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In Middle East, relief not euphoria at Obama win

By Amena Bakr

DUBAI (Reuters) - A tweet from one of Saudi Arabia's most influential clerics summed up the Middle East's response to Barack Obama's re-election:

"Obama isn't good," tweeted Salman al-Oudah, "But he is the lesser evil."

After four years during which he largely kept Washington on the sidelines while the Arab Spring transformed the Middle East, Obama's re-election was met more with relief than joy in a region that welcomed him in 2008 and still has bitter memories of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.

There was cautious hope that he could reach a deal with Iran to defuse tension over its nuclear program, and prod Israel and the Palestinians closer to reviving their frozen peace talks. Above all, people said Obama was less likely than his Republican opponent Mitt Romney to start another war.

"Obama was the better choice," said Cairo schoolboy Mohammed Gamal. "At least no war had happened in his four-year term."

Amin, a Tehran filmmaker, told Reuters by telephone: "We hate the policies of the U.S. and Israel, but Obama's policies are wiser. The only chance we have for the situation not to get worse was an Obama victory."

Mira, a 32-year-old dissident Iranian journalist reached by telephone, said: "Romney seemed willing to take U.S. foreign policy back to its Bush-era belligerent xenophobic milieu."

The Middle East is hardly a region where any U.S. president can expect effusive praise, but surveys have shown that most there wanted Obama to win, if only because of bitter memories of Bush and the widely resented war in Iraq.

"An Obama win was expected and he is the best at this stage," said Cairo doctor Mohamed el-Sanusy. "Let us not forget that Romney is a little Bush."

"MARGINAL DIFFERENCE"

After coming to power in 2008 promising to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, Obama quickly visited the Middle East, saying he wanted to re-engage with the region and soothe anger directed at the United States during the Bush years.

In 2009, four months into his first term, Obama told an enthusiastic audience in Cairo that he wanted for launch a "new beginning" in relations between the United States and the region.

His Republican challenger this time around, Mitt Romney, has derided that visit as part of an "apology tour", a tag rejected by the White House.

But if Obama's first election was greeted warmly in the Middle East, his re-election four years later was met more soberly in a tumultuous region, where the Arab Spring revolts have revealed the limits of U.S. power to shape events.

"I have the feeling that people in the region are not as enthusiastic as they were in 2008 about the whole American presidential campaign," said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakheel.

"There is a feeling that there is a marginal difference between the two regarding U.S. policy on the Middle East, especially after the third debate when they focused on foreign policy."

One man in the region who may not be pleased by Obama's re-election is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - he did little to dispel the impression he favored Romney after clashing with Obama over West Bank settlements and Iran policy and now faces a new spell of awkwardness with the White House:

"I don't think we can just assume that what happened between them over the past four years will have just evaporated," said Sallai Meridor, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.

On Iran, Obama initially offered unconditional talks with Washington's old foe, but over the past year imposed harsh sanctions in conjunction with the European Union to try to force Iran to agree to abandon its nuclear program.

"Obama was a tough president for Iran's hardliners, because he exposed them as the problem. His ... efforts to engage Iran accentuated Tehran's internal divisions, and created greater international unity," said Karim Sadjadpour, associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington

ARAB SPRING

Last year's Arab Spring uprisings toppled more Middle Eastern autocrats than Bush, with the United States largely staying on the sidelines or playing a supportive role.

Obama let France and Britain take the lead in the NATO coalition that helped bomb Libya's Muammar Gaddafi out of power, sat back as long-term U.S. allies were brought down by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, and has ruled out U.S. military intervention in Syria.

Many in the region say Obama has largely fulfilled his pledge to dictate to the region less than his predecessor.

"What I know about Obama is that four years ago, he wanted to make balance. He has had pressures on him but in general he has made balance," said retired Kuwaiti schoolteacher Mustafa al-Khabbaz, 65.

But the U.S. president, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize after less than a year in the job, is hardly viewed across the Middle East as a peacenik. In Yemen, where his administration helped push veteran autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, Obama is largely known for an aggressive and hugely unpopular campaign of drone strikes against al Qaeda militants.

"On behalf of Yemenis," tweeted Yemeni blogger and journalist Afrah Nasser, "I urge Obama to leave our skies alone in the next four years."

(Reporting by Reuters bureaux across the Middle East; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)

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