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Journalist and political analyst Mina Al-Oraibi discussed the United States’ declining reputation in the Arab world at a Harvard Kennedy School event Thursday afternoon.
Al-Oraibi, who is editor-in-chief of Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, joined Kennedy School professor Tarek E. Masoud and Egyptian diplomat Karim Haggag in conversation for the fifth event in a series titled “USA 2020: The View from the Arab World.”
The dialogue was aimed at reversing the phenomenon of Americans commenting on the Middle East, which often paints the latter in a negative light, Masoud said in an interview following the event.
“It’s not only to get an Arab view on what’s happening in the United States, especially around the elections, but it’s to have an Arab perspective about U.S. foreign policy towards the region,” said Haggag, a professor of the practice at the American University in Cairo and visiting fellow at the Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative.
Al-Oraibi opened the event with a discussion of how current American political uncertainty may undermine its reputation in the Middle East. She pointed to the U.S.’s still-undecided 2020 presidential election and instability caused by domestic unrest, a disjointed response to the coronavirus pandemic, and increasingly polarized politics.
Still, Al-Oraibi said the declining role of American politics in the Middle East stretches beyond the current presidency. American military disengagement in recent years has been accompanied by political disengagement, she said.
“It didn’t start with Donald Trump,” Al-Oraibi said. “The Obama administration was very, very clear that they wanted out, they wanted to pull back.”
Al-Oraibi said if she were a single-issue voter focused on foreign policy toward Iraq, she would be “very concerned about the possibility of a Biden presidency,” as presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. advocated for the division of Iraq into sects in the mid-2000s as a U.S. Senator.
Turning to Iran and Syria, Al-Oraibi said a flaw in the Obama administration’s approach, in part crafted by Biden while he served as Vice President, was its willingness to negotiate with governments she called “enemies.”
“It was clear that the Obama administration came in wanting to make deals with our enemies,” Al-Oraibi said. “In some ways, they’re quite similar to the Trump administration.”
Al-Oraibi said the Obama administration could occasionally be duplicitous in its power-brokering in the Middle East, and, as a result, the Trump administration’s clear-cut positions may be appealing to some, particularly Syrians.
“With Donald Trump, it was almost like, what you see is what you get,” she said. “You had the Obama administration saying one thing publicly and promising the [Syrian] opposition one thing, and behind the scenes, having a different agenda and really prioritizing the [Iran] nuclear deal.”
When asked whether Biden or Trump is more likely to use diplomacy to deal with political crises, however, she answered, “Biden, for sure.”
The speakers also discussed how the two previous administrations have collectively deteriorated the average Arab citizen’s view of the U.S. Al-Oraibi said young Arabs still remain divided, with some still holding admiration for “the idea of American culture” and the “American dream,” while others have become “quite resentful of American foreign policy.”
“They’re quite cynical about it and think, better if the United States is in decline,” she said of the latter group. “Let it go, like, ‘it’s better for us.’”
“America’s loss is Canada’s gain, because that respect and kind of aspiration now goes towards countries like Canada, New Zealand recently with its leadership, more than the United States,” Al-Oraibi added.
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