The six-year wait: Al Arabiya’s Nadia Bilbassy on interviewing Obama

Washington correspondent describes what it took to secure first Arab TV interview with the U.S. president since 2009

Paul Crompton
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For the countless journalists covering Washington’s corridors of power, interviewing the U.S. president can seem like a dream come true.

But for many Arab television outlets, the opportunity to sit with Barack Obama has proved elusive.


The 44th U.S. president has not sat down for an interview with an Arab TV station since 2009, when Obama granted the first interview of his presidency to the Al Arabiya News Channel’s Washington bureau chief Hisham Melhem.

But after last week’s meeting with Gulf leaders at Camp David, Obama finally agreed to an interview with Al Arabiya’s Washington correspondent Nadia Bilbassy.

That followed several years of requests for a sit-down interview with the president, said Bilbassy, who has been with the channel since its inception in 2003.

“I used every trick in the book. Literally they just got tired of me... demanding the interview,” she said.

In the end, persistence – and simply showing her face enough – paid off in gaining favor with officials and the president’s assistants, Bilbassy added.

She eventually received a call from White House staffers telling her “the president wants to speak with you.”

Nadia Bilbassy with obama
Nadia Bilbassy with obama

When Bilbassy finally found herself face-to-face with Obama, flanked by secret service agents, she had some tricks up her sleeve in her attempt to carve more interview time from the president’s packed schedule.

Bush lessons

Recalling lessons from her six interviews with former President George W. Bush, Bilbassy made an appeal to Obama’s benevolence.

Nadia Bilbassy with obama
Nadia Bilbassy with obama

“The White House limits your time of the length of the interview… so basically he gave me 15 minutes,” she said. But she told Obama: “I’m relying on your generosity, Mr. President.”

Obama replied: “OK, I’ll give you sixteen.’’ In the end, the interview lasted 28 minutes.

“The White House [staff were] about to murder me,” said Bilbassy, describing one of Obama’s aides just off camera, furiously gesturing for the interview to end. “My trick was to go straight to him and I said, 'look I still have to ask you about Syrians and the Palestinians'.”

After answering, with a handshake and a flashed, gleaming smile, the long-awaited moment was over.

Bilbassy described a crisis that erupted before the interview, when the Al Arabiya team’s makeup artist failed to show up, while the White House makeup artist – who charged $200 for her services – was busy prepping its most important occupant.

However, help was at hand.

“We had a person with us so she just opened her bag and she had a few light powders. My worries were it had to be good enough because the lighting is pretty strong. But it was fine in the end,” said Bilbassy. “What matters to me is [asking] as many questions as I can.”

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