Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday. (AFP/File)
The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday. (AFP/File)
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Updated 03 March 2024
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Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape
  • Saudi Arabia rose to 18th place in this year’s Brand Finance ranking, while Israel’s perception declined, possibly due to the ongoing conflict
  • This year’s survey encompassed all UN member states, assessing nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact

LONDON: The latest findings from Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index, one of the world’s leading brand evaluation consultancies, unveiled key shifts in the global soft power landscape, reflecting the intricate dynamics of the regional context.

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have solidified their positions, attention has turned to Israel’s ranking decline and the repercussions of the Gaza conflict.

Israel experienced a noticeable decline in its soft power standing, a trend exacerbated by the recent conflict in Gaza.

“As the Anholt Nation Brands Index has shown since 2005, public opinion does not tolerate conflict,” Simon Anholt, policy advisor, author and one of the world’s leading authorities on national image, told Arab News.

“Conflict harms the images of all parties involved, whether perceived as aggressor or victim, and the effect lingers. Current events in Gaza will likely harm the images of both Israel and Palestine for years to come (even though Palestine does not feature in the index), reducing their ability to attract trade, talent, tourists and investment.”

However, Brand Finance CEO David Haigh highlighted that the full impact of the war on Israel’s performance in this year’s index remains unclear.

“Overall, Israel has dropped fairly obviously, but (since the completion of the survey), things have become a lot worse not only in what Israel is doing, but also the reaction globally,” Haigh told Arab News, suggesting that the true impact may be seen in next year’s report.

He emphasized a shift in global sentiment against Israel, both in the short and long term, requiring “substantial” and “real” changes for image improvement.

“If you don’t do that, whatever you’re doing is just propaganda,” he added.

The survey, which offers “a comprehensive evaluation of nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact” deriving from a range of metrics, was conducted between mid-September and early November, showing a split in results before and after the war.

These metrics encompass familiarity, influence, reputation, and perception. Perception is based on eight pillars: business and trade, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media and communication, education and science, people and values, and sustainable future. 

Soft power, a concept coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s, denotes a nation’s ability to achieve desired outcomes through persuasion rather than coercion or financial incentives. It emphasizes appealing to countries instead of coercing them, in contrast to the traditional reliance on military and economic power.

According to the latest edition of the report, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have surged ahead in the rankings of the most influential soft power nations, outpacing other countries worldwide.

“Nations such as the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have not only ascended in the ranks of global perception but are weaving the fabric of their generous hospitality, innovative achievements, and peace-building initiatives into the tapestry of international diplomacy,” Haigh said, noting how this continued investment could signal the “dawn of a new era, where dialogue and collaboration are the cornerstones of the global order.”

Benefiting from robust oil demand and substantial investments in sports and tourism, the Kingdom achieved a score of 56 out of 100 index points, marking a 4.7-point increase from the previous year and surpassing Denmark.

Similarly, the UAE and Qatar have seen their scores rise due to their resilient economies and the successful hosting of high-profile events like Expo 2020 and COP28 in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The UAE also received a 10/10 score for “Strong and stable economy,” ranking first in that category, and scored highly for “Future growth potential” and “Generosity.”

Haigh said: “Saudi Arabia is very similar. Both have been investing heavily.” He emphasized how despite economic and political challenges, these factors have emerged as key drivers of both “Reputation” and “Influence.”

However, he pointed out that Gulf countries still have room for improvement in the aspect of “Familiarity,” an area where the entire region has historically lagged behind, and “Friendly people,” an aspect that the Brand Finance CEO attributes to high costs associated with visiting these countries and, thus, not being able to interact directly with their cultures.

“Although increasing numbers of people are going there on holidays, the exposure to the actual Emiratis (and Gulf populations at large) is quite low,” Haigh said, arguing that regular interactions are essential for people around the globe to understand “whether you’re friendly or not.”

The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday.

This year’s survey involved 170,000 respondents worldwide and an expanded ranking covering all 193 UN member states.

On a global scale, the US and the UK lead as the most influential soft power nations, with China ranking third, surpassing Japan and Germany, which hold the fourth and fifth positions, respectively.

