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MENA: Reflections on Obama's Al Arabiya Interview

It came as a surprise to many people that US President Barack Obama gave his first formal interview as president to an Arab television channel. Some were optimistic with Obama's replies, while others were disappointed. Yet, almost everybody was more concerned about the decision to have the interview conducted for Al Arabiya.

Dubai Guy quoted a few lines from Obama’s speech, and then enthusiastically shared his feelings about the interview as follows:

Watching Obama's interview has somewhat brought back the lost optimism in me. The fact that he gave his first official interview to an Arabic channel says a lot. And also the fact that he plans to address the Muslim world in his first 100 days from one of the Muslim Capitals further strengthened my faith that he means business.

From Egypt, Zeinobia, who titled her post “Good timing but bad choice for a TV channel” questioned whether it was a good decision to have the interview hosted by Al Arabiya channel, which is not very favored by many Arab viewers. She said that she would have preferred if it was with BBC Arabic.

However, unlike Zeinobia, Rob thought it would have been a better idea to have the interview on Al Jazeera. He explained:

Why not go on the much more popular and anti-US foreign policy Al-Jazeera? Al-Arabiya is viewed by alot of people in the Middle East as a propaganda outlet for the conservative pro-American regimes. How about letting someone like Ahmed_Monsour do the interview? That would really impress the target audience. Ok, if not the President, at least let someone important, say Hillary Clinton, face-off with Ahmed Monsour. If that happened, I think that skeptics like Ibrahim Eissa and Fahmy Howedi would at least acknowledge the effort.

But The Arabist, in his “Obama’s TV appearance” post answered Zeinobia’s and Rob’s concerns pointing:

- The choice of Arabiya was most probably a decision to appeal to the Saudis, have Obama underline the importance of their Arab Initiative which has been snubbed by Israel and the US under Bush.
– Nonetheless Arabiya is problematic – this is the channel dubbed Hibriya (The Hebrew One) because of its coverage of the Gaza crisis and that generally defends the views of Riyadh, Cairo and other problematic US allies. This confirms that Obama will not, like Bush since 2006, go against Egypt and Saudi on domestic issues and there won’t be a rethink of the US relationship with these. But if you thought that would happen, you’re stupid.
– Should Obama have gone to Jazeera instead? Perhaps not, for both domestic reasons (the criticism he would expose himself to, even if unwarranted) and because there are genuine US complaints about Jazeera. But at some later point, he should go to Jazeera – especially if it is to pitch a major conflict resolution initiative in the region. At the end of the day, despite its bias, Arabiya is the number two pan-Arab stations. (In many countries, like the rest of the world, Arabs actually watch their national TV stations most.)
– Obama’s next move should be to disband al-Hurra. It’s a useless waste of money.

From Syria, the Damascene blog was very skeptical about the interview. He further explained his disappointment because of Obama’s adaptation of former US President George W Bush’s phrase “serious partnership”, where he says:

What disappointed me in the interview was not Obama's old commitment to Israel's security and the US-Israeli alliance, but his unexpected adoption of rotten Bushism:

“I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.”

If the time is appropriate? Serious partnership? Isn't this the same Bush nonsense? Isn't this what the Sharon-Bush duo came up with during the second Intifada? Sharon then invaded the West Bank and declared that Yasser Arafat was no longer a peace partner. The peace process was stalled for years because there was no “serious partner on the other side of the table”, while Bush's “man of peace”
went on tormenting the Palestinian people. In search for that “serious partner”, Arafat was set aside and forced to appoint Abbas as prime minister. Then Abbas was forced to hold “democratic” elections, and then there was no partner again.
Arabs have to deal with Israel's political trash (Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu in a couple of weeks) while Israel gets to pick a “serious partner”. A puppet partner is what they want. And then the time might be appropriate for so-called peace.
So much for a change.

