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In Mideast, Obama faces tough crowd: Here's what they want to hear

The president stopped in Saudi Arabia, where 79 percent of residents view him favorably, on Wednesday. But in Cairo tomorrow, he'll address a skeptical audience of 1.4 billion Muslims.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Liam StackCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / June 3, 2009


Ahmad al-Shugairi, host of a popular Saudi television show about Islam, gets excited just imagining the idea: If he had the chance, what would he advise US President Obama to say in his address to the Muslim world on Thursday?

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"I've dreamed of being his adviser," enthuses Mr. Shugairi, as he begins listing ideas that "would hit home" with him.

Mr. Obama should "admit the United States has made mistakes"; emphasize that Americans have "a belief in God that is written on the US dollar"; and stress that Americans "respect all religious prophets, including [the prophet] Muhammad," says Shugairi, a resident of Jeddah. Obama stopped in Riyadh on Wednesday to meet the Saudi king. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Mr. Shugairi's city of residence.]

When the US leader steps to the podium in Cairo June 4, his target audience will be the world's estimated 1.4 billion Muslims. They'll be listening with curiosity to the first American president with a Muslim father.

His toughest crowd, however, will be in the Middle East, where US foreign policies are most disliked. Obama's rhetoric has generated high expectations. But his reception here will be heavily salted with skepticism. Arabs wonder whether US policies will really change on core issues of concern to the region: US withdrawal from Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and political reform of authoritarian governments.

"Actions please, not words. I am tired of rhetoric," says Nagwan Al Guneid, an employee of the French oil company Total in Sanaa, Yemen. "This ever-promised change of Obama's should be solid and clear in his foreign policy."

According to a recently released Arab public opinion poll by Middle East expert Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, and polling firm Zogby International, 77 percent of Arabs have an unfavorable attitude toward the US, which they rank second after Israel as the world's biggest threat.

Overall, only 45 percent had a favorable view of Obama. Still, an average of 51 percent in the six Arab countries polled expressed hopefulness about US Middle East policy.

"This is not a love affair," said Dr. Telhami during a discussion of the findings at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "This is, 'We're interested. We think we like this guy. We're prepared to listen.'"

A separate poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland showed particular skepticism among Egyptians, 81 percent of whom thought Obama's goals "probably" or "definitely" included imposing American culture on Muslim society. Seventy percent said he aimed to weaken and divide the Islamic world.