Speaking to Arab News, Courtney Fingar, FDI consultant, journalist, and commentator on international investment trends, also addressed the potential economic implications of the Gaza conflict spreading beyond current borders.

“The war spilling (over) and escalating beyond the current borders is not good news for anyone in the region, but (also) not for the world.”

Recognizing the improved resilience of Gulf markets due to diversification efforts, Fingar cautioned against volatility risks, highlighting investors’ prioritization of security, a trend corroborated by the report.

She observed that the challenge for Gulf economies lies in “translating that attention and that energy into tangible investments,” Fingar said.

Saudi Arabia, alongside other nations, has prioritized economic diversification as a cornerstone of its Vision 2030. Central to this vision is the Kingdom’s effort to attract investment across various sectors, notably sports and tourism.

Florian Kaefer, founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer, a platform focusing on country brand reputation, emphasized Saudi Arabia’s significant strides in rebranding itself as a sustainable tourist destination.

Citing projects like Red Sea Global and AlUla, Kaefer highlighted the Kingdom’s shift toward a narrative imbued with purpose.

“Tourism, if it’s done well, like in terms of regenerative development — an approach that focuses on supporting local communities and creating positive relationships that will benefit society and the environment — has the potential to emphasize the power of a country,” he remarked.

Kaefer pointed out the transformative impact of high-profile events like the World Expo, to be hosted by Riyadh in 2030, in reshaping perceptions and benefiting countries striving to establish themselves as hubs of sustainability and regeneration.

“The image of Dubai has changed over the last 10 years quite a bit. I think Saudi Arabia is going to follow that path, which is smart regenerative development, sustainability,” Kaefer noted, underscoring the importance for the Kingdom to “stay true” to its promises of regeneration and sustainability, as this will enhance its reception and popularity both globally and domestically.

Apart from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, this year’s Global Soft Power Index also involved 14 other Middle East and North African nations.

Kuwait, Egypt, and Oman secured ranks 37, 39, and 49, respectively, followed closely by Morocco at 50, Bahrain at 51, and Iran at 62. Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon followed suit, securing ranks 63, 73, 77, and 91, respectively.

Iraq made a notable return to the top 100, securing the 99th position, while new entries like Syria (129th), Libya (139th), and Yemen (149th) also made their debut in the index.


Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock

Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock
Updated 13 April 2024
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Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock

Lebanese newspaper introduces ‘AI President’ in effort to break political deadlock
  • Artificial intelligence tool’s ‘deep understanding’ of country equips it to address issues effectively, AnNahar newspaper says
  • Lebanon has been without a president for more than two years

LONDON: A Lebanese newspaper has launched what it claims is the world’s first artificial intelligence tool designed to assume presidential duties for a nation, in an attempt to break the long-standing deadlock over who should assume the country’s presidency.

Arabic-language daily AnNahar said the program, which it has called “AI President,” has been trained on an archive of 90 years of “impartial journalism” from its pages. The program analyzes historical data and current events to provide answers to political, legal, and governmental questions.

With its “deep understanding” of Lebanon’s history, “AI President” aims to provide an “unbiased perspective” on the country’s current challenges.

The launch was announced in a live broadcast by Nayla Tueni, AnNahar’s editor-in-chief, who conducted an interview with the software regarding Lebanon’s current issues and potential solutions to them.

Lebanon is facing a number of long-running socio-economic crises, with over 80 percent of the population now reported to be living in poverty.

The country has been without a president for more than two years, despite 13 unsuccessful attempts by the Lebanese parliament to elect one.

Tueni hopes “AI President” will help break the political stalemate and restore confidence in the system.

“We refuse to sit back and allow things to go on as they have. To not have a president for this long is unacceptable and has impacted the country negatively,” Tueni said. “If the parliament will not do its job to elect a president, then the people will bring Lebanon a president.” 

“AI President” will be accessible through the website OurPresident.ai to answer questions on Lebanese politics.


Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip

Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip
Updated 13 April 2024
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Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip

Republican hardliners blame Biden administration after Huawei unveils laptop with new Intel AI chip
  • A special license issued by the Trump administration has allowed Intel to ship central processors to Huawei for use in laptops since 2020
  • In August, Huawei unveiled a new phone powered by a sophisticated chip manufactured by sanctioned Chinese chipmaker SMIC

WASHINGTON: Republican US lawmakers on Friday criticized the Biden administration after sanctioned Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei unveiled a laptop this week powered by an Intel AI chip.

