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.


Sony, Apollo discuss joint bid for Paramount, says source

Sony, Apollo discuss joint bid for Paramount, says source
Updated 57 min 29 sec ago
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Sony, Apollo discuss joint bid for Paramount, says source

Sony, Apollo discuss joint bid for Paramount, says source
  • Paramount is already in an exclusive deal with Skydance Media over possible merger

LONDON: Sony Pictures Entertainment and Apollo Global Management are discussing making a joint bid for Paramount Global, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The companies have yet to approach Paramount, which is in exclusive deal talks with Skydance Media, an independent studio led by David Ellison, though some investors have urged Paramount to explore other options.
The competing bid, which is still being structured, would offer cash for all outstanding Paramount shares and take the company private, the source said.
Sony would hold a majority stake in the joint venture and operate the media company, and its library of films, including such classics as “Star Trek,” “Mission:Impossible” and “Indiana Jones,” and television characters like SpongeBob SquarePants, according to the source.
Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Tony Vinciquerra, a veteran media executive with deep experience in film and television, would likely run the studio and take advantage of Sony’s marketing and distribution.
Apollo would likely assume control of the CBS broadcast network and its local television stations, because of restrictions on foreign ownership of broadcast stations, the source said. Sony’s parent corporation is headquartered in Tokyo.
The New York Times first reported the Sony-Apollo discussions. Paramount and Sony declined comment. Apollo could not be reached for comment.
The private equity firm previously made a $26 billion offer to buy Paramount Global, whose enterprise value at the end of 2023 was about $22.5 billion.
A special committee of Paramount’s board elected to continue with its advanced deal talks with Skydance, rather than chase a deal “that might not actually come to fruition,” said two people with knowledge of the board’s action.
The board committee is evaluating the possible acquisition of the smaller independent studio in a stock deal worth $4 billion to $5 billion.
Skydance is negotiating separately to acquire National Amusements, a company that holds the Redstone family’s controlling interest in Paramount, according to a person familiar with the deal terms. That transaction is contingent upon a Skydance-Paramount merger.


Meta releases beefed-up AI models, eyes integration into its apps

Meta releases beefed-up AI models, eyes integration into its apps
Updated 19 April 2024
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Meta releases beefed-up AI models, eyes integration into its apps

Meta releases beefed-up AI models, eyes integration into its apps
  • AI model Llama 3 takes step towards human-level intelligence, Meta claims
  • Company also announced new AI Assistant integration into its major social media apps

SAN FRANCISCO: Meta on Thursday introduced an improved AI assistant built on new versions of its open-source Llama large language model.
Meta AI is smarter and faster due to advances in the publicly available Llama 3, the tech titan said in a blog post.
“The bottom line is we believe Meta AI is now the most intelligent AI assistant that you can freely use,” Meta co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a video on Instagram.
Being open source means that developers outside of Meta are free to customize Llama 3 as they wish and the company may then incorporate those improvements and insights in an updated version.
“We’re excited about the potential that generative AI technology can have for people who use Meta products and for the broader ecosystem,” Meta said.
“We also want to make sure we’re developing and releasing this technology in a way that anticipates and works to reduce risk.”
That effort includes incorporating protections in the way Meta designs and releases Llama models and being cautious when it adds generative AI features to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger, according to Meta.
“We’re also making Meta AI much easier to use across our apps. We built it into the search box right at the top of WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram messenger, so any time you have a question, you can just ask it right there,” said Zuckerberg in the video.
AI models, Meta’s included, have been known to occasionally go off the rails, giving inaccurate or bizarre responses in episodes referred to as “hallucinations.”
Examples shared on social media included Meta AI claiming to have a child in the New York City school system during an online forum conversation.


Meta AI has been consistently updated and improved since its initial release last year, according to the company.
“Meta’s slower approach to building its AI has put the company behind in terms of consumer awareness and usage, but it still has time to catch up,” said Sonata Insights chief analyst Debra Aho Williamson.
“Its social media apps represent a massive user base that it can use to test AI experiences.”
By weaving AI into its family of apps, Meta will quickly get features powered by the technology to billions of people and benefit from seeing what users do with it.
Meta cited the example of refining the way its AI answers prompts regarding political or social issues to summarize relevant points about the topic instead of offering a single point of view.
Llama 3 has been tuned to better discern whether prompts are innocuous or out-of-bounds, according to Meta.
“Large language models tend to overgeneralize, and we don’t intend for it to refuse to answer prompts like ‘How do I kill a computer program?’ even though we don’t want it to respond to prompts like ‘How do I kill my neighbor?’,” Meta explained.
Meta said it lets users know when they are interacting with AI on its platform and puts visible markers on photorealistic images that were in fact generated by AI.
Beginning in May, Meta will start labeling video, audio, and images “Made with AI” when it detects or is told content is generated by the technology.
Llama 3, for now, is based in English but in the coming months Meta will release more capable models able to converse in multiple languages, the company said.


