It is crucial for the Arab world to put together a committee of the best experts and partners to create programs and initiatives that will promote Arab culture globally. An Arab News poll conducted from March 17-22 proved the negative perception of the Arab world, especially in the US, and the urgent need for new nation-branding initiatives.
The poll results were published and announced on May 2 at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai during an Arab News panel discussion on “The Arab Image in the West,” which focused on the media’s role in addressing the region’s perception problem.
The panellists — Faisal J. Abbas, Arab News editor in chief; Hadley Gamble, CNBC reporter and anchor; Nathan Tek, US State Department spokesman in the Middle East, and yours truly — agreed that there is an urgent need for Arab countries to launch a new and modern nation-branding plan to correct this image problem and strengthen their relations with the West and beyond.
In the last few decades, nation-branding has become crucial for countries interested in expanding their economic, science and trade capabilities globally. Every state seeking to sustainably improve tourism, international trade and foreign investment, and its possibility of getting international credit, can benefit greatly from a positive national reputation. So the success of the state is very much dependent on the success of its national brand.
In contrast, a negative reputation hinders tourism, favorable trade conditions and foreign investment, and engenders unwillingness from other countries to cooperate in academic and scientific affairs.
Nation-branding programs normally consist of activities such as research, publications, conferences, exhibitions, fairs, academic and scientific exchange and youth programs. These programs, compared to other state budgets such as defense, are only a fraction of the cost, so the return on investment is very high.
This is because their positive influence can be seen in many aspects of states’ internal and external affairs, ranging from security, innovation and development to citizens’ living standard. For example, the mammoth Milan Expo 2015 brought a huge amount of attention to Italy, ranging from almost all world heads of state and hundreds of thousands of visitors, to vast and widespread coverage in international media outlets.
Even nation-branding campaigns that include paid advertising, which can be quite expensive, are still inexpensive compared to defense budgets. At the same time, nation-branding campaigns sustainably support stronger relations between countries, decreasing the chances of armed conflict and thereby enabling the gradual reduction of defense budgets year by year.
The latest Arab News poll indicates that 81 percent of Americans cannot identify the Arab world on a map. This alarming news shows that a significant and comprehensive nation-branding plan should be put into action by Arab countries collectively as well as individually.
Mark C. Donfried
Reallocating even a fraction of the exorbitant defense spending by some states to nation-branding projects would set a positive example that national security can be increased by building and strengthening cultural ties and understanding. For example, serious cultural and economic bridges between the US and Iraq could have made the 2003 war far harder to start.
Not only security, trade and tourism, but also other fields such as education and science are dependent on national image. The better a country’s brand, the more attractive it will be for students to study there and for researchers to be based there. So more educational and scientific innovation will take place in the country, which will boost the economy.
States’ dependence on a positive national reputation can be presented in the example that no financial creditor will ever give credit to an entity with a bad name or reputation. All these are just segments of the growing importance and dependency of states on nation-branding.
Even non-state actors, such as religious groups or political parties, understand well that their perception among their target audiences is crucial, so they are applying branding strategies to attract new members and supporters. Even Daesh and the Taliban have begun employing advanced propaganda strategies to disseminate their message and promote a certain image to increase their following.
The latest Arab News poll indicates that 81 percent of Americans cannot identify the Arab world on a map. This alarming news shows that a significant and comprehensive nation-branding plan should be put into action by Arab countries collectively as well as individually. These programs should be conclusive and use all traditional and modern components, media and strategies of nation-branding and cultural diplomacy.
They should involve as many organizations and institutions as possible to immediately attract attention to the rich history, culture and achievements of the Arab world. Those plans should focus initially on the West, starting with the US and Europe, where perhaps the image problem is greatest, then gradually include developing countries from Asia to Latin America.
Unfortunately, the traditional methods of applying nation-branding programs have become less and less effective due to the digital developments of the last 20 years, and their effect on the transfer and storage of information. More and more countries and cultural groups have recognized the importance of these developments, and are working relentlessly to promote their national brands beyond their state borders and to foreigners inside those borders.
Successful nation-branding programs cannot be imitated. A program that works for one country might not work for another since it has a different history, culture, identity and geopolitical situation. So each nation-branding strategy should be carefully tailor-made for a specific country, and for the specific relationship between that country and another.
Nation-branding programs should be initiated by Arab leaders, then implemented in a public-private partnership. A good example of leadership being shown in this field is the UAE, which created a Soft Power Council in April to research the best way the country can implement effective soft power and nation-branding in its foreign policy.
It is important that nation-branding programs apply further measures to encourage Arab societies to learn more about their neighbors, because cooperation will be necessary in order to create cultural bridges. Such initiatives, if applied successfully, can result in significant economic, political and strategic gain for Arab nations.
• Mark C. Donfried is director general at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.