DUBAI: An Arab News panel discussion held on Tuesday proposed solutions to the Middle East’s image problem in the West, as new research emerged illustrating the severity of the US “knowledge gap” about the region.
The panel, held at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, detailed the importance of cultural diplomacy, effective government communication and the importance of student exchange programs in boosting awareness.
It was held on the same day as the publication of an Arab News/YouGov survey, which found that 81 percent of Americans are unable to point out the Arab world on a map.
“The Arab Image in the West” discussion on Tuesday featured three international speakers and was moderated by Faisal J. Abbas, editor in chief of Arab News.
Panelist Hadley Gamble, a reporter and anchor for CNBC covering the Middle East, Africa and US politics, pointed to the lack of emphasis on geography in the US school system.
But she said that Americans’ lack of geographical awareness was not limited to the Arab world.
“Americans are going to have the same problem when you’re talking about Portugal, Asia, China, Thailand... This isn’t a just Middle East-centric issue,” she said.
Gamble said the lack of American awareness highlighted by the Arab News/YouGov poll could actually mark an opportunity, because it could allow the region to set its own narrative. “A lack of knowledge can actually work to your advantage,” she said.
Nathan Tek, US State Department spokesman in the Middle East, also spoke on the panel.
He said that the findings of the poll on American awareness about the US were “a challenge” but no reason to despair.
Solutions to addressing the Arab world’s image problem in the West include appointing government spokespeople who are authorized to speak immediately to journalists.
Tek also mentioned the value of longer-term initiatives like exchange programs so that Americans can “experience the Arab world first-hand.”
Tek said that he sometimes sees Arab media outlets misreporting and attacking US foreign policy.
“My response to that is not to get upset, not to boycott channels… The answer is always to engage. The answer is always to go on air, to go in that space,” he told the Arab News panel.
“If you don’t tell your own story, someone else will do it for you, and they won’t do as good a job.”
Fellow panelist Mark Donfried, director of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, pointed to the fact that most Americans do not have passports as being a factor behind the knowledge gap about the region.
But he said it was not too late for the Arab world to build a better image in the West. He pointed to the example of Germany, which he said had a very bad image after World War II, but now enjoys a good global reputation.
Cultural diplomacy is an important factor in this, Donfried said.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he told the panel. “The world is realizing the importance and benefits of cultural diplomacy.”
The findings of the Arab News/YouGov poll on “The Arab Image in the US” were published on Tuesday to coincide with the Arab Media Forum.
The poll, conducted from March 17-21, found that 65 percent of respondents admitted to knowing little about the Arab world, with 30 percent having no interest in understanding the region further.
The “The Arab Image in the US” poll follows a recent partnership between Arab News and YouGov, which was officially announced at the Arab Media Forum.
The deal will see YouGov conduct regular polls relating to the Middle East and North Africa, which will help shed light on regional sentiment toward international events, as well as producing credible research on international opinion on Arab affairs. Findings will be published in Arab News and online at www.arabnews.com.