The USG Open Source Center reported on the reaction to President Obama’s State of the Union speech on two major Arabic-language satellite news channels, Aljazeera Arabic and Alarabiya. Aljazeera’s commentators seemed disappointed that Obama does not plan a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Alarabiya’s respondent concluded that Obama does not intend to do anything dramatic with regard to Iran, and that therefore the Arab Gulf countries should develop their own independent policy toward Iran. In general, the Arab intellectuals interviewed were convinced that Obama would focus on domestic issues in his second term, and seems to have put the Middle East on the back burner:
Between its 0500 GMT and 1600 GMT newscasts on 13 February, Doha Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel Television in Arabic continued to dedicate prominent coverage to President Obama’s State of the Union speech, carrying interviews with one of its six US-based reporters, a US analyst, and two Afghan guests.
In addition, the channel carried factual reports citing the Afghan Government and the Taliban Movement as commenting on the President’s announcement of plans to drawdown the US troops in Afghanistan by 34,000 next year. Reports on the address appeared almost half the way through the major newscasts of the channel, which adopted a mostly factual tone, although one correspondent was slightly critical for lack of signs that a shift in the US foreign policy will occur during the President’s second term.
Dubai Al-Arabiyah Satellite Channel Television in Arabic devoted limited coverage to the speech, carrying a video report by its correspondent in Washington and interviewing a Saudi analyst to comment on the President’s remarks on Iran. It was not observed to interview US guests. Unlike Al-Jazirah, Al-Arabiyah led most of its major newscasts with relevant reports. Its correspondent in Washington commented factually on the speech, but noted perceived US public dissatisfaction with what the US mission in Afghanistan has accomplished.
At 0501 GMT, Al-Jazirah’s Washington-based reporter Nasir al-Husayni said in an interview that President Barack Obama’s address included “a number of thoughts and proposals to the Americans and his political Republican rivals, who usually disagree with him.”
Asked about the US stance on Syria, Al-Husayni said: “It was noticed, and observers who watched this address said, that the US foreign policy will not see any radical change. Regarding the Iranian issue, the speech included a warning through loose language — diplomatically speaking — against Iran that there is still a chance for dialogue and that the United States will never allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. If these remarks are considered a warning in the United States, they do not have anything new. Regarding the Syrian issue, one or two sentences were said in this regard. The US President wanted to disassociate himself from the Syrian crisis. He said that the United States supports Arab peoples in their quest for democracy and freedom. He also said that he will continue to put pressure on Syria but did not elaborate on the form of the pressure in his speech. Thus, many believe that foreign policy is not a priority for the President in his second term.”
At 0601 GMT, Al-Jazirah interviewed Osama Abu Irshaid, chief editor of the US-based Al-Mizan daily, who said: “The first point that comes to mind is that the speech focused primarily on US domestic issues. It focused on the economy, the creation of job opportunities, and the need to amend immigration laws.” He added that Obama briefly highlighted some foreign issues such as Iran, the Middle East, and the Arab springs, but did not talk “in detail about them, contrary to his previous speeches.” He concluded: “President Obama did not clearly focus on foreign policy, which means that he will focus more on domestic issues that are of interest to American voters at this stage.”
Within its 0700 GMT newscast, the channel cited Taliban as saying that President Barack Obama’s plan to pull out from Afghanistan “does not live up to the expectations of the Afghan people, adding that the only solution to the Afghanistan crisis is the full withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.”
In a subsequent interview, Afghan political analyst Misbahullah Abdul Baqi said: “When Barack Obama came to power four years ago, he said that he would end the war. He repeats this statement one time after another. However, the United States does not intend to pull out all its troops. This plan, which Obama keeps repeating, is a plan for redeployment. In other words, he will withdraw some troops and keep a large number of them to ostensibly train the Afghan forces, police, and security forces.” He added that the remainder of the US forces in Afghanistan “will prompt the armed opposition to continue its war, as it objects to the US military presence in Afghanistan for any purpose.”
Within the 1100 GMT newscast, Washington-based reporter Nasir al-Husayni said in a two-minute video, which was repeated in the subsequent newscasts, that President Obama “seemed optimistic” about the economic performance of his country, and described the speech as “purely domestic in nature,” citing observers as depicting the President’s threats to Iran and North, Syria, and North Korea as “genuine but clawless.”
At 1228, Al-Jazirah carried a 20-second factual report citing the spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry as welcoming the President’s announcement of US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In a three-minute live interview that followed soon afterward, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, former Taliban representative at the United Nations, hailed the President’s decision as “wise,” but stressed that the United States “should also play a central role in promoting national reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.” He justified continued Taliban armed activity as “normal” given the fact that “no peaceful settlement has been reached between Taliban on the one hand, and the international forces and the Afghan Government on the other hand.”
At 0701 GMT, the channel carried a video report by its correspondent in Washington Muna al-Shiqaqi, in which she viewed the main issues that President Obama discussed in his State of the Union address, including Iran’s nuclear program, the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Syrian crisis, and his upcoming visit to the Middle East. Though largely factual, the report concluded by noting that “most of the Americans believe that the bulk of the US effort in Afghanistan was futile.” The channel aired the same video report within its subsequent major newscasts.
At 1313 GMT, Abdallah al-Shimmari, a Saudi expert in international relations, has described President Obama’s policy on Iran as “firm,” but stressed that since “dialogue is crucial for the top priorities of both countries,” the GCC member states should “delineate their own policy on Iran away from the United States,” which “is obviously heading for a peaceful settlement with Tehran.”