Obama sends clear signal via Saudi TV

In a series of early and well thought out gestures towards the Muslim and Arab worlds, Barack Obama has clearly struck a new tone from Washington, raising hopes across the region that a line can be drawn under the past eight years of tense relations.

After promising mutual respect for Muslims in his inaugural speech, and moving swiftly to address the Arab-Israeli conflict by appointing George Mitchell as special envoy (see below), Mr Obama gave his first television interview as president on Monday night to a Saudi-backed channel, the Dubai-based al-Arabiya.

Some observers on Tuesday wondered why Mr Obama had chosen al-Arabiya, which is seen as the mouthpiece of the region’s conservative regimes, instead of al-Jazeera, the Qatari-owned channel that has greater credibility with the “Arab street” and reaches a larger audience. But they conceded that Mr Obama’s gesture was unexpected.

“On day one Obama reaches out to the Muslim world in his inaugural address,” said Daniel Levy, a Middle East analyst and member of J Street, a liberal Jewish lobby group. “On day three he appoints an envoy, on day six he gives an Arabic-language interview and on day seven his envoy is already in the region. It is as good as you could possibly imagine.”

Analysts on Tuesday said the remarkable attention given to the region underlines the extent to which the president understands the damage wreaked by the administration of George W. Bush, and the Gaza conflict on the image of the US and its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

“We’re in for a whole new strategic thinking,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University in Dubai. “We are looking at a president who has thought this through carefully and who wants to build new bridges, a president who wants to go back to before the September 11 [2001] attacks, scrap all the mistakes and bad feelings.”

Al-Arabiya is widely watched in Saudi Arabia, a country where people have been infuriated with the US, not least because of its unequivocal support for Israel, including during this month’s Gaza offensive.

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family and former spy chief, last week wrote a scathing article in the Financial Times warning that US failure to drastically change its policies towards Israel and Palestine would damage US-Saudi relations and radicalise the kingdom’s stance.

In his interview, Mr Obama stayed clear of any criticism of Israel. But, unlike the Bush administration, he appeared to recognise the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its impact on other crises in the broader region, and on the radicalisation of Muslim youth. “It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he told al-Arabiya.

Middle East watchers in Washington welcomed Mr Obama’s gesture but said they were still awaiting any change in substance from the new president.

“It is very good to have this sharp change in tone and symbolism from Washington – that will go down well,” says Peter Bergen, an al-Qaeda expert. “But at some point we will need to know whether the Obama administration is prepared to talk to [the Palestinian militant group] Hamas, directly or indirectly, and whether it will take a different stance on the Israeli settlements. Beyond the tone what will be the substance?”

Al-Arabiya also pointed out that Mr Obama had yet to speak out strongly on the recent civilian casualties in Gaza. “His continuing silence on the enormous amount of civilian casualties during the Israeli offensive . . . spoke volumes to an audience that has waited for America to take a more balanced approach to the conflict,” it said.

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