The United States placed Huawei on a trade restriction list in 2019 for violating Iran sanctions, part of a broader effort to hobble Beijing’s technological advances. Placement on the list means the company’s suppliers have to seek a special, difficult-to-obtain license before shipping to it.
One such license, issued by the Trump administration, has allowed Intel to ship central processors to Huawei for use in laptops since 2020. China hard-liners had urged the Biden administration to revoke that license, but many grudgingly accepted that it would expire later this year and not be renewed.
Huawei’s unveiling Thursday of its first AI-enabled laptop, the MateBook X Pro powered by Intel’s new Core Ultra 9 processor, shocked and angered them, because it suggested to them that the Commerce Department had approved shipments of the new chip to Huawei.
“One of the greatest mysteries in Washington, DC is why the Department of Commerce continues to allow US technology to be shipped to Huawei” Republican Congressman Michael Gallagher, who chairs the House of Representatives select committee on China, said in a statement to Reuters.
A source familiar with the matter said the chips were shipped under a preexisting license. They are not covered by recent broad-cased restrictions on AI chip shipments to China, the source and another person said.
The Commerce Department and Intel declined to comment. Huawei did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The reaction is a sign of growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to thwart Huawei’s rise, nearly five years after it was added to a trade restriction list.
In August, it shocked the world with a new phone powered by a sophisticated chip manufactured by sanctioned Chinese chipmaker SMIC, becoming a symbol of China’s technological resurgence despite Washington’s ongoing efforts to cripple its capacity to produce advanced semiconductors.
At a Senate subcommittee hearing this week, Kevin Kurland, an export enforcement official, said Washington’s restrictions on Huawei have had a “significant impact” on it access to US technology. He also stressed that the goal was not necessarily to stop Huawei from growing but to keep it from misusing US technology for “malign activities.”
But the remarks did little to stem frustration among Republican China hawks following the news about Huawei’s new laptop.
“These approvals must stop,” Republican congressman Michael McCaul said in a statement to Reuters. “Two years ago, I was told licenses to Huawei would stop. Today, it doesn’t seem as though the policy has changed.”


Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp

Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp
Updated 13 April 2024
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Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp

Three Palestinian journalists injured in Israeli strike on Gaza’s Nuseirat camp
  • The 3 reporters were taken to Shohada Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah
  • Journalist Sami Shehada lost his leg in the attack

GAZA: Three Palestinian journalists were injured in an Israeli airstrike on the Nuseirat refugee camp in Gaza on Friday.

Sami Shehada and Sami Barhoum were covering the events for the TRT Arabic TV channel, while Ahmad Harb was on duty for Al Arabiya News Channel at the time of the incident.

All three journalists were first taken to Al-Awda Hospital, a small facility in the north of the enclave, but later transferred to Shohada Al-Aqsa Hospital in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip.

Shehada lost a leg in the attack, which reportedly directly targeted the media team.

“(We) were in a (relatively) safe spot, wearing our press armor and helmets,” Shehada told Arab News. “Even the car I arrived in was labeled ‘TV,’ and I’m a civilian and a journalist — they targeted us.”

Since Oct. 7, at least 122 journalists have been killed by Israeli strikes, according to UN figures, and many more have been injured.

UN experts said in February that they were “alarmed at the extraordinarily high numbers of journalists and media workers who have been killed, attacked, injured and detained in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly in Gaza, in recent months, blatantly disregarding international law. We condemn all killings, threats and attacks on journalists and call on all parties to the conflict to protect them.”


Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists

Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists
Updated 12 April 2024
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Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists

Media watchdogs urge independent probe into Israeli attack that injured Gaza journalists
  • ‘Assaults on hospitals have further restricted the ability of the press to work safely,’ says NGO official

LONDON: Media watchdogs have called for an independent investigation into an Israeli attack on Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Gaza that injured eight journalists.

The strike on March 31 also killed four people and injured nine others.