Authors withdraw from PEN America Literary Awards in protest against stance on Gaza

Authors withdraw from PEN America Literary Awards in protest against stance on Gaza
Updated 19 April 2024
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Authors withdraw from PEN America Literary Awards in protest against stance on Gaza

Authors withdraw from PEN America Literary Awards in protest against stance on Gaza
  • 30 writers sign open letter criticizing organization for its ‘failure to confront the genocide of the Palestinian people and defend our fellow writers in Gaza’
  • They call on its CEO, Suzanne Nossel, its president, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and the entire executive committee to resign

DUBAI: Thirty authors and translators have signed an open letter to PEN America in which they declined, or withdrew their work from consideration for, the organization’s 2024 Literary Awards, in protest against its “failure to confront the genocide of the Palestinian people and defend our fellow writers in Gaza.”

In the letter, sent to the board of trustees this week, the writers said they “wholeheartedly reject PEN America and its failure to confront the genocide in Gaza” and demanded the resignations of the organization’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, its president, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and its entire executive committee.

The signatories include the co-founder of the PEN World Voices Festival, Esther Allen, as well as Joseph Earl Thomas, Kelly X. Hui, Nick Mandernach, Alejandro Varela, Maya Binyam and Julia Sanches.

Allen this month said she had declined the PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation. She posted a message on social media platform X on April 5 in which she said she had done so in solidarity with more than 1,300 writers who had criticized PEN America for its silence “on the genocidal murder of Palestinians,” and “in celebration and memory of, and in mourning for, all the Palestinians silenced forever by US-backed Israeli forces.”

Similarly, Binyam recently withdrew her debut novel “Hangman” from consideration for the PEN/Jean Stein and PEN/Hemingway awards.

In an email to PEN America, a copy of which she posted on X on April 11, she said she considered it “shameful that this recognition (of her work) should exist under the banner of PEN America, whose leadership has been steadfast in its dismissal of the ongoing genocide, and of the historic struggle for Palestinian liberation.”

In their open letter this week, the signatories said: “Writers have a responsibility to be good stewards of history in order to be good stewards of our communities.”

They added that they “stand in solidarity with a free Palestine,” and refuse “to be honored by an organization that acts as a cultural front for American imperialism” or “take part in celebrations that will serve to overshadow PEN’s complicity in normalizing genocide.”

In response, PEN America said: “Words matter and this letter deserves close scrutiny for its alarming language and characterizations.

“The current war in Gaza is horrific. But we cannot agree that the answer to its wrenching dilemmas and consequences lies in a shutting down of conversation and the closing down of viewpoints.

“We respect all writers for acting out of their consciences and will continue in our mission to defend their freedom to express themselves.”

The awards are due to be handed out during a ceremony on April 29 in Manhattan.


US congressional committee releases sealed Brazil court orders to Musk’s X, shedding light on account suspensions

US congressional committee releases sealed Brazil court orders to Musk’s X, shedding light on account suspensions
Updated 19 April 2024
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US congressional committee releases sealed Brazil court orders to Musk’s X, shedding light on account suspensions

US congressional committee releases sealed Brazil court orders to Musk’s X, shedding light on account suspensions

