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Want to reach Arabs Mr. President? Try this

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
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  • Dean Obeidallah says as Arab-American comedian, he's paid attention in Mideast travels
  • He says in speech, Obama should address issues raised by his social network contacts
  • They say job opportunity, social reforms, Arab-Israeli conflict chief concerns, he says
  • Obeidallah: Lastly, Mr. President, publicly have a cigarette; Arabs love to smoke

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah is an award-winning Arab-American comedian who has appeared on various TV shows including Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" special, ABC's "The View," CNN's "What the Week" and "The Joy Behar Show." He is executive producer of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and The Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival.

(CNN) -- Dear President Obama:

I hope you don't think this too forward, but I humbly want to offer my advice as you prepare to give your speech this Thursday reaching out to the Arab world. I'm well-suited to help; after all, I'm a stand-up comedian. But I'm not a typical American comedian --I'm of Arab heritage, and for the past three years, I have performed comedy extensively across the Middle East, from Egypt through Saudi Arabia.

In fact, I was performing in Muscat, Oman, on June 4, 2009, when you made your historic speech in Cairo. The Arabs there loved it -- you had them at "Salamu Alaykum."

Your talk of a "new beginning" based "upon mutual interest and mutual respect" truly raised expectations that your administration would be different from previous ones, especially on the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Despite what some "experts" might tell you, the Arabs who I have met, young and old alike, want to be friends with the United States -- real friends, not just Facebook friends.

The United States is like the cool kid in high school, and unfortunately many past American presidents have not let the Arab world sit at their table in the lunchroom. And they see Israel hanging out there almost every day.

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Your Cairo speech gave the Arab world the impression that it would be sitting with us in the cafeteria, maybe even swapping lunches -- we would try their falafel, they would try our apple pie.

However, when I mentioned your name during my more recent shows across the Middle East, the enthusiasm for you was noticeably diminished. It's not that they doubt your sincerity, it's because there was little tangible results to be seen.

In an effort to gain more insight into the "new" Arab world, I contacted my young Arab friends across the Middle East over the past few days using Facebook and Twitter and asked them simply: What are the issues that most concern you?

Here are my unscientific findings:

For starters, the idea that the "Arab world" is a unified, monolithic place is inaccurate. Those living in Egypt have different concerns than those living in Jordan, while Jordanians have vastly different priorities from those living in places such as Bahrain and Dubai.

However, their responses did reveal some common concerns, namely these three:

1. Jobs and economic opportunity: The young people -- even those in the more prosperous Arab nations in the Gulf -- consistently raised the need for better economic opportunities and jobs. Intertwined with this was the hope by many that corruption within their country would end so that jobs would be available to all, not just those with connections.

2. Democratic and social reforms: Many expressed the need for reforms specific to their country, such as increased women's rights in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, more freedoms to protest in Bahrain and Syria without fear of government crackdown, and better educational systems in Egypt and Jordan.

3. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict: My Facebook friends and my Twitter "tweeps" raised this issue again and again. It's truly an emotional issue that links the Arab world. Their plea was that the United States would be fair and just in its approach to the conflict.

Mr. President, I understand that none of the above issues is easy to rectify -- creating jobs in America is tough enough let alone creating jobs in foreign countries.

And I know that American Presidents for decades have sought to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but have all sadly failed. But Mr. President, please do not give up. If you can play a role in resolving the conflict fairly and justly, it not only helps the Palestinians and Israelis live better lives, it will be a major step in building relations with the 300 million plus people in the Arab world.

Before I close, I'd like to respectfully offer my personal advice on one subtle thing you can do during your speech to better connect with the Arab Street: Smoke a cigarette.

I know this sounds a little unorthodox, but Arabs LOVE smoking. To put it in perspective, I went to a gym in Jordan and there were ashtrays on the treadmills. So, smoke 'em if you got 'em.

In conclusion, Mr. President, the Arab world will be listening -- an Arab world that has changed dramatically from your speech two years ago with the advent of democratic revolutions and the demise of Osama bin Laden. It's a "new" Arab world where many are organically seeking freedom and democracy as well as jobs and justice.

It's time for the United States to be more than just Facebook friends with the Arab world -- it's the time for us to become real friends. But this will take more than just a great speech, because Arabs -- like Americans --want more than words. They want action.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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