Sunday,09 December, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)
Sunday,09 December, 2018
Issue 1371, (30 November - 6 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Arab soft power

The Arab reform drive must include an intellectual effort aimed at reviving the Arabs’ reputation, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

 


اقرأ باللغة العربية


The international reputation of the Arabs is not great. Generally, it translates into stereotypical images of the backwards “Bedouin”, the bloodthirsty “terrorist”, the profligate “billionaire” or the “bazaar merchant” who is always ready to bargain or accept baksheesh (tips). As for art, that is reduced to the “bellydancer” and her seductive undulations. They are a people — or so goes the stereotyping — who are forever bickering and who part ways at the first turning. In spite of their frequent talk about the “Arab nation”, they are divided and constantly warring among themselves. The most painful aspect of the image is to be found in international reports that rank countries on the basis of levels of human development, international competitiveness, and good business practices. No matter what progress Arab states have made in their rankings, the tendency in the end is to take the lowest ranking country as the norm for all Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf. Of course, such stereotyping of the Arabs does not exist worldwide. But it does prevail to a large extent in Western nations, and in Third World countries it prevails among cultural and media elites influenced by the West.

The dissemination of this negative image is not just for propaganda purposes in the context of political, economic or strategic rivalries. Essentially it is an expression of interests on the part of various forces opposed to the Arabs and that have a strong and influential presence in the West. However, a large part of the cause is that the Arabs have yet to master the arts of communication.

The problem, itself, is not that the Arab countries are not democratic or liberal. Russia and China are not democratic or liberal nations, but they are “strong” nations in the scheme of Western power balances and they have strong leaders who are admired by the US president, personally, every day. Nor is the problem due to the fact that the Arabs are economically underdeveloped. There are rich and poor Arabs and modern and backwards ones. If we calculate the averages among the 350 million Arabs, we will find that the Arabs are better off than more than half the population of India and China, who exceed a billion. The Arabs are not “underdeveloped” in the arts and literature. So, the problem is not to be found there. The complicated truth is that the Arab arts and literature are not global due to the language, even though more and more works are being translated. In all events, in this they differ little from their counterparts in India and China and, indeed, in most other places in the world that have fallen under the sway of Western arts and literature for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.

The problem, here, is not so much the justice or lack thereof in the perceptions of the Arab reputation and in the stereotypes as it is that this reputation and these stereotypes always put the Arabs under the glare of suspicion or censure if they take an action or fail to take one. Take, for example, the reforms that are currently being carried out in a number of Arab countries, most prominently Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Western countries have long called for such reforms. Yet, no sooner do we begin to implement them than we are assailed by a spate of warnings about the dangerous consequences of the reforms and their threat to social and national stability. It’s one of those blamed-if-you-do, blamed-if-you-don’t situations. If we don’t reform, they have the ready-to-hand accusations to level against those with vested interest in the status quo and those afflicted with megalomania. If we do reform and set into motion bold plans for change and progress, another set of accusations and criticisms comes into play. Therefore, when we introduce structural changes in order to diversify sources of income so that Egypt does not remain dependent on tourism, or so that Saudi Arabia does not have to remain dependent on oil, the critics harp on about new forms of corruption hinging on “white elephant” mega projects. Whether we do or we don’t, they will always find some danger, some moral defect and a case of universal exception that changes its name but remains the same in essence.

We cannot afford to ignore this. We need to grab the bull by its horns if the current reform efforts are to succeed. In the process, it is useful to bear in mind that some of what we are encountering today was encountered by other nations in the past. The negative image of China as a poor, fanatic, insular communist state that threatened everyone around it has changed considerably since its major economic boom. Today, it is China, instead of the US, that is promoting and defending “globalisation”. India was once pegged as a basket case of underdevelopment and poverty. The digital economic revolution has catapulted it forward and changed perceptions. Russia, a quarter of a century after its resounding collapse, has regained considerable respect and awe through its use of force in Ukraine and Syria and its cyber intervention in the US elections. Russia is no longer the reeling, disintegrating state of the alcoholic Yeltsin. It is a major player in international relations, perhaps not to the same extent it had been at the time of the Soviet Union, but certainly much more so than it had been in the wake of its fall. At the same time, rivals in the US of Obama and Trump and in the post-Brexit EU are no longer as mighty and as self-confident as they once were.

The Arabs’ task of salvaging their reputation is not impossible. In all events, it is necessary regardless of the formidable difficulties. Perhaps part of the problem resides in the fact that talk about the “Arabs” has quite a bit of hyperbole to it, because the Arabs are actually very diverse. Perhaps what they need is a bloc of core countries to lead the process of change, development and modernisation. Naturally the “Arabs” have sufficient geography in the heart of the “old world”, with roots stretching thousands of years back into time and the prestige of being the birthplace of the major revealed religions and the greatest civilisations in history, to silence whatever justifications feed the inferiority complex we find among many Arab intellectuals. More important, however, is the radical reform approach that has acquired much impetus during the past few years. It is no coincidence that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have launched major modernisation programmes with an overall target date set for 2030. Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco have similar programmes, if given names other than “Vision 2030”. The UAE, according to many, preceded all others. It now ranks high in international reports, not because it is an oil producing country but because oil now accounts for less than 30 per cent of its GDP. What else was the construction of the Louvre Abu Dhabi but a convergence of world civilisation and Arab civilisation? It is a development equivalent to the construction of the Cairo Opera House in 1869, signalling Egypt’s emergence from the folds of Ottoman art into the larger embrace of world culture and civilisation.

Reviving the Arab reputation is part and parcel of the reform process. We need to deliver a message that is totally clear and ungarbled. The message has to be resolute in its humanitarian outlook, free of conspiracy-theory culture, and committed to mankind’s efforts to save the world from its ailments, from poverty to global warming. In short, the Arabs have to be in sync with the modern world, not an antithesis.

By no means does this mean that the Arabs should stop being Arabs. Their authentic culture may be the most important thing they can contribute to the world.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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