By granting his first interview to Alarabiya –the pan-Arab underdog– instead of Aljazeera, Mr. Obama is already signaling that he is taking sides in the Arab world’s divide.
While reading the coverage of Mr. Obama’s interview with Alarabiya on American news websites and blogs, I’ve noticed that an important angle of the story was missing. People either extolled Mr. Obama’s “brave” and “audacious” overture or criticized his supposed naiveté and implied that by granting an Arab station an interview, he was somehow selling out Americans.
Missing in all that coverage (and apologies to those I might have missed) was a small detail that has the potential to add texture and subtlety to an otherwise straightforward story.
You see, Al-Arabiya is not Aljazeera. In fact it is the anti-Aljazeera. In that proverbial divide between moderate and fanatic Arabs, “moderates” (those who are more interested in shopping and trading than killing Americans and Jews) generally prefer Al-Arabiya’s milder narratives and its overall friendliness to the west. Hisham Melhem, the Lebanese anchor who conducted the interview is a supporter of the “Cedar revolution”, the pro-western movement that sacked the Syrians from Lebanon 3 years ago. Moreover, Alarabiya is funded by the Saudi King who is leading the so-called moderate front in a cold war pitting realists against hardliners who are lead by Iran.
Alarabiya is the Arab MSNBC to Aljazeera’s FOX News, and President Obama’s granting Alarabiya his first interview instead of the slightly more watched Aljazeera is the media equivalent of him calling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and shunning Hamas’ leader Ismail Hanié.
In short: While President Obama’s interview looks on its surface like an “opening up” to the Arab world, with all the due emphasis on mutual respect and change of course, it is also a pointed snub and a shrewd maneuver in the heart of the war of ideas taking place in the Arab world.