RIO DE JANEIRO: A US congressional committee released confidential Brazilian court orders to suspend accounts on the social media platform X, offering a glimpse into decisions that have spurred complaints of alleged censorship from the company and its billionaire owner Elon Musk.
The Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday published a staff report disclosing dozens of decisions by Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordering X to suspend or remove around 150 user profiles from its platform in recent years.
The 541-page report is the product of committee subpoenas directed at X. In his orders, de Moraes had prohibited X from making them public.
“To comply with its obligations under US law, X Corp. has responded to the Committee,” the company said in a statement on X on April 15.
The disclosure comes amid a battle Musk has waged against de Moraes.
Musk, a self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist, had vowed to publish de Moraes’ orders, which he equated to censorship. His crusade has been cheered on by supporters of far-right former President Jair Bolsonaro, who allege they are being targeted by political persecution, and have found common cause with their ideological allies in the US
De Moraes has overseen a five-year probe of so-called “digital militias,” who allegedly spread defamatory fake news and threats to Supreme Court justices. The investigation expanded to include those inciting demonstrations across the country, seeking to overturn Bolsonaro’s 2022 election loss. Those protests culminated in the Jan. 8 uprising in Brazil’s capital, with Bolsonaro supporters storming government buildings, including the Supreme Court, in an attempt to oust President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from office.
De Moraes’ critics claim he has abused his powers and shouldn’t be allowed to unilaterally ban social media accounts, including those of democratically elected legislators. But most legal experts see his brash tactics as legally sound and furthermore justified by extraordinary circumstances of democracy imperiled. They note his decisions have been either upheld by his fellow justices or gone unchallenged.
The secret orders disclosed by the congressional committee had been issued both by Brazil’s Supreme Court and its top electoral court, over which de Moraes currently presides.
The press office of the Supreme Court declined to comment on the potential ramifications of their release when contacted by The Associated Press.
“Musk is indeed a very innovative businessman; he innovated with electric cars, he innovated with rockets and now he invented a new form of non-compliance of a court order, through an intermediary,” said Carlos Affonso, director of the nonprofit Institute of Technology and Society. “He said he would reveal the documents and he found someone to do this for him.”
Affonso, also a professor of civil rights at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said that the orders are legal but do merit debate, given users were not informed why their accounts were suspended and whether the action was taken by the platform or at the behest of a court. The orders to X included in the report rarely provide justification, either.
The Supreme Court’s press office said in a statement Thursday afternoon that the orders do not contain justifications, but said the company and people with suspended accounts can gain access by requesting the decisions from the court.
While Musk has repeatedly decried de Moraes’ orders as suppressing “free speech” principles and amounting to “aggressive censorship,” the company under his ownership has bowed to government requests from around the world.
Last year, for instance, X blocked posts critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, in February, it blocked accounts and posts in India at the behest of the country’s government.
“The Indian government has issued executive orders requiring X to act on specific accounts and posts, subject to potential penalties including significant fines and imprisonment,” X’s global affairs account posted on Feb. 21. “In compliance with the orders, we will withhold these accounts and posts in India alone; however, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts.”
Brazil is a key market for X and other social media platforms. About 40 million Brazilians, or about 18 percent of the population, access X at least once per month, according to market research group eMarketer.
X has followed suspension orders under threat of hefty fines. De Moraes typically required compliance within two hours, and established a daily fine of 100,000-reais ($20,000) for noncompliance.
It isn’t clear whether the 150 suspended accounts represent the entirety of those de Moraes ordered suspended. Until the committee report, it wasn’t known whether the total was a handful, a few dozen or more. Some of the suspended accounts in the report have since been reactivated.
On April 6, Musk took to X to challenge de Moraes, questioning why he was “demanding so much censorship in Brazil”. The following day, the tech mogul said he would cease to comply with court orders to block accounts — and that de Moraes should either resign or be impeached. Predicting that X could be shut down in Brazil, he instructed Brazilians to use a VPN to retain their access.
De Moraes swiftly included Musk in the ongoing investigation of digital militias, and launched a separate investigation into whether Musk engaged in obstruction, criminal organization and incitement. On April 13, X’s legal representative in Brazil wrote to de Moraes that it will comply with all court orders, according to the letter, seen by the AP.
Affonso said the committee’s release of de Moraes’ orders were aimed less at Brazil than at the administration of US President Joe Biden. The report cites Brazil “as a stark warning to Americans about the threats posed by government censorship here at home.”
Terms like “censorship” and “free speech” have turned into political rallying cries for US conservatives since at least the 2016 presidential election, frustrated at seeing right-leaning commentators and high-profile Republican officials booted off Facebook and Twitter in its pre-Musk version for violating rules.
“The reason why the far-right needs him (Musk) is because they need a platform, they need a place to promote themselves. And Elon Musk needs far-right politicians because they will keep his platform protected from regulations,” said David Nemer, a Brazil native and University of Virginia professor who studies social media.
In the US, free speech is a constitutional right that’s much more permissive than in other countries, including Brazil. Still, the report’s release seemed to invigorate Bolsonaro and his far-right supporters.
Late Wednesday, soon after the court orders were released, Bolsonaro capped off a speech at a public event by calling for a round of applause for Musk.
His audience eagerly complied.
 


Several Google employees fired, arrested after ‘Googlers Against Genocide’ sit-in protests

Several Google employees fired, arrested after ‘Googlers Against Genocide’ sit-in protests
Updated 18 April 2024
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Several Google employees fired, arrested after ‘Googlers Against Genocide’ sit-in protests

Several Google employees fired, arrested after ‘Googlers Against Genocide’ sit-in protests
  • Outrage over tech giant’s $1.2bn Project Nimbus contract with the Israeli military
  • Affiliated group No Tech for Apartheid condemns decision as a flagrant act of retaliation

LONDON: A number of Google employees have lost their jobs and nine have been arrested following protests against the tech giant’s $1.2bn Project Nimbus contract with the Israeli military.

The demonstrations, organized by Googlers Against Genocide and associated with the group No Tech for Apartheid, involved a 10-hour sit-in at Google’s sites in New York City and Sunnyvale, California.

The protesters occupied the office of Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian in California, prompting police intervention. 

“Physically impeding other employees’ work and preventing them from accessing our facilities is a clear violation of our policies and completely unacceptable behavior,” the company said in a statement.

It added the decision to terminate the employees’ contracts was taken following individual case investigations and that the company would continue to take action as necessary.

In a statement on Medium, Google workers affiliated with the No Tech for Apartheid campaign called the decision