Wednesday, May 3, 2017

‘UAE best placed to change skewed Western views of Arabs’

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May 03, 2017
Dubai: The UAE is best positioned to change the West’s negative perception of the Arab world, experts said on the second day of the Arab Media Forum at a session on ‘Arab Image in the West’.

The West sees the Arab world as marked by civil war, insurgency, sectoral conflicts and the so-called Daesh, they added.

Referring to a latest YouGov Survey, commissioned by Saudi newspaper Arab News, its Editor-in-Chief, Faisal Abbas, said, as many as 20 per cent of the Americans believed Aladdin’s Agrabah is a real country and 38 per cent of the 2,000 Americans surveyed said there should be a travel ban against people of that land to the United States.

UAE Soft Power Council

The UAE has taken the initiative to help change the perception and launched The UAE Soft Power Council. The council will promote Emirati and Arab culture, heritage, education  and scientific developments and engage with the global community in strategic cultural diplomacy.

The UAE Soft Power Council will introduce an integrated national strategy that consolidates the roles of both the public and private sectors in achieving soft power and conveying the nation’s  history in a new way.

The Council will also develop a soft power strategy for the state, including the science, culture, technology, humanitarian and economic sectors, in order to establish relationships at the grassroots  level with partners – both in the Arab region and globally.

“With the recent launch of the UAE Soft Power Council, the country is in a very good position to use cultural diplomacy to change the West’s perception of the Arab World.  It is a very timely initiative and we hope to see some more engagement with the Western media and societies on correcting the image,” said Mark Donfried, Director of the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.

“As low as 35 per cent of US citizens possess passports. Many of them have not travelled outside their country. So a vast majority of the Americans don’t know much about the rest of the world, let alone the Arab world. You need to utilise soft power and engage in cultural and public diplomacy to reach out to them in order to change their perception,” he added.

The YouGov survey showed that 65 per cent of the US citizens did not know much about the Middle East and 75 per cent said they will not want to travel to the region.

Hadley Gamble, CNBC Reporter and anchor, said, “The US school curriculum is very focused on local geography and doesn’t allow much information and knowledge about any other parts of the world. It’s not only about the Middle East, if you ask them about Portugal or Asia – it’s all the same, they do not know much about other regions, cultures and countries. So, there is a problem at the grassroots level.

“When I got a job offer and was preparing to move to the region, my mother said, ‘Do you know how close that country is to Iran?’”

In this regard, the panellists urged all the Arab countries to engage with the Western countries and their press to tell their side of the story.

Nathan Tek of the US State Department for the Middle East, said, “If you don’t tell your story, remember, someone else will do that and they will tell your story in their  own words and language – that you might not like. It is important to take your space in the media and narrate your story, as you know your story better than others.

“However, you need to engage with the media and the societies. If you respond to the queries from the US media and give your comments instantly – rather than to get back to the foreign ministry officials to tell you what you should be saying – taking your own time, they are going to publish the report with or without your comments.”

He urged the Arab countries to empower their press attaches and diplomats to be able to speak to the press freely and defend their countries. “Speak to the media whenever they ask for a comment and create your own space in the media. If you don’t someone else will take your space and tell your story from a different perspective,” Nathan says, citing his own example in the Arab media.

“I represent the US State Department in the Middle East. Believe me there are so many misrepresentation of facts when it comes to the US stories. I also confront conspiracy theories about the US position on Arab affairs. But I take the opportunity to correct the news and offer the best views possible to clear any doubts. I’m not so sure if my counterparts representing the Arab governments do it.”

The United States organises exchange programmes to develop a better cultural and political understanding across the world for its policies and way of life. “We engaged with 565 heads of governments, 65 Nobel laureates under the exchange programme. Our exchange programmes in one way or another impacts more than 9 million people every year – that’s the level of our engagement with the world. I don’t think that the Arab countries are doing that,” he said.

Defending the US role in the Middle East, he said the US has remained a partner of the Arab World in political, regional, economic and social issues. “When the United States was formed the first country to recognise the new country was not a European or Western country –- it was an Arab country, Morocco. King Mohammed III was the first head of a country to recognise the United States and open a port of call for maritime transportation.  So, our history goes back a long way from the present situation,” Nathan Tek said.

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