Qatar Impact: The 2012 US election and the Arab world

With only a short time left until the 2012 US presidential election, Al Jazeera English news anchor Kamahl Santamaria looks at how it might impact this part of the world.

Four years ago I remember being at work, on-air in the middle of the night, watching Barack Obama win the 2008 United States (US) presidential election. It was ‘a moment’ – not just for Americans who had elected their first African-American leader, but also for countless other countries around the world looking for a new direction from the most powerful country on earth. And because of issues like the Iraq war, Afghanistan, finding Osama bin Laden and closing Guantanamo Bay, foreign policy was a big part of that win.

But of course the economic crisis in the US has taken centre-stage since then, and really that is the platform the 2012 American presidential election will be won and lost on. So perhaps it is a bit selfishly we wonder: what is in it for us in the Middle East? What will a Romney win or an Obama re-election mean for Qatar and the Middle East’s relationship with the US?

One thing to note is that foreign policy has barely made a mention in the election campaign so far, so we are operating a little blindly here.

First, Mitt Romney. The key with his would-be foreign policy is that it probably will not be his. The advisors around him will craft it, and already there are shades of the George W. Bush era. Neo-conservatives, such as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and former secretary of homeland security Michael Chertoff – people who, broadly speaking, do not favour the Obama canon of talking and negotiating. Remember these are political veterans of the immediate post-9/11 era that took the US into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So under a Romney presidency we could expect the clock to run down a lot faster on Iran and any response to its nuclear programme, coupled with even more support for strong ally Israel, which Romney said Obama had “thrown under the bus”.

So far, so predictable. But where would four more years of Barack Obama leave this region?

There is no doubt Obama has personally tried to engage more with the Muslim and Arab world (how many American presidents have begun a speech with “assalam alaykum”?), but arguably it has had limited success. Even if Mitt Romney believes Obama has deserted Israel, the Middle East peace process is still completely stalled. The country of Palestine is no closer to being realised and the Gaza Strip is still essentially locked in. Similarly, Syria remains in a stalemate. The US, through the president and secretary of state Hillary Clinton have made all sorts of noises about the illegitimacy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule, but no concrete steps have been taken to bring about a resolution to what is now a civil war.

On a local level, Qatar’s relationship with the US is practically assured regardless of who wins the election. If you – as I did recently – type ‘Al Udeid Air Base’ into Google Maps and see the size and scale of the US air force presence here in Qatar, you will see very quickly how important this tiny peninsula is to the Americans. Having said that, there have been some revealing moments in the last few years where the Qatar-US relationship is concerned. President Obama was caught telling reporters (in reference to HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani): “Now, he himself is not reforming significantly. There’s no big move towards democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000  (QR526,000) a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict.”

And a US diplomatic cable published by the Wikileaks website made this frank assessment of the country: “Qatar will soon – literally – have more money than it knows what to do with.” It sounds slightly disparaging, but the US also knows how important it is to have a strong and ever-more politically active ally in such a volatile region. More broadly, what started out as so much promise for a new era in relations with the US has been eroded over the past four years. If the Arab world could vote in this election, they would possibly still vote for Obama, but only because they would no doubt see him as the lesser of two evils.

Kamahl Santamaria is a Doha-based news anchor with Al Jazeera English and host of the channel’s business and economics programme Counting the Cost.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.10, October 2012.


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