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Obama reaches Arabs, Muslims via Al Arabiya

First interview choice met with excitement, enthusiasm

Published:

When American President Barack Obama decided to give the first interview of his presidency to an Arab station, Al Arabiya, he knew that his choice of venues would become a story in and of itself and send a message to Americans and the Arab world about the direction his administration would take.

In his inaugural address Obama reiterated his desire to engage with the Muslim world and pursue a different approach to foreign policy than his predecessor, and as several analysts and commentators have noted, the best way to do this was to speak directly to his target audience through their media.

“He’s trying to reach out in their own language so it’s part of conflict communication in a way, and his views of soft power and public diplomacy,” said Abeer Najjar, assistant professor of mass communication at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. “So he's very smart to go to an Arabic channel and say 'I’m the party that wants to communicate with you, I’m reaching out.'”

It also highlighted the new president’s attempts to speak directly to the people rather than just to their leaders.

“We think that this sends an important signal about the new administration and its desire to directly engage the people of the Middle East and the Muslim World,” Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), told AlArabiya.net. “For too long the American administrations have focused too much on relationships with Arab governments rather than Arab people.”

He’s trying to reach out in their own language so it’s part of conflict communication in a way, and his views of soft power and public diplomacy

Abeer Najjar, American University of Sharjah

Obama’s first presidential interview would have gotten attention regardless of the station, but as Al Arabiya’s Washington correspondent Muna Shikaki pointed out, his choice of venue helped set the agenda for the interview.

“It would have gotten the same play, almost the same play, because it was his first interview as president, but I think that it was done as a gesture, and so going to end up talking about Middle East more,” Shikaki, who was at the interview, told AlArabiya.net.

Choosing the network

According to people in involved in the arrangements for the interview, the administration had made the decision to give the first presidential interview to an Arab television station. The U.S.-funded Al Hurra was not an option because it is not permitted to broadcast in the U.S. and has a negligible audience share in the Middle East, according to a study by Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland.

Essentially Obama had to decide between the two leading Arabic satellite news providers: the Dubai-based Al Arabiya, part of the Saudi-owned MBC group, and Al Jazeera, the pioneering Doha-based network funded by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani.

Al Jazeera is known in the United States for its exclusive coverage of Osama bin Laden’s video statements, and its English-language station has been unable to find an American distributor.

“From the perspective of the American government, Al Jazeera is considered sympathetic to extremist groups and extremist elements in the Muslim and the Arab world and Obama was not going to give credibility to a satellite station that promotes extremism and sides with the negative forces that the U.S. is trying to address,” Salmeh Nematt, international editor of the Daily Beast and former Washington bureau chief for al-Hayat, said to AlArabiya.net. “This is why he chose Al Arabiya, a prominent satellite channel that is professional.”

From the perspective of the American government, Al Jazeera is considered sympathetic to extremist groups and extremist elements in the Muslim and the Arab world and Obama was not going to give credibility to a satellite station that promotes extremism and sides with the negative forces that the U.S. is trying to address

Salmeh Nematt, the Daily Beast

Sending a message

The choice of Al Arabiya also underscored his interest in “communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest,” as he said during the interview, which was broadcast Tuesday. (see the English video at http://evideo.alarabiya.net).

“He doesn’t expect them to all to understand English, but understands they will go to Al Arabiya as an Arabic channel, which is one of the most important Arab news channels,” said Najjar, noting that Al Arabiya is one of the most popular news stations in the region.

The choice of venue and topic sent a powerful message not only to the Arab and Muslim worlds but also to the Arab and Muslim-Americans who felt marginalized during the campaign, when Obama was “accused” of being a secret Muslim and his middle name, Hussein, was used as a slur.

But the candidate who appeared to downplay his background during the campaign spoke much more directly about his upbringing in a Muslim country, Indonesia, and having relatives who are Muslim.

Obama’s choice of interview venues has been met “with a lot of excitement and lot of Muslim Americans and Arab Americans that felt that throughout campaign their communities weren't paid as much attention to or given respect as they would have like to see,” said McInerney.

“I think also of people were happy to see his choice to speak directly to Arab Muslim world and not to shy away as president -- no longer candidate -- that he has Muslim members of his family and lived in Muslim countries,” he added.

I think also of people were happy to see his choice to speak directly to Arab Muslim world and not to shy away as president -- no longer candidate -- that he has Muslim members of his family and lived in Muslim countries

Stephen McInerney, POMED