Arab Press Goes All-Out Covering the US Election

The level of Arab media interest in this year's election is unprecedented—and the reports suggest many in the region are rooting for Obama.

11.03.08 5:54 AM ET

Interest in the US election is so high in the Middle East that one Iraqi journalist believes “more Arabs are probably watching who will eventually land in the White House in January 2009 than those who watched when the first man landed on the moon in 1969.”

Most hope it will be Obama.

Iraqis know the future of their country “is hanging in the balance, depending on who wins,” Dalia Al-Aqidi, a news anchor and talk show host for Sumariya, an Iraqi satellite channel, told The Daily Beast. On the one hand, they “fear that Obama may withdraw American troops too soon, which would return the specter of a civil war.” On the other hand, “some fear that McCain may continue Bush’s disastrous policies that led to Iran becoming a major power broker in Iraq and the region.”

“A black man with a good shot at the presidency has galvanized interest in the Arab world like never before.”

As for the wider problems of the region, commentary in leading Arabic-language media shows a strong dose of skepticism that either candidate would make substantial changes to Washington’s policies, because both are staunchly pro-Israel. Still, there is some hope that a new administration might take a more balanced approach to issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“People in the Arab world see American presidents not as American leaders, but global leaders in many ways,” said Muna Shikaki, a Washington correspondent for the influential Arabic-language satellite channel Al-Arabiya. Shikaki, who is a Palestinian, said Obama remains the favorite in the Arab region despite policy statements about the Middle East that have increasingly looked like McCain’s. “But they mostly support Obama for lack of a real choice. They are very much like African-Americans who support him, even if they were not sure whether he’ll make any real difference.”

Several of the most influential Middle East broadcast and print outlets monitored by Inter-Media have expressed a sense of despair about the US elections, arguing that the weak powers of the presidency and the tremendous influence of political donors would constrain the ability of any administration to significantly change US policy.

An analytical piece by Al-Jazeera television in September summarized the US electoral scenario as seen by many Arabs: Either the US will end up with an unpolished version of President George W. Bush (McCain) or one who offers nothing novel except the goal of withdrawal from Iraq (Obama), which in any event is not a new idea for many Americans. This perception bodes ill for changing the generally negative perceptions of the US now prevalent in much of the Arab world.

Nevertheless, Arab media interest is unprecedented. Luqman Ahmad, senior BBC Arabic Service correspondent in Washington, told The Daily Beast that in addition to two correspondents based in D.C., his division has sent six correspondents and four producers to cover the elections.

“These are historic elections by any standard,” Luqman said. “A black man with a good shot at the presidency has galvanized interest in the Arab world like never before,” he added. “The policies and actions of the Bush administration have affected the lives of millions in the Arab world, not excluding the recent economic crisis. Everybody wants to know what the next president is likely to do.”

Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s most influential satellite channel, with an estimated audience of 50 million in the region and throughout the world, has fielded correspondents in six battleground states in addition to its Washington coverage. All in all, nearly 50 Al-Jazeera journalists are on the election story in the US alone, with many more in Doha, the channel’s headquarters.

Abdul-Rahim Al-Fuqaraa, Al-Jazeera’s Washington bureau chief, told me that his channel has had heavy coverage of the elections from the beginning of the primaries, and that it has ratcheted up in the last two weeks, approaching saturation coverage on the eve of the vote.

“We have drawn on more resources for the coverage of this election than we did covering the initial phase of the Iraq war in 2003,” said Al-Fuqaraa. “The interest among our audiences has been phenomenal.”

Many leading Arabic-language newspapers, such as Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, have been dedicating a full page to the election each day, apart from the daily front-page story.

Still, it is a challenge to explain to outsiders all the factors that affect the outcome of a US presidential race—particularly when, as in 2000, one candidate won the popular vote and the other claimed the White House. While there is an occasional effort to explain the electoral college system, in general the Arab media strive to keep things simple. They report on policy statements, polls, and events that cause a seismic shift in the electoral map, and avoid sideshows such as Joe the Plumber and Tina Fey.

Marc Ginsberg, a former US ambassador to Morocco, wrote this week that, having just gotten off the plane from the Middle East, “one thing is for certain: whether you are pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian or pro-whatever, there is hardly a soul who is not rooting for a big Obama victory on Tuesday except for extremist (Jewish) settlers and extremist Islamists.”