United States President Barack Obama chose to give his first interview as president to the Arabic satellite news channel Al Arabiya, with veteran journalist Hisham Melhem succeeding in getting the interview of the century.
Like thousands of other journalists, Melhem hoped for an interview with Obama after he won the election, and was especially eager to secure an interview with the new president since he had said he would address the Muslim world within the first 100 days of his office.
"We contacted many of our friends inside and outside the American administration," Melham told AlArabiya.net. "And I believe there have been discussions in the White House about whether the new president should now approach the situation in the Muslim world especially after closing Guantanamo and starting the withdrawal from Iraq. They later informed me that the first interview will be given to Al Arabiya and to me personally."
The White House contacted Melhem, Al Arabiya’s Washington bureau chief, and asked him not to announce the interview until an official announcement was made by the administration. The interview was to take place after Obama's meeting with his Middle East peace envoy Sen. George Mitchell and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Obama was very friendly and on good terms with his aides, said Melhem, who found the nation’s 44th president “very smart.”
But you can be smart and good-looking, so Al Arabiya’s Washington correspondent, Muna Shikaki, made sure the president’s makeup was perfect before his image was broadcast to billions of homes worldwide.
The 17-minute interview covered a lot of ground, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the new role Obama planned for the U.S. in the world to reiterating promises to withdraw troops from Iraq and close Guantanamo Bay prison.
"We could've stayed longer if he hadn't had other commitments. Anyway, we spoke for 17 minutes, and that is a very long time for an American president," said Melhem, who has interviewed other American presidents and top aides
Before the interview, Melhem and Obama talked about Chicago as a city famous for Blues music that they both love.
"He was surprised when he found out I loved this music, especially in the 1940s and 1950s. We talked in detail about Blues singers and the importance of Blues as part of Chicago's cultural heritage," said Melhem, a Lebanese journalist who has spent several years in Washington building a reputation as one of the most respected analysts on the Arab world.
"He gave me the impression that he's at ease, which made me at ease as well. And when we started, he told me we should talk as if we know each other."
Addressing the Muslim world
It was obvious, Melhem said, that Obama wanted to speak to the Arab and Muslim through Al Arabiya and was trying to deliver the message that there will be a different approach towards the issues of concern to Arabs and Muslims, especially the Palestinian cause.
"At this point, we talked about Mitchell's mission. We talked about many details, which was something I didn't expect. I thought he'd wait for the Israeli elections and Mitchell's feedback,” explained Melhem. Mitchell arrived in the region as the interview was airing on Al Arabiya Tuesday.
"He was positive with regards the Arab peace initiative and stressed he will personally play an active role in the peace process and won't wait till the end of his term or the second, in an obvious criticism of his predecessor Bush."
Media outlets across the world carried Obama's interview with Al Arabiya, eager for the first hint of how the new president would begin to fulfill his campaign promise of change, especially with regard to the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Although Melhem asked Obama in which Muslim capital he would give his promised speech the president was not ready to announce the news during the interview, although that did not stop speculation.
Melhem said some were predicting Obama would choose the Indonesian capital Djakarta since the president spent part of his childhood there and it is the world's most populous Muslim nations, and noted that choosing an Arab capital could create contention among the Arab countries.
Just as Obama discussed the importance of language and words during his on-air interview, Melhem said it “goes without saying” that a president named Barack Hussein Obama would look at the world differently than a George W. Bush.
"This is not just because of the time he spent in Indonesia or because of his African roots, but also because of his understanding of the complications of this world and his realization that America today is not America 20 or 25 years ago," explained Melhem.
Obama used his full name when he took the oath of office despite fear mongering during the campaign that his middle name Hussein indicated he was secretly Muslim. The interview was the first time he explicitly talked about his family’s Muslim background.
“I have Muslim members of my family,” Obama told Melhem. “I have lived in Muslim countries.”
Melhem said he thinks Obama realizes the world is changing and no longer revolves around Europe or the United States.
“His view of the Islamic world will be from that perspective, which is different from that of previous American presidents,” said Melhem.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid. Written by Courtney C. Radsch)