“Israel’s March 31 attack on a hospital compound where journalists were sheltering and working must be independently investigated,” said Committee to Protect Journalists Program Director Carlos Martinez de la Serna in New York City.

With media offices facing widespread destruction in Gaza, journalists in the enclave have increasingly sought refuge in hospitals.

However, attacks on Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital and the March 18 assault on Al-Shifa Hospital, where journalists were arrested and faced violence, have rendered even hospitals unsafe for press personnel.

“Assaults on hospitals have further restricted the ability of the press to work safely,” added de la Serna.

Reports show that on March 31, an Israeli drone strike hit a tent encampment outside Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir Al-Balah, central Gaza, near a tent provided by the Turkish Anadolu news agency, where journalists had sought refuge.

The attack targeted a command center belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, resulting in the deaths of four militants and injuries to 17 other people, including eight journalists, according to multiple media outlets and the Palestinian press freedom group MADA.

Items including cameras, laptops and mobile phones belonging to journalists were also destroyed in the strike.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate in central Gaza has warned of deteriorating conditions for journalists in the enclave, leading many to seek refuge and access to electricity in hospitals in order to file stories.

But recent attacks have eroded confidence in the safety of hospitals across Gaza.

During the Israeli operation in Al-Shifa Hospital on March 18, Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Ismail Al-Ghoul was detained for almost 12 hours alongside several other journalists.

Witnesses reported that soldiers assaulted the group of journalists, destroyed their tent, and damaged equipment and press vehicles.

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Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown
Updated 12 April 2024
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Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown

Mali’s junta bans the media from reporting on political activities in a deepening crackdown
  • Maison de le Press, an umbrella organization of journalists in Mali, said it rejects the order and called on media to continue with their work
  • Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, has failed in his promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024

BAMAKO, Mali: In a deepening crackdown, Mali’s ruling junta on Thursday banned the media from reporting on activities of political parties and associations, a day after suspending all political activities in the country until further notice.

The order, issued by Mali’s high authority for communication, was distributed on social media. The notice said it applied to all forms of the media, including television, radio, online and print newspapers.
Mali has experienced two coups since 2020, leading a wave of political instability that has swept across West and Central Africa in recent years. Along with its political troubles, the country is also in the grip of a worsening insurgency by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group.
The scope of the ban — or how it would be applied in practice — was not immediately clear. It was also not known if journalists would still be allowed to report on issues such as the economy, which are closely tied to politics and who would monitor their work.
The umbrella organization that represents journalists in Mali responded with an unusually stern rebuttal.
The group, known as Maison de le Press, or Press House, said it rejects the order and called on journalists to continue to report on politics in Mali. It also urged them to “stand tall, remain unified and to mobilize to defend the right of citizens to have access to information.”
Mali’s national commission for human rights also expressed regret and profound concern over the decision in a statement published late Thursday. It warned the junta the decision could prove harmful.
“Instead of calming the social climate, these restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms could potentially stir up trouble and tension, which the country does not need,” it said.
The clampdown on the media followed a similar action on Wednesday, when the junta ordered the suspension of all activities by political parties until further notice, citing a a need to preserve public order. The news was broadcast on state television as the population was celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan during which observant Muslims fast from dawn till dusk.
Analysts said the move was likely a backlash against political figures, civil society and students who have expressed frustration with the junta’s failure to return the country to democratic rule as promised.
“Recent weeks saw mounting pressure by political parties and figures,” Rida Lyammouri of the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, told The Associated Press. “For the first time, the public and politicians have publicly criticized junta leaders and accused them of a lack of seriousness.”
Col. Assimi Goita, who took charge after a second coup in 2021, promised to return the country to democracy in early 2024. But in September, the junta canceled elections scheduled for February 2024 indefinitely, citing the need for further technical preparations.
The junta has vowed to end the insurgency that emerged in 2012 after deposing the elected government. It cut military ties with France amid growing frustration with the lack of progress after a decade of assistance, and turned to Russian contractors, mercenaries from the Wagner group, for security support instead. But analysts say the violence has only grown worse.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” by the ban on political activities. “Freedom of expression and freedom of association are critical to an open society,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters in Washington.