There's no question that President Obama's decision to hold his first big interview with Al Arabiya is of huge symbolic value. Jim Lobe emphasized in Hong Kong's Asia Times that Middle East specialists in Washington have taken to the message especially strongly, after years of feeling ignored about major foreign policy issues, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The extreme sensitivity in the Arab world over this issue in the wake of the Gaza conflict adds another layer to the question of why Obama chose Al Arabiya.
On this digest of blog posts from the Arab World, there is a lot of debate and mixed reaction to the interview. Everyone certainly agrees that the interview represents a step forward, but some are asking why, if the President was looking to make a real impression, he didn't go on al-Jazeera. Professor Hayden discusses al-Hurra's major credibility problems below, but according to the blog excerpts at the link above,
"Al-Arabiya is viewed by alot of people in the Middle East as a propaganda outlet for the conservative pro-American regimes."
"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."
Now obviously Obama can't make everyone happy, and Al Arabiya seems to me to be a great balanced choice to show he's serious about dialogue and righting wrongs, but he's not going to get into a shouting match with one of the notoriously independent (and correspondingly more credible) Al Jazeera anchors.
However, Obama's message decision to go on Al Arabiya may have been targeted more specifically than just being on Arab TV. Al Arabiya is a Saudi station (why the bloggers were skeptical), and the Saudi's have been especially incensed about the Gaza situation. Riyadh has been conducting a peace process with the rest of the Arab world for quite some time, and has been remarkably successful in pulling together the support of the rarely united Arab governments about the circumstances under which they will recognize and support Israel. The only problem is that they received no support from the Bush administration, to the extant that former Ambassador to the U.S. Turki al-Faisal wrote an angry article in the Financial Times blaming Bush's complacency for the Gaza attack and warning Obama that he has to move quickly and decisively if he wants to salvage any kind of progress.
Col. Pat Lang, former Pentagon advisor quoted in that Asia Times article up there, suggests that the Al Arabiya decision may have been as much about building bridges with Saudi Arabia specifically, public as well as government, as about general Muslim outreach. The strategy would be two fold: not only does Obama get a great piece of exposure in the Muslim world, showing he's sincere and wants to fix things (except maybe to the people that call the channel al-Hibriya), he also shows the Saudis, by picking their station, that he's serious about working with them on Israel-Palestine, and that he won't torpedo their efforts to contribute to a real peace process, which, unlike Annapolis, actually showed some support in the Arab world. That part is regular state-to-state diplomacy I guess, but its done in through public means, kind of sideways diplomacy I guess.
Also, to remind us what's at stake and how important PD really is, as Obama gives his first Presidential interview, Bush's first (though unofficial) presidential monument is being dismantled already . . .