note of Barack Obama’s historic election victory on his blog, Saudi Jeans.

For some months now, young Saudis who like Mr Obama have been referring to the US president-elect by this Arabic-style nickname, even though he does not have a son named Hussein.

It is a measure of the interest that Mr Obama has generated here with his message, his youth, his Muslim father, his African lineage and his middle name: Hussein.
And with his election victory on Tuesday night, Mr Obama now has sparked hope among many Saudis that he will bring change in both US foreign policies towards the region, and in the example the United States sets for others.

“Having a black man from a Muslim background at the White House is a powerful symbol of the interaction of cultures that has overwhelmed the world,” said Hatoon al Fassi, a professor of history at King Saud University.

Prof Fassi said she was “happy to see a new face on TV that is not provocative and insulting for my intelligence and humanity”.

“It’s Too Good To Be True” was the headline that blogger Eman al Nafjan put over her posting on Saudiwoman’s weblog, where the writer and educator wrote that Mr Obama’s win “tells humanity that dignity, self-respect, hard work and qualifications still count”.

As for “what it means for Saudis”, Ms Nafjan continued, “they did not really believe in the American version of democracy. How could they when all the presidents of the so-called ‘melting pot’ were Anglo?”

But “now they are rubbing their eyes in disbelief rethinking the concept in a way that hopefully will move them out of their passiveness and… tribal differences will matter a little less now”, she said. “With Obama elected… I know that racial tensions everywhere have been subdued a little.”

For Saudis who also hold US citizenship, Mr Obama’s victory was especially moving. Ruba Al Sweel, 19, said, “I cannot stop crying. These elections have made me feel like, if I work hard enough and aim high, I too can be the president of the United States of America. That’s the beauty of America… I’m so proud to be American.”
On Tuesday night, as the election was in full swing, Najla Al Sweel, 25, Ruba’s sister, made blue and red cupcakes and frosted some of them with “O”. As she and her relatives watched the elections on television, they also honoured the Democrat by eating blue sherbet.

At the level of government, Saudi officials are not expecting Mr Obama to launch major shifts in the fundamentals of US policy towards the Gulf or the rest of the Middle East, particularly on the issue of most concern to Saudis: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Officials often say US policy on this matter is so embedded in the US political system, that they see little change no matter who occupies the White House.

Where Saudis do see the possibility of change during an Obama administration is Iran. And what they see is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are relieved that there may be less likelihood of the United States bombing Iran and sparking a major military conflict.

On the other hand, the Saudis do not want to be left on the sidelines if Tehran and Washington strike a grand bargain to resolve their differences and renew normal relations.

One Saudi official, speaking on background, said recently it was too early to judge what Mr Obama might mean for the kingdom because he had not yet articulated the specifics of his policies.

Another official said Mr Obama’s foreign policy advisers had signalled they want “a new strategic alliance” with Riyadh to deal with problems in the region and beyond.
Both officials expressed confidence that whatever approach an Obama administration adopts, the US-Saudi relationship will remain solid because of shared common interests – of which one is a secure supply of oil to the world market.

“Although the old administration didn’t listen to its friends, I hope the new president will be more understanding and in a wise way… work with their real friends in the area, including Saudi Arabia,” said Mohammed al Zulfa, a member of the majlis, a royal-appointed advisory committee.

The Obama presidency will face another expectation, this one more problematic. “We hope he will champion the cause of change and democracy in the region,” said Khalid al Dakhil, a sociologist at King Saud University.

“As the first black American to become president, he could not have achieved that without democracy,” Mr Dakhil said. “We expect him to appreciate that democracy is not just for the American people but for other people too.”

Non-Saudis living in the kingdom offered these comments: “Being an Iraqi who still thinks that America did the world a favour by getting rid of Saddam I was 100 per cent for McCain,” said Saad Hamadi, a Jeddah businessman. “But this election gave the whole world a lesson in democracy. And when countries like Germany can elect a Jew or England elects an Indian to the highest office, then they can be on the same level as the US.”

Mohammed Jamai, a Moroccan-born journalist, said: “I’m happy about Obama’s election because it shows that the US dream is still possible, and that people can still… make a change with voting, not like the Arab world where we are used to seeing the president always win with 95 per cent or even 99.99 per cent sometimes.”

cmurphy@thenational.ae