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The US has had a checkered relationship with the Arab world dating back to the First World War. After the War, the US maintained a policy of noninterference and unlike European powers did not have colonies in the Middle East. Furthermore, prior to the Second World War, the US was not aggressive in pushing for the resettlement of Jews in Palestine. This endeared the US to the Arab world and in return it got numerous investment opportunities. The Arab world benefited from the US through oil mining and provision of personnel.
The good relations started looking south after the Second World War when the US aggressively supported the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine and also went ahead to recognize it in the United Nations. Subsequent wars between the Arab world and the US did not help matters as the US still remained popular. The 1967 War in which the Arab world suffered defeat under the hands of Israel widely believed with the support of the US stirred widespread hatred for the US. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent US involvement in the Iraq-Iran war in support of Iraq created the image of an imperial power ready to act without restrain (Serfaty, 2008). The First Gulf War in 1991 and the second in 2003 marred the US image in the eyes of the majority of the general population in the Arab world.
The US unequivocal support for Israel has angered many in the Arab world. Establishment of Israel as nation displaced millions of Palestinian Arabs who were forced out of their homes during the Israeli War of Independence and the subsequent wars in 1967 and 1973. The displaced people were scattered across the Arab world while millions are crowded in cities in Gaza and the West Bank. These Palestinians have become a constant reminder of the failed US policy in the eyes of the Arab world. To most Arabs, the US is the world’s undisputed power and, therefore, it possesses power to act unilateral. There is a feeling that the US has deliberately refused to rein on Israel.
Post 9/11 and with the launch of the war on terror, there are strong feelings in the Arab world that the region has been targeted for punishment and their religion blasphemed. The US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not popular among the Arab world. The population in this region feels humiliated since the 1967 war and terrorism is one way of venting that anger. The war on terrorism has therefore brought the US – Arab world relations to their worst level (Harf & Lombardi 2005). The approval rating for the US among the Arab world jumped up after the election of President Barack Obama whom they expected to be friendlier to the Arab world and more firm on their archrival Israel. However, a year after, the approval rating went way beyond the levels they were at the end of the Bush Presidency.
The US support for monarchies in the region and unpopular dictators have not been excepted positively among the masses. The US for a long time has maintained a hold on the region by supporting corrupt dictators, for example Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, and corrupt monarchies, for example in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (Zogby, 2011). These leaders enriched themselves at the expense of the masses leading to popular discontent among the populations in these countries against their governments and the US which is seen as the force helping those dictators to remain in power. Matters are not helped by the fact that unemployment among the young people averages 25% in these countries.
The discontent boiled into what is now called the Arab Popular Spring Uprisings (Terrill, 2011). The uprisings have toppled governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, all governments that were friendly to the US. It is important to note while these governments were corrupt and dictatorial, they were secular. Most of the incoming governments are Islamist.
Going into the future, the US and the Arab world have no choice but to cooperate because of shared interest. The US needs friendly government in the Middle East to act as a bulwark against unfriendly nations, such as Iran and Russia. Middle East is also a transit channel with many waterways that the US needs. The US has army bases in the region especially Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and it is in its interest to have friendly relations with governments in the region. With the changing dynamics, the US may find it necessary to look for the way of connecting with the people instead of the ‘leader’ alone.
Economic interests also tie together the destiny of the two. The US is the largest trading partner to the Arab world, mainly because of oil. The US companies are heavily involved in oil mining in the region and other ventures. The relationship is therefore symbiotic. The Arab region is also a major receiver of the US grants and donations that fund a significant part of their military. It would be virtually impossible for countries like Egypt to do without this funding (Sharp, 2012).