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What happens in America doesn’t stay in America

Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in a presidential debate last month. (AFP)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden faced off in a presidential debate last month. (AFP)
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11 Jul 2024 03:07:09 GMT9
11 Jul 2024 03:07:09 GMT9

“Country first, party second” were reassuring words on the steps of 10 Downing Street last week from the UK’s new Prime Minister Keir Starmer. At a time when polarization and division are paralysing major democracies including France and the US, such an attitude sends comforting signals to constituents, as well as to foreign investors, partners and allies worldwide. Whether this will remain the attitude of the Labour government, time will tell.

I fear the same cannot be said about last month’s disappointing US presidential debate.

I had initial thoughts that I wanted to share immediately after the painful 90 minutes in which the incumbent Democrat President Joe Biden sparred with the contender, the Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, but I opted not to write at the time. Why did I hold back? Apart from the few disappointing words by both candidates about Palestine, I thought it would be inappropriate for me, as the editor of a Saudi newspaper, to comment. After all, the sentiment and position of the Kingdom is, and has always been, that we don’t interfere in the internal affairs of others, and that our government will work closely with whichever president the American people choose.

The Saudi government will work closely with whichever president the American people choose

Faisal J. Abbas

The Biden administration is a case in point. Many assumed that after all the hot air and animosity before the 2020 election, Saudi Arabia would not work with Biden and his team. What actually happened? Thanks to a wise, patient and pragmatic Saudi foreign policy, the two countries couldn’t be any more closely aligned on mutual interests and a desire to spread peace and prosperity across the region. In addition, the commercial and economic benefits of a potential new US-Saudi deal on security guarantees and civilian nuclear assistance, with or without an enhanced relationship with Israel, are phenomenal. Now, whether or not the deal will still happen is another discussion. The point here is that this has been achieved with an administration that many believed, wrongly, the Kingdom stood against. Had Trump won the 2020 presidential election, the position would have been no different: Saudi Arabia would have worked equally hard to elevate and strengthen the relationship it has with its biggest and strongest partner.

So why do I say the June 27 presidential debate was painful? Well, it was disturbing for me to see how much disrespect was directed at Biden, who said later that he was simply not feeling well on that day. Like him or not, this man has given his all to his country, and while he has made his fair share of mistakes, many of which were referred to by Trump, they do not justify the personal attacks, online memes and nasty ageist comments about a long serving patriot and an elected leader.

Now, whether or not Biden chooses to step down and allow another candidate to take on Trump is an internal affair, up to him and his party. However, there is no doubt that Trump emerged from the presidential debate having looked better prepared, and it improved his support in the opinion polls. It is also true that during his presidency he achieved much in terms of foreign policy — most notably with China, with the Abraham Accords in the Middle East, by taking out some of the most heinous and wanted terrorists on the face of the earth, and by killing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Yet instead of seeking to impress voters, and viewers alike; many comments exchanged during the debate were personal that focused on the physical and mental ability of the candidates — which I must say was neither reassuring nor uplifting. After all, this was a presidential debate, not a boxing weigh-in.

Surprisingly, however, AI was not mentioned once during the presidential debate

Faisal J. Abbas

I guess many would agree with me that this debate offered no inspiration at all. Perhaps I expected more because I happen to be living in a country and a part of the world where exciting things are happening at this moment in time. For instance, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be the patron of the Global Artificial Intelligence summit in Riyadh in September. The patronage of the crown prince is limited to a few events every year, so this is an indicator of how important and significant the event is. Exciting announcements are expected, and many industry leaders will participate in an event that is meant to help the whole world shape and better understand this technological revolution.

Surprisingly, however, AI was not mentioned once during the presidential debate in a world leading country that is facing severe competition from rivals around the world in this particular field.

Similarly, at a time when the space economy is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by next year, not a single word was said about space exploration by two candidates who both lived through the exciting times of the first moon landing and who realize the potential and capability of NASA. Meanwhile, the Saudi Space Agency has sent the first female Muslim to the International Space Station and is working hard to inspire a whole generation to conquer this new realm and make the most of its economy.

It is not that the topics debated by Biden and Trump were unimportant, but US politicians should stop and reflect how never-ending arguments about immigration and abortion convey the impression that their country is unable to move forward. The Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs Wade was issued in January 1973: it should not still be an issue more than 50 years later. I realize that women’s rights are not the strongest point in the Kingdom’s previous track record, but thanks to the reforms that began eight years ago most issues have been permanently resolved and are no longer part of the public discussion: nobody even thinks about reimposing the guardianship laws or restoring the ban on women driving. Things have moved on: female participation in the Saudi workforce more than doubled from 17 percent to 36 percent between 2017 and 2023.

The bottom line is, both candidates need to remember that the case still very much is that what happens in America doesn’t stay in America, and that when Washington sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. So, whoever the US elects in November needs to reignite belief in the American Dream and end the nightmare of division, polarization and political bickering that impacts global reputation, foreign direct investment and the interests of key partners and allies.

• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor-in-chief of Arab News. X: @FaisalJAbbas 

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