Arab News panel discussion probes how to tackle Arab world’s negative image

Arab News panel discusses the “Middle East’s perception problem” at the Top CEO Conference at KAEC on Tuesday. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 15 April 2017

Arab News panel discussion probes how to tackle Arab world’s negative image

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY: Opening up Saudi Arabia to more journalists and tourists would help address some of the negative perceptions about the country and wider region, an Arab News panel heard on Tuesday.
The discussion on the “Middle East’s perception problem,” held at the Top CEO Conference at King Abdullah Economic City, examined the region’s image, how it can be changed, and why there has arguably been a failure in communication with the rest of the world.
It is the first time the Top CEO event has been held in Saudi Arabia, following previous sessions in Dubai.
Moderated by Faisal J. Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News, Tuesday’s panel discussion included four key experts working in the region or world of diplomacy.
While the panel agreed that there are issues with the Arab world’s image in the West, there was debate over how the region is portrayed by, for example, Hollywood films.
Elisabetta Martini, the consul general of Italy based in Jeddah, said that opening up a country like Saudi Arabia to more people would help the world see it in a more positive and realistic light.
“How can you fix the image (problem)? First of all, having journalists coming… also tourists,” she said.
The diplomat said that changing perceptions about Saudi Arabia was much easier when more people get the chance to visit. Citizens of most nations require visas before entering the Kingdom.
 Martini said that part of her job as a diplomat is promoting the image of Saudi Arabia in her native Italy — and that this is much easier when people get a chance to actually visit the country.
 “It’s not that difficult to change the perception (of my people about Saudi Arabia) once they have the opportunity to come here,” she said.
 But opening up the Kingdom to more people could not be selective, and people may have positive or critical reactions, the diplomat said.
“Once you have journalists then you cannot choose who you want. You have the exploring ones, and the critical ones,” she said. “They will see something that is completely unexpected.”
Former German Ambassador Dr. Gunter Mulack, of the German Orient Institute in Berlin, also spoke during the panel discussion.
Mulack entered into the German diplomatic service in 1971, and served mostly in the Arab world. He was German ambassador to Bahrain, Kuwait and Syria as well as consul general in Casablanca, along with other postings.
He agreed that opening up Saudi Arabia would help the world understand it better.
“I think we have on all sides to open up, to be more self-critical, and to see what is wrong and what is right in the negative image,” he told the Arab News panel.
“Saudi Arabia should really open up to tourism, to visitors, show the friendly face… Then you get on the same wavelength as Oman, the Emirates.
“Please, open up. You are a proud civilization in Saudi Arabia but maybe you were too much afraid of the outside influences. Open up, get into discussions, and try to win this battle for the hearts and minds of the outside world.”

A Hollywood conspiracy thriller?

Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News’ editor in chief, asked panel members whether they thought there is a Hollywood “conspiracy” against the Arab world, due to the way many movies cast people from the Middle East as villains.
Michael Garin, CEO of the Abu Dhabi-based media and entertainment company Image Nation, said that there is no conspiracy.
With over 40 years’ experience in the industry, Garin’s media career began at Time Inc. where he worked for TIME, Fortune and Time-Life Television for over a decade.
He said that there has always been bad guys in films.
“Movies are about fantasy. And fantasy requires good guys and bad guys. So Hollywood has always had bad guys, whether they were Indians, whether they were Nazis… now they’re Arabs. They’re using Arabs as proxies for something they’ve always done,” he said.
“It’s because scriptwriters are lazy. There’s nothing more complicated to it than that.”
But fellow panelist Khaled Al-Maeena, managing partner of Quartz communication company, disagreed. The former Arab News editor has a unique perspective about the image of the region overseas, having held a broad range of positions in the Saudi media over almost 30 years.
He said that Arabs are often portrayed negatively in Hollywood and Bollywood films.
“Every time, there is an Arab rogue or a villain, I don’t know why,” he said.

Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving

Updated 24 June 2018

Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving

  • They start their engines and hit the roads throughout the Kingdom
  • End of driving ban is crowning achievement so far of Saudi Vision 2030

Women throughout Saudi Arabia waited for the stroke of midnight, turned the keys in the ignition, fired up their engines — and hit the road to a bright new future.

It was the moment they had waited for since King Salman issued the royal decree on September 26, 2017, to lift the driving ban on women. 

Just after midnight on Saturday and in the first minutes of Sunday, Samah Algosaibi grabbed the keys to her family’s 1959 Corvette C1 and drove out of the driveway of her beach house in Khobar.
“We are witnessing history in the making as we look toward the dawn of a promising future,” said Algosaibi, the first female board member of Ahmad Hamad Algosaibi & Bros.

“As a businesswoman in Saudi Arabia, I am grateful for the women’s empowerment movement taking place. Today, I am honored to be sitting behind the wheel of change.”

Another woman to hit the road after midnight was Lina Almaeena, a member of the Saudi Shoura Council. “It feels very liberating,” she said about driving her mother’s Lexus.
Almaeena, also the co-founder and director of Jeddah United Sports Co, had exchanged her UAE license for a Saudi one. 

“I am thrilled!” Sarah Alwassia, 35, a nutritionist in Jeddah, told Arab News. “I learnt how to drive 18 years ago in the States where I got my driving license. I can’t believe that the day to drive in my own home town has come.”

Alwassia obtained her first American license when she was 18 years old in 2000, and had it exchanged for a Saudi license on June 6 in Jeddah. She explained that she is a mother, and this change provided comfort for her and her family. It also comes with various benefits, such as taking quick action in emergencies, and economic benefits such as saving money instead of paying for a driver when she needs to run errands. 

“I will be driving my kids to school and picking them up in comfort and privacy,” she said.

Women in the Kingdom commented on how this event is changing the course of their lives. “Independence is a huge thing for me,” Alwassia said. “Driving is one small part of it. I am very optimistic of the change that our loving country has made.”  

Alwassia applauds the efforts the country has made to support women. “I am confident that driving in the beginning will be pleasant, since our country has made all of the effort to support women and to protect them.
“I think our society was looking forward for this change, and I am sure the majority will adapt fast.

“I feel safe, our country did everything to make this transition pleasant and safe for every woman behind the wheel. I am really thankful to witness this historic moment and I am so happy for all the women in Saudi Arabia, especially my daughters.”
Sahar Nasief, 64, a retired lecturer from the European languages and Literature Department at King Abdulaziz University, said: “Nothing could describe my feelings. I can't wait to get on the road.”
Nasief received a very special gift from Ford for this occasion.

“They gave me a 2018 Expedition to drive for three days, a Mustang California Special,” she told Arab News.

Nasief obtained her Saudi license on June 7. She also holds a British license and two American licenses. “Now, I have my national license too,” she said. 

She also said the lifting of the ban provided a sense of relief. “I feel that I can practice one of my rights, and I don't have to live at the mercy of my driver any more.”
Society has been demanding such a change for years, “as it will take the physical and economic burden off most men.”
Pointing to the anti-harassment law, Nasief said: “I feel very confident especially after announcing the strict harassment law.”
Joumana Mattar, 36, a Jordanian interior designer, exchanged her Jordanian driver’s license and obtained a Saudi one on June 11. 

“I had my Jordanian license since I was 18 years old, and the moment I heard about the opening of exchanging foreign licenses, I immediately booked an appointment,” she said.
Mattar said she looks forward to the change in so many ways. “I'm finally in control of my time, schedule and privacy.” 

Mattar said she is both confident and anxious about the event. “I'm anxious only for feeling that I'm part of a huge first step for women driving in the Kingdom, but I'm confident also because of the support that I'm getting from my husband and family.
“Every first step is the hardest. Society is facing a huge change, but I'm positive because this change is done and supported by the government and Vision 2030.”

Mattar said she feels secure now. “I'm in control of any case I'm facing.”

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