What's behind Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's unexpected Al-Arabiya interview?
The Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya hosted Khaled Meshaal, chief of Hamas's political office in the diaspora, for a TV interview broadcast this week. It started with the Dubai-based interviewer, Taher Baraka, pointedly using the familiar 'Abu Walid' to address him, rather than his official title.
The interview flowed, and the questions he posed were answered frankly and in a conciliatory spirit by Meshaal, who at the same time did not waver from the positions Hamas - which rules in the Gaza Strip - is known to hold. However, despite the importance of what was said, more significant here was that this interview was broadcast in the first place.
The Saudi kingdom's biases are well known when it comes to Palestine, the Arab uprisings and political Islam, and they are reflected in Saudi Arabia's clear anti-Hamas stance which has lasted nearly eight years. These biases have their roots in Saudi politics, which are, more often than not, aligned with those of the UAE - where the channel's headquarters are based.
"The interview flowed, and the questions he posed were answered frankly and in a conciliatory spirit by Meshaal, who at the same time did not waver from the positions Hamas"
And so the interview with Meshaal came as a surprise, giving rise to disapproval in some quarters and suspicion in others, as well as sparking a few questions. Some have read deeply into the meaning of the broadcast, something it probably does not deserve, or perhaps it does - it's hard to tell because there is no trustworthy information available as to why Al-Arabiya decided to host Meshaal in Dubai.
It would of course be welcome if Al-Arabiya had decided to confront its biases and overhaul its one-sided approach. In failing to heed the basic building blocks of journalism by abandoning even a semblance of balance and objectivity in its reporting, the channel has done huge damage to its own reputation which will be difficult to fix.
It is possible to preserve a political stance as a TV channel, and at the same time provide the balance necessary to ensure high quality content. For this reason, it should not be seen as praiseworthy or commendable for a Hamas leader to be hosted on an Arab TV station; this is normal media practice, especially in this case because Al-Arabiya regularly hosts opponents of Hamas.
Presenters from the channel have long accused the group of terrorism and of sacrificing the Palestinian people, and there is no evidence that Meshaal's appearance signals a change in this attitude, or that Al-Arabiya is undertaking a long-overdue period of reflection.
Is this an attempt by Saudi decision-makers to repair the kingdom's severed links with Hamas, reinstating lines of friendly communication? Meshaal indicates his openness to this during the interview when he expresses the group's hopes that their historic relationship with the kingdom can be restored - requesting also that Hamas members be released from Saudi prisons.
It's clear that Meshaal is not just being diplomatic when he says that while Hamas thanks Iran for its support and weapons, that does not mean it agrees with its regional or international agenda. This stance appears entirely in line with Hamas's convictions and does not pose a contradiction - the same attitude is brought to bear in the movement's eagerness to forge relationships with any Arab state, even those who have normalised relations with Israel.
Or could it be that by giving Khaled Meshaal 30 minutes of airtime on Al-Arabiya during a raging dispute which is now in the open between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Riyadh is sending a message to the UAE?
Many social media commenters have come to this conclusion, although it is impossible for us to be certain. The Financial Times has reported on the deteriorating relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, opining that the latter has been flexing its muscles, signalling its desire for more independence.
"Surely it is no accident that Meshaal's TV appearance coincided with Saudi Arabia's anger at Abu Dhabi over OPEC+ talks on oil production quotas"
Surely it is no accident that Meshaal's TV appearance coincided with Saudi Arabia's anger at Abu Dhabi over OPEC+ talks on oil production quotas and the kingdom's subsequent decision to ban travel by its citizens to the UAE without permission (though the official excuse is that this is because of Covid-19). Alongside this was the stir caused recently by the Emiratis who tweeted that this was “the era of material interests”, rather than "friendship" or "brotherliness".
While some might accuse those reading so deeply into this interview of just fishing for something to criticise, well, what is the job of journalism, if not to shine a spotlight on events in order to explain them?
Maen al-Bayari is a writer and journalist from Jordan. He is the chief Opinion Editor of The New Arab's Arabic Edition, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.
Follow him on Twitter: @maenalbayari
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko.
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Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer, or The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.