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Sultan opens international conference on American government
An array of renowned scholars from around the world gathered to discuss American government policies at an international conference entitled "American Government Conference-US Policy from Presidential Elections to Shifting Paradigms in the Middle East," today, October 9, at The Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi Center for Gulf Studies (Al Darah), University City, Sharjah. The day-long event was inaugurated by His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, Supreme Council Member, Ruler of Sharjah, and President of American University of Sharjah (AUS), who also visited an exhibition of his highness rare collections held as part of the conference.
Academics and experts from the United States, Europe and the Middle East discussed how US President Barack Obama's policies have impacted the Middle East. Discussions throughout the conference focused on a number of significant issues including how the Obama administration has guided or reacted to major events; whether Obama's quiet "lead from behind" strategy has advanced broad changes that were already afoot; and whether President Obama's policies hinder initiatives or actually catalyze events.
Speaking at the opening session, Dr. Peter Heath, Chancellor of AUS, welcomed all the delegates on behalf of the Ruler of Sharjah. "It gives me great pleasure to welcome our distinguished roster of scholars in political science and related fields, faculty from universities across the Gulf, prominent members of the community, and AUS alumni and students," he said. "While President Obama serves as President of the United States half a world away, our conference perspective is from the Middle East. The question becomes, is the Middle East experiencing paradigm change that reflects the shift in US policy orientation from the Bush administration to President Obama's? In other words, has our cultural lens for perceiving or ordering our world changed sufficiently?" he asked.
In this context, we examine today how the Middle East relates to the shifts from President George Bush's to President Barack Obama's policies. Perhaps when sufficient 'historical-distance' accumulates, the measure of paradigm change will come more sharply into focus. The stellar schedule of speakers present among us will provide insight on this key question, for they rank among the leaders in their disciplines," said Chancellor Heath.
The opening session was also addressed by Dr. Nada Mourtada-Sabah, Vice Chancellor for Development and Alumni Affairs, and Dr. Mark Rush, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, AUS.
We assemble today to better understand the issues confronting the Gulf and the wider Middle East," said Dr. Mourtadah-Sabbah. "The Middle East is undergoing changes the likes of which have not been seen in generations. How have the policies emanating from President Barack Obama's administration, with all of the pressures and forces that he must balance, impacted the Middle East? More pointedly, did President Obama's foreign policies catalyze these changes, or did the same innovative global forces operating here also elect the first African-American to the White House?" she said.
We are fortunate to have authorities from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States with us today, who bring empirical evaluations as to whether Obama's policies or persona have effected paradigm change in the Middle East. The distinguished speakers today will probe the increasingly two-way flow of interaction between these two strategic regions," she added. She also thanked His Highness the Sharjah Ruler for honoring the conference with his presence as well as the speakers for sharing their insightful contributions.
The conference got off to an interesting start with the first panel discussion focusing on "Assessing President Obama." Dr. Thurber's presentation, entitled "Assessing President Obama and the 112th Congress," highlighted a number of significant questions related to President Obama's incumbency thus far. He said that since his assumption of office, President Obama has moved on numerous issues such as passing a stimulus package, health care overhaul, financial sector re-evaluation through TARP, auto industry bailouts, among others. Thus far, 243 new laws have been passed. Dr. Thurber said that we should also bear in mind that President Obama inherited the crisis afflicting the banks and auto industry as well as two wars from the previous administration.
As the first African-American US president, Obama is viewed differently by people on either side of the political spectrum. According to Dr. Thurber, those on the right see him as "too much of an activist, too liberal, too socialist even!" while for those on the left he may be perceived as too moderate and too willing to sell out his base supporters for political expediency." When he assumed office, Obama had unprecedented approval ratings which have now taken a nosedive, explained Professor Thurber. He added that President Obama's difficulties have been exacerbated by the biggest loss faced by Democrats in the 2010 congressional "wave" elections which saw the GOP gain 63 seats net in the House. That election brought in a freshmen class of 87 Republicans, many of whom with little or no experience of government. This has made the atmosphere within Congress extremely divisive.
Professor Thurber stated that the current state of the 112th Congress has had a negative impact on how the people view Capitol Hill. The public approval is at historic lows, with both parties sharing the blame for the loss of public confidence. There is a distinct perception of dysfunction and rampant in the political system. As far as President Obama's challenges were concerned for this and the next year, he felt that the strong parties and interest groups leave slight room for real change with Obama facing little consensus on problems and threats afflicting the nation, ranging from jobs, debt-deficit, education and healthcare to Afghanistan and the Middle East. "And there is even less consensus on solutions to these problems," he concluded.
Addressing the topic, "Obama, Europe, and the Middle East," Dr. Gilles Andreani, Former Director of the Policy Planning Department in the French Ministry and Professor at University of Paris II, stated that among Europeans Obama enjoyed unprecedented levels of popularity when he came into office, with approval ratings being close to an incredible 90 percent. Dr. Andreani said that Europeans appreciated the fact that Obama had inherited a difficult situation when he came into office, with two wars and a rapidly deteriorating economy. However, over the past three years, there has been a steady decline in the President's popularity on the continent, especially since the United States record in the Middle East has been rather mixed of late.
Dr. Andreani focused on a number of issues that have impacted the European perception of Obama. He stated that Obama had a lot of goodwill in Europe but appears to have little interest in the continent, compared to some of his predecessors. In the public domain, American performance in the Middle East has a substantial impact upon how a US president is viewed by Europeans, he said. The favorable reviews that were generated by Obama's Cairo speech soon evaporated due to American foreign policy, especially with regard to the Obama administration's manner in handling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Afghanistan.
He said that even though there is a feeling among the people that, unlike other American presidents, Obama is much less "expansionist" in his approach to global affairs, Europeans find themselves looking at a "strange America" which they have difficulty in recognizing not so much for its foreign policies but for the stark difference emerging in its internal, domestic affairs.
His Excellency Justin Siberell, United States Consul General to the United Arab Emirates, delivered a keynote address in the event noting the high standard of scholarship represented among the academics in this room speaks to the emergence of the American University of Sharjah as a serious and respected institution of higher learning, acknowledged today as one of the finest in the region.
The opening ceremony was attended by Sheikh Salem Bin Abdullah Al Qassimi, Director of the Office of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah; Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Al Thani, Director of the Office of the AUS President; AUS Trustees Hamid Jafar and Maroun Samaan; Dr. Amr Abdul Hamid, Special Advisor to His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah for Higher Education; Ali Al Merri, Director General of The Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi Center for Gulf Studies (Al Darah); Salem Yousef Al Qaseer, Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs; Dr. Moza Al Shehhi, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs; Ali Shuhaimy, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management; and Dr. Cleve McDaniel, Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration; as well as other senior university officials, deans, faculty and staff, alumni, students and academics, scholars and prominent industry leaders.
This is the second American government conference to be held at the center and was organized by the AUS College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs (ODAA).