Is it a surprise that there is a lack of knowledge about the Arab world in the US? Perhaps not, but just how pronounced this awareness gap is — as revealed by a recent Arab News/YouGov poll — does indeed come as a shock.
As our survey showed, eight in 10 Americans cannot identify the Arab world on a map, while a worrying 21 percent believe that Agrabah — an entirely fictional city — is a real part of the Middle East.
“The Arab Image in the US” poll, conducted from March 17-21, found that 65 percent of the respondents admitted to knowing little about the Arab world, with 30 percent having no interest in understanding the region further.
And over three-quarters of the respondents said they would not consider traveling to the Arab world, with 39 percent saying the whole region is too dangerous to visit.
This is all the more shocking, especially as I sit in Dubai writing this, in the plush surrounds of the Madinat Jumeirah hotel complex, where the Arab Media Forum (AMF) is being held. The city is perfect for tourists and wants to attract 20 million of them a year by 2020. It is among the safest cities in the world. And yet, only one in four Americans would consider traveling to the Middle East as a whole, according to our poll.
There is clearly much more at stake here than tourism numbers. Where there is a lack of understanding, misinformation thrives and “fake news” goes unchecked.
It is time for the Arab world to raise its voice in addressing the severe gap in knowledge in the West — or face the consequences.
Faisal J. Abbas
But there was a glimmer of hope in the results of the poll of more than 2,000 Americans. It found that 30 percent said they do not know much about the Arab world, but are keen to find out more. And more than half of the poll respondents consider the media to be effective in depicting the true image of the region.
There is clearly an opportunity for the media industry — in both the US and the Middle East — to step up to the challenge. And likewise for the lobbying efforts by the Middle Eastern governments, which have not historically been as strong as they could.
At a time when fake news is thriving, telling and investing in real, credible stories from the region is essential to solving the perception problem and closing the knowledge gap.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News. He can be reached on Twitter @FaisalJAbbas