It won’t come as a surprise to many to learn that the US presidential elections are a secondary and perhaps even a tertiary matter in the post uprising Arab world.
For starters there’s a bloody civil war in Syria backed by Russia and Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other. The latter two states control and fund Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera respectively which dominate the Arab news airwaves and are busy actively marketing the agendas of the governments that fund them. Therefore even less time is allocated to the US elections than four years ago. Even Arab newspapers and Op Ed writers are more concerned with the daily killings in Syria and mostly cover the US elections from that perspective. The so called pan-Arab newspapers Asharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat, both based in London are owned by senior Saudi princes and reflect the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia.
Some Arabs believe that a second term president Obama may take tougher steps against Syria’s Bashar Al Assad while others point to Romney’s “We’ll arm the rebels” rhetoric as an example of his stricter attitude. But in both cases, with America’s economic challenges and the knowledge that the next president will oversee the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, few people here believe that the US would want to be embroiled in another war in the region. Oil poor Syria’s strategic value lies outside its borders along its frontiers with the US allies such as Israel, Turkey and Jordan as well as unstable states such as Lebanon and Iraq. As long as Syria poses no direct threat to Israel, Arabs don’t expect the US to get too heavily involved.
The closest Arabs have got to a hint that a post-US elections president would change his attitude towards Syria were comments made by a Gulf Arab head of government. In late September, Qatar’s Prime Minister told CNN: “We are in an election period, so maybe this isn’t a diplomatic way to say it, but I hope that after the election the American government looks at this matter in a different way.”
Election fatigue could possibly be playing a role in the apathy shown by many Arabs towards the US presidential elections. Arabs have already followed their main presidential elections in Egypt for months on end this year, elections that were far more interesting and decisive for the Gulf and other parts of the Arab world than the current US elections. In Egypt a Muslim Brotherhood candidate faced off against Mubarak’s last Prime Minister in a nail-biting few weeks that saw Egypt’s first political Islamist triumph.
Another issue that the Gulf Arab States will watch out for is that of the US policy towards Iran in the next four years. The prospect of an Israeli attack against Iran looms with massive environmental, human, economic and military repercussions for the Arab Gulf States. Which of the two US presidential contenders will offer Israel the assurances it needs and how will any of these two candidates deal with a surprise Israeli strike against Iran? Historically, most Arab Gulf governments have found that dealing with a Republican rather than a Democrat was more ‘practical’, since a personal friendship and lucrative business relationship develops between Republican presidents and Gulf Arab States while they’re in office and after they leave. Then again Obama has been referred to half-jokingly as America’s “greatest Republican president”.
Finally, with regards to the daily tragedy unfolding in Palestine under occupation and the humiliations of countless Israeli checkpoints the “Arab street” is not holding its breath for a breakthrough under either US presidential contender. In the Arab world, there is far less interest in the build-up to the US presidential elections than in any previous contest. But this does not mean the Arabs are uninterested in the outcome.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy on October 23, 2012.