View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Sunday, May 31, 2009

To Polish His Speech to Arabs and Muslims Obama Should Watch Al Jazeera

To get into the groove for his major speech this week in Egypt President Obama could do well by switching off the American news channels and turning on to Al Jazeera.

According to the most recent Arab Public Opinion Survey (April-May 2009), Al Jazeera is the international news service that Arabs watch most often and it has become even more popular in this last year. Unlike the Americo-centric news services in the USA, Al Jazeera has a wide international focus. Viewing America and the world through this popular Arab lens will assist Obama as much in tone as in text.

Watching Al Jazeera will also highlight some important points for which the Arab Public Opinion poll has provided statistical support.

Barack Obama has high ratings in the Arab world (44%) but a sizeable proportion of his Thursday audience will be neutral towards him (28%) or are somewhat to very negative (24%) in their attitude.

While the Middle Eastern audience is awaiting his speech with great interest, President Obama will not find the same buzz that he enjoyed on his earlier visit to Europe. The main reason for this is that more than three quarters of the Arab world have an unfavorable attitude towards the country of which Obama is President and their low confidence and cynicism has been shaped largely by the long record of US policy in the region.

The USA and Israel are seen as the biggest threats to the Arab world and while America touts itself as the beacon of freedom and democracy, only a small slice of Arabs (18%) believe this and they look to other countries in hope. Arabs also have a problem with the US occupation of the Arabian Peninsula.

Number One Issue
Of all the issues that play a role among Arabs in assessing the Obama administration policy in the region, the number one issue is Iraq (42%). Obama’s audience overwhelmingly (73%) feels that Iraq will be worse off after the war so for the Commander-in-Chief to restate his commitment to withdraw and to do this with urgency, will need to be a central thrust of his speech.

Arab-Israeli Conflict
The Arab-Israeli conflict is also paramount and hopefully Obama’s conversations with the key players in recent days will have furnished him with a clear, detailed plan and timetable of how the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will be reached. Obama has for a long time recommended a two-state solution, a position to which 60% of Arabs are committed, believing that if this solution collapses there will be an “intense conflict for years to come.”

Years of US involvement in the Middle East have shaped a perception by Arabs that protecting Israel at the expense of everyone else is one of the key drivers of American policy. Of Arabs polled, 39% believe that Israel decides on its own interests and then influences the USA to give it support, while another 25% view Israel as a tool of American foreign policy.

The memory of the recent war in Gaza (as reported only by Al Jazeera from within the city) is still raw, with 66% of Arabs believing that Israel was the biggest winner in this conflict. This week Obama will restate his commitment to protecting Israel but he will need to convey a new spirit of evenhandedness that no longer grants Israel special favors, that admonishes Israel when it is in breach of its agreement, and one which treats the Palestinians with consistency and fairness.

Obama cannot be overconfident about his promises, for 50% of his audience do not believe that a lasting peace will ever come about between Israel and the Palestinians while 40% believe that it is inevitable but it will take more time. How Obama will bolster their confidence is one of the many challenges of his Thursday speech.

Attitudes to Arab/Muslim World
Attitudes towards the Arab-Muslim world is the third most important issue for Arabs according to the recent survey yet, in the country by country breakdown, this was the number one issue for some Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates.

Obama will need to clarify who he is addressing as some White House Press releases have suggested that “Egypt represents the heart of the Arab world,” while other announcements portray Obama as speaking to the Muslim world. If the latter is the main audience, some believe that Indonesia would have been a better location for this speech, as it is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, it has faced the challenge of Islamic extremism and it is a practicing democracy that the President could hold up as a model.

Some from the Arab and Muslim sector of the America population are miffed that President Obama has not addressed them first and got his own house in order before trotting off to Egypt to speak about US relations with Arabs and Muslims. His recognition that they are part of his global audience will be diplomatic and will help them to know that their concerns have been warmly received.

Thursday’s speech will be Obama’s greatest test yet, for so much will be hanging on his words, his manner and his concrete proposals.

Yes, tuning in to Al Jazeera might provide the best preparation for Thursday’s speech and for the critical work which is to follow.

Link: Arab Public Opinion Survey 2009, UM and Zogby Int.

Dr Geoff Pound
Geoff Pound can be contacted at geoffpound[@] or Facebook.

Image: “President Obama could do well by switching off the American news channels and turning on to Al Jazeera.”