Kalash, a blogger of a Lebanese-Palestinian descent, added in KABOBfest an in-depth comment on the interview, and -like The Arabist- he hinted at the American TV channel Al Hurra:

The interview was conducted by Al Arabiya's Washington bureau chief, Hisham Melhem. It was weak… and the long drawn out questions were typical of Arab journalists who are more concerned with appearing informed than eliciting newsworthy information from the interviewee. Whatever the reason, Melhem made things far too easy.
[…]
From a US perspective, in the realm of media, Al Arabiya represents the moderates and Al Jazeera the radicals. While such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, there are reasons for them. Al Jazeera is well known for a certain degree of sympathy to the Palestinian resistance; however, watching news reports on Al Arabiya, one often gets the impression that their editorial line is not too far off from the political agenda of the US government. It raises the question – why is Washington wasting hundreds of millions on the stagnant Al Hurra and its insignificant audience?

Last but not least, MrEgypt wrote an excellent and in depth blog post highlighting the importance of such interview, and what the Arab world now needs to pay attention to:

I cannot find any other reason for the fuss that’s made for Obama’s speech except one: that he came after Bush. I hardly noticed any attention to the interview in the Arab street, as for the Arab media I only noticed a passing reference here.
[…]
I think the only problem in the Arab world would be to understand what did Obama mean by things like “reaching out to the Muslim world” or “resuming the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis” –who, by the way, have been negotiating since the establishment of the state of Israel 60 years ago– or being somebody who “listens. “ Listen to whom?

He also commented on Obama’s reply to the question ““Will it still be possible to see a Palestinian state?”, confirming that it is not possible to have peace in the region unless policies change by understanding the Palestinian perspective.

MrEgypt added:

Thus if Obama’s job is to “communicate with the Arab world that the United States is not your enemy” this entails a totally different approach than “listening and communicating” with the Arab world. In conclusion, the US has policies and strategies in dealing with the Arab world and Middle East and only a shift in these policies and strategies could lead to some sort of rapprochement between the two entities.

4 comments

  • David Singer

    Palestine – George Mitchell Crunches on Middle East Lunches

    Dear me – talk about missing the plot. What Arabic TV station Obama chose for his interview is totally irrelevant. What is important is what he said which was:

    Firstly Obama is committed to a new Arab state being created between Israel, Egypt and Jordan that will not necessarily be democratic – but whose creation within the next four years he is not confident enough to predict.

    Secondly he considers that any such new state would have to be part of an overall resolution of other problems involving Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan – all of which he said are interrelated.

    Thirdly President Obama negated the idea that the Saudi Peace Plan proposed in 2002 – and offered to Israel on a “take it or leave it “ basis – is acceptable in its present format and that there are other ideas across the region of how peace might be pursued.

    In the light of these remarks and whilst George Mitchell’s patience and skill is brought into play:

    1. The existing Jewish and Arab residents of the West Bank will continue to copulate and populate. Any call for a “freeze” on natural increases in their respective populations – and the provision of housing and infrastructure to cope with such natural increases – is meaningless.

    2. The creation of a 22nd Arab State between Egypt, Israel and Jordan will never eventuate unless the Arabs drop their demands for sovereignty over all of the West Bank and Gaza and for millions of Arabs to be allowed to emigrate to Israel.

    3. Other paths to peace will need to be pursued. Clearly trilateral negotiations between Jordan, Israel and Egypt to divide sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza between their respective States is one such idea that should be vigorously pursued by Mr Mitchell. It alone seems to offer the best chance of improving the lives of the West Bank’s Arab residents by offering them citizenship in an Arab State without requiring them to move from their present homes whilst allowing them once more to return to the Arab fold finally freed from Israel’s occupation or control – the position they last enjoyed between 1948-1967.

    George Mitchell will be having lots more appointments, ongoing disappointments – and very many more lunches – in the region.

    Obama will be having a lot more interviews. Dwell on what he says – not to whom he says it. Perhaps everyone then will be better informed.

  • Obama is a real special person. I know that because I have just published in Spain the book “El secreto de Obama” (The Obama Secret)speaking about his clues to be so good in public speaking and to know the President of the United States. If you speak Spanish you can read it.

  • Dear David,
    I really enjoyed reading your insightful comment.
    Thanks a lot for sharing.. :)

  • Dear Monica,
    Sadly I don’t speak Spanish. But defiantly will be a pleasure to read it after its translated to English..

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