How to change the perception of Saudi Arabia in the West

How to change the perception of Saudi Arabia in the West

The Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh. (Reuters)

All nations want to present a positive and distinguished image of themselves overseas, and they allocate significant funds for this objective. Unfortunately, in some cases, nations are stereotyped and misrepresented, with misleading negative depictions of their people and culture, often in various media formats, including TV shows and movies. This raises the question of why nations would want to invest so much money in improving their image overseas while such misrepresentations are rampant?

Those who have deeply analyzed the theories of the “self” and the “other,” as well as imagology, realize that people resort to stereotypes, particularly negative ones, when speaking of those they view as the “other.” This is, however, not an unchangeable rule, particularly in an age when global communication has become easier and more common than in the past.

It is apparent, therefore, that countries — as well as their citizens who are seriously interested in knowing how others perceive them and their country — can change this perception, albeit in a gradual fashion. I believe that this can happen for Saudi Arabia via constant communication and by adopting a pragmatic approach when it comes to introducing oneself in more direct and uncomplicated language.

When analyzing the perception of Saudi Arabia overseas, one can see that it has had its highs and lows, with both positivity and negativity shadowing the Kingdom at different times. In the West, the perception of Saudi Arabia has been generally negative, except in relatively brief phases. It is presented in the West through the stereotypical lens of oil wealth, camels, deserts and religious extremism.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has challenged and overcome these orientalist stereotypes by making progress in various fields. Despite this success, major steps are still required to focus global attention on discovering the new Kingdom and introducing it overseas through its historical, cultural, geographical and environmental diversity, along with its deep-rooted civilization that dates back thousands of years. This civilization also developed successive civilizations, which are intertwined in the country’s and region’s history, with several archaeological discoveries providing further evidence of this rich heritage. Indeed, some researchers believe that Saudi Arabia’s lands have been the source of origin for most of the planet’s ancient civilizations.

Saudi Arabia concluded the last year with unprecedented archaeological discoveries and accomplishments in archaeological protection, as well as success in rehabilitating and restoring national antiquities. The discovery of an 85,000-year-old fossilized human finger bone in the Nefud desert on the outskirts of Tabuk is considered to be among the most important discoveries announced by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) in 2018. This formidable discovery is the oldest recorded human fossil unearthed outside of Africa and the Levant.

If this is the reality of the Kingdom’s history, heritage, civilization and diversity, why don’t we correct the negative image of Saudi Arabia overseas, especially in the West? If political motives, as well as conspiracy theories, are put aside and a real attempt is made to analyze the Kingdom’s communication tools and marketing efforts, one will find, with the exception of the MiSK Foundation, that there has been a heavy reliance on foreign PR firms. In most cases, these firms know little about Saudi Arabia, are particularly ignorant of its civilizational and deep-rooted history, and their primary concern is to profit from and to sustain the contracts signed with the Kingdom, rather than benefiting the Saudi people and its image overseas. 

In my view, the solution to this problem lies in relying on young Saudis who are well aware of the realities and history of their nation, as well as being aware of its culture, civilizational diversity, heritage, geography and archaeological sites. By depending on young Saudis, as well as using the knowledge and experience of distinguished PR firms, Saudi Arabia can ensure a far more positive, modern and realistic representation of itself overseas; one based on experience and engagement, rather than on abstract perceptions promoted by PR firms that have no insight into Saudi Arabia’s character and culture.

Saudi Arabia has challenged and overcome orientalist stereotypes by making progress in various fields.

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

I also suggest that Saudi students studying overseas should liaise in a positive manner with their local peers, acting as unofficial ambassadors for the country; and I propose that the Ministry of Education and the cultural departments of Saudi embassies around the world work to completely restructure the Saudi student clubs so that they can be more effective in presenting a positive image of the Kingdom. 

Other options for promoting the Kingdom overseas include the launching of a cultural television channel airing in different languages, such as English, French and Spanish. These channels would be advertised and promoted in a professional and well-managed way, offering unique and original content to publicize all the various facets of Saudi Arabia and its vast potential, as well as highlighting the Kingdom’s focus on moderation and combating terrorism and extremism.

Such efforts will surely pay off by correcting the negative stereotypes about Saudi Arabia overseas. This will not happen immediately — the Kingdom must have a long-term vision and resist the temptation to give up if these initiatives are not immediately successful, or to present sensationalist content, since media bubbles deflate very fast.

Building a positive image is an integrative task, domestically and internationally. It begins with interacting with others across Saudi Arabia, and with visitors arriving at sea and land ports, regardless of their citizenship or race. Those working in busy locations, particularly the two sacred mosques, face heavy pressures due to the massive numbers of visitors, while service providers also face excessive pressures. These pressures can be alleviated with more staff and intensive training, focusing on personal skills, patience and politeness in all circumstances, no matter how stressful the situation.

All of these factors combined will contribute to creating a positive contemporary image of the Kingdom and will raise its international profile and status to the level it deserves.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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