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Dr. Sulaiman Al-Hattlan: It’s the Age of Obama!

If you have ever lived in Washington, DC, you will clearly see, if you visit these days, that America is living in a new era—the Obama era. America is changing, and American society, with its lively and ever-renewing nature, is renewing itself yet again. Today, you barely can find a table in a restaurant or café that doesn’t have a political discussion underway with Obama’s name in it. Sharp criticism of the last administration is now explicit optimism for the new administration. There is a consensus, in most of the circles I visited in Washington, that “change” is the theme of the current period. This change, led by Obama from the moment he launched his campaign, “Yes, we can,” was not purely a political need for America necessitated by the circumstances of world affairs. It also has resonated with the transformation of American society—stages of change, renewal, and self criticism. America’s demographic composition is also different than ten years ago. Spanish is forcing its way next to English in most of the places I saw in my recent visit. Americans’ colors, features, and accents are diverse but harmonious in daily life, as if Barack Obama formed a new symbol for uniting America in face of the internal and external challenges. In the 1990s, I lived for six years in Washington, whose corridors continue to witness the creation of the most important world decisions. Back then, there was seldom a day that passed without someone asking me, "where are you from"? In my recent visit to Washington, for a whole week, not a single person asked me that question or about my ethnic heritage. With the current economic crisis and the optimism about the Obama era, which has just begun to unite the America body politic, it’s as if this society today is constantly challenging itself, to prove for itself and for others that America can rise again, rid itself of and solve the crises of the previous administration. All indicators call for optimism and are promising, as are all of Obama’s speeches so far. Nevertheless, the honeymoon is almost over, and it’s time for the difficult confrontation with reality, in all dimensions and issues. There is nothing easier than doling out promises in occasional speeches or television interviews. Translating promises into a plan of action on the ground is the litmus test for sincerity of the promises and the success of the plans. A senior Obama advisor asked me about my “impressions” of the current American administration. I answered in a language filled with optimism for Obama’s promises and the symbolism they’ve conveyed for change and accomplishment. Why not? After all, the American president, since his inaugural speech, has been extending his hand to Arabs and Muslims. The arrogant, condescending language of the previous administration has been replaced with humility, respect, and interest in bringing peace to a region that did not see it for decades. But, the party is almost over, and tomorrow is a new day. Some of the people I met in Washington are afraid that the Arab world may miss one of the best opportunities that ever happened. Some people see Obama’s talk of positive openness with the Arab and Muslim worlds, not as part of America’s honeymoon pleasantries, but as a set of strong beliefs held by the new administration—a new understanding, born of global circumstances, particularly America’s long failures in dealing with Arabs and Muslims, especially during the previous administration. Many Muslims offer as an example the way Barack Obama dealt with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his recent visit to Washington. A friend of mine, close to decision-making circles in the State Department, told me that Barack Obama is a president who reads deeply and understands how his administration should deal with international issues—the most important of which is achieving genuine peace between Israelis and Arabs. My friend said that the president is quite aware of the Israeli style of haggling and postponing issues and laying blame on the Palestinians. Today, Arabs are concerned, more than ever before, with reciprocating the positive stances taken by Barack Obama, before Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington succeed in convincing the new administration that Arabs do not deserve peace or trust! In Washington today, there’s an all but unanimous consensus that Obama is a strong figure who knows well what he needs. There are many who misjudged him and were surprised by his continuing successes. Most prominent among those who misjudged him was his former rival in the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton. So should we, in the Arab world, try to give Washington the benefit of the doubt this time and get closer to that administration, with trust, candor, and clarity, and offer on the table our worries, views of our conflict with Israel, and our fears of the Iranian threat? The American president’s team is quite busy these days, preparing the speech to be given by the president in Cairo on June 4. What new ideas will the president say to the Arabs and Muslims? The “Arab street” is sick of lengthy, ornate political speeches. For decades, many Arab leaders did not spare any effort pumping fake promises of reform, fighting corruption, and coping with social concerns. Still, it never rained, and the dust never settled. So, with the multitude of big worries that besiege the Arab world today, “goodwill” from the current American administration, or anyone else, is not enough. After awhile, the speeches of the American president to the Arab and Muslim worlds become just good “talk,” unsubstantiated on the ground. My Washington-based friend, Brian Rich, asked me: "why you are not enthusiastic about Obama’s speech in Cairo in a few days"? I answered, borrowing the famous phrase of the American actor, Cuba Gooding, in the 1996 movie, Jerry McGuire: “Show me the money!” There is nothing wrong in encouraging Obama’s first steps and his continuous pursuit to open a new page of mutual understanding with the Arabs and the Muslims, but we have the right to ask: “Then what?” Dr. Sulaiman Al-Hattlan was born in Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai where he is Chief Executive Officer of the Arab Strategy Forum and an adviser to the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Foundation. Earlier he served as Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Arabia before being appointed President of the Forbes Forum on the Executive Leadership in Middle East. He graduated from King Saud University in Riyadh and completed his higher education in the United States, at Georgetown, Howard, and Harvard Universities.

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