Qatar’s Al-Jazeera Arabic news network has enjoyed as rocky a relationship with the US as the region from which it hails. Abderrahim Foukara, the station’s New York and Washington bureau chief and managing editor, is the face of Al-Jazeera Arabic in the US.
Born in Morocco and educated in Scotland, Abderrahim Foukara started his career as a producer, newscaster and reporter at the BBC in the Arabic and African services for the World Service. In 2002 he joined Al-Jazeera Arabic, first running the New York bureau before becoming the chief of both the New York and Washington DC bureaux in 2006. His weekly show, Min Washington (“From Washington”), goes out across the US and Middle East.
Monocle: What is the main purpose of Al-Jazeera Arabic in Washington?
Abderrahim Foukara: We mostly cover Washington and its politics: the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, Congress and various think tanks. But parallel to that we cover stories that give the Middle East a flavour of what it’s really like to live in the US.
M: What are you doing to cover the election?
AF: We rolled out a plan for the Iowa caucuses that we’ve ramped up since Super Tuesday: guests, in-house reports, field reports from polling and candidate locations and panels. Once the Democrats have a set candidate, our reporters will try to get on the campaign trail of each of the two parties. By November, we will have aired over 50 news stories and packages on this election and several hundred hours of debate and live reporting. By early summer Min Washington will be devoted to the election and its title will become The Presidential Race.
M: How interested are Al-Jazeera Arabic’s viewers in Obama?
AF: Obama is generating a lot of interest. Being African-American, he’s seen almost as a racial barometer for how far America has come since the civil rights campaign in the 1960s. Having said that, people are aware that there isn’t a great deal of policy difference between him and Hillary, particularly over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
M: Are you surprised that mentions of his middle name, Hussein, have cropped up in more news broadcasts and newspapers in the Middle East than in the western media?
AF: His name does seem to raise a lot more “sympathetic” curiosity in the Arab world than it does in the West. But the reality is that people are confused about who he actually may be, despite seeing him as the non-white underdog who may be able to generate a different kind of debate about the Middle East if he wins.
M: What do the 2008 elections mean to the Arab world?
AF: If there’s one part of the world where the US election has always been closely watched, it’s the Middle East. The US has massive strategic interests there. In Iraq; in the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the ties with Saudi Arabia. It is the Bush administration’s project to democratise the region. There are so many issues that make people interested in not just the outcome of the election, but also the process itself.
M: Many of Al-Jazeera’s viewers live in monarchies. Do you think watching foreign democratic elections affects their view of their own system of government?
AF: The impact is cumulative and gradual. Several Arab countries have had elections. Although the results have not always been democratic, they nonetheless have given some Arab countries more than others a flavour of what it feels like.
M: If you had to call the election now, who would win?
AF: Both Obama’s and Hillary’s fortunes have seen such ups and downs, it’s really difficult to project – not just among Democrats but even between a Democratic frontrunner and John McCain. I am really not writing off McCain, despite the assumption that all the stars are lined for a Democratic victory. The Bush administration has not dropped the case against Iran yet. Should there be some sort of military move or even a minor skirmish, McCain’s fortunes would soar.
M: How does it feel to be an Arab journalist reporting from Washington at such a critical time in US-Middle Eastern relations?
AF: It can be a really amazing experience because you’re sitting in a city where basically a large chunk of the history of the Middle East is being fashioned. But it can be an incredibly depressing experience if you get emotionally involved. I feel a lot of responsibility. My dilemma is this: as an Arab journalist I have to be extremely measured in what I say about America and about the Arab world. I always have to find a way to say that these two players, for all the negative stuff that’s going on, have a lot of things in common. It can be a very uncomfortable place to be.
M: What’s your solution to that dilemma?
AF: Just to keep trying, because you don’t have a choice. You only have two options. You can take the easier option and report negatively or you take the more complex option, which is to stand back and keep your emotions out of it.
The US’s relationship with the Middle East
The US’s interest in the Middle East post Second World War had three main objectives: control of oil from the Gulf, protection of Israel and containment of the then Soviet Union. The steady rise of Arab nationalism and Islamic radicalism has made these goals ever harder to achieve. In 1991, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the US declared war on Iraq. Two years later, Osama bin Laden began orchestrating attacks on the US, culminating in September 11. Soon after, President Bush launched an attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. While this received widespread support, the expansion of the campaign into a “war on terror” was less popular. The Iraq War – which Obama voted against and Clinton and McCain voted for – continues to be a crucial issue in the election campaign.
The Washington bureau of Al-Jazeera Arabic is on the first two floors of a building in the city centre and is staffed by 25 people. Al-Jazeera English, which occupies five other floors of the same building, has a staff of approximately 120 people and Al-Jazeera Arabic’s only other US bureau is in New York, in order to cover the UN, and has a staff of five. The five reporters on staff in Washington, including Foukara, film reports every day in the small studio at one end of the office. These are fed to the headquarters in Doha, where they become a part of the flagship news show on the channel (“Today’s Harvest”). Al-Jazeera Arabic, which was established in 1996, has daily viewing figures of about 50 million worldwide, approximately 300,000 of whom are in the US. Together with Al-Jazeera English, it has 60 bureaux around the world.