By Brigitte L. Nacos
That President Barack Obama is sticking to his campaign promise of changing America’s foreign policy approach was obvious, when he granted his first formal White House interview to the Arab TV-network al-Arabiya and used the occasion as a platform to address the Arab and Muslim street. As Karen DeYoung reports in the Washington Post, the responses to the president’s outreach “have been largely positive.” But her assessment is not based on polls of or interviews with regular Arabs and Muslims but rather on the reactions of various government officials. While there is no doubt that leaders of governments and of non-governmental groups took notice of Obama’s promise for a new start in America’s relations with the Muslim and Arab world, one wonders how many members of general public in these countries watched the actual interview.
Unfortunately, by selecting the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya network rather than the Qatar-owned al-Jazeera, the White House selected a moderate medium with a rather modest viewership over a more Arab-centric network with the by far largest audience in Arab countries.
This, then, was a missed opportunity in public diplomacy in that it did not aim for and did not get the attention of the largest segment of the targeted audience. As the 2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll of the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland found by surveying representative samples of the public in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, taken together al-Jazeera has 53% of the audience whereas al-Arabiya has only 9%. Similarly, a December 2008 survey found that more than 50% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza al-Jazeera was the most watched satellite television compared to 10% for al-Arabiya.
Unlike traditional diplomacy or government-to-government communications—often during person-to-person contacts--, public diplomacy is directed to foreign publics and therefore must aim at reaching the largest number of people. You do not have to agree with the medium of communication as long as you are assured that an interview, a speech, and messages in whatever form are aired in their original form. In other words, al-Jazeera, not al-Arabiya, is the by far best platform for public diplomacy with Arabs and Muslims.