Around the Arab world, it is just known as the Obama speech. You don’t need to mention in which venue or country it took place. People just know. Arabs and Muslims who have generally been ruled by autocrats have heard the US president Barack Obama speak directly to them twice in a period of six months. Mr Obama first addressed us in the Turkish Parliament this spring and then at Cairo University this summer. Twice is two times more than Arab leaders have addressed their own people in many instances.
But what must our reactions be? The core of the speech centred on the Palestinian issue. Remember the Palestinians? Yes, they are still suffering from occupation, an evil blockade and manipulation by some regimes and television stations in the region. In order for the Gulf states to move forward from paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, the first step is to meet Mr Obama half way. The Gulf Arabs can start by appointing a special envoy for the Palestinian cause who can travel to Egypt and the Levant to meet the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Hamas, Hizbollah and yes, even Israel.
Why? Because it is primarily in the interests of the Palestinians in the refugee camps and in the interest of the people of the region that six decades of injustice be corrected. Most of the Palestinians and Arabs who reject peace live comfortable lives in the region or in the West where they can easily pass judgement on how much longer the refugee camp Palestinians can continue to live in misery.
The Gulf states can also establish a fund of significant size – possibly in the billions of dollars – that can be part of the mandate of this special envoy. The envoy can release the funds depending on the advances made on the ground and provide them to the Palestinians. The envoy must personally oversee the disbursement of the funds so that they are not lost in Fatah’s web of corruption or Hamas’s propaganda war.
So far the US has appointed a Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, George Mitchell. The ineffective Quartet (the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) appointed Tony Blair, and even the Chinese appointed their own envoy, Sun Bigan. The Russian president went so far as appointing Alexander Saltanov, a deputy foreign minister as his special envoy for the Middle East and the Indian government appointed CR Gharekhan as Special Envoy for West Asia and the Middle East Peace Process. It seems that more than half of the world’s population has taken the matter more seriously than the Arabs.
The closest the Arabs have to their own special envoy is Egypt’s own intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who has been actively brokering deals between rival Palestinian groups, now a full-time job, in addition to visiting the Israelis and Jordanians.
It is time for the Arabs, and especially those in the oil-rich Gulf, to appoint a consensus candidate who is a career diplomat and can represent us in the peace negotiations that Mr Obama is pushing for. The Gulf states cannot afford to waste more time by having others do their “dirty work”. After all, the Middle East crisis will not solve itself, not peacefully at least. We must take a cue from the rest of the world by using our economic clout (we do control up to half the world’s oil after all) and appoint an emissary whose full time job is to travel within the region and try to bring the position of the Arabs closer together.
The envoy can also visit China, Russia, India, Europe, the US and the UN to speak on our behalf. This envoy must have a great command of the English language, and perhaps others, and must be trained in the art of negotiation and diplomacy. Such an appointment would be a significant demonstration to the Obama administration and the rest of the world that we are serious about peace.
Lifting the embargo on Gaza should be the envoy’s first mandate. This will prove to the world that peace is good for business and business is good for peace. Since the GCC can’t seem to agree on much lately, it may also be easier to pick a consensus candidate from among the list of former GCC Secretary Generals who already have an established rapport with Gulf leaders.
There are many Arabs who will doubt Mr Obama’s intention and capability in bringing peace to the region. Mr Obama isn’t perfect; his naïveté was exposed when he called for Jerusalem to forever be the undivided capital of Israel at the last American Israel Public Affairs Committee congress to win support of the powerful Israeli lobby. No, Mr Obama isn’t perfect, but he’s the best shot we’ve got in the Middle East. The least we can do is meet him half way.
Sure, he isn’t perfect, but who of us is?
This article first appeared in The National on Sunday, June 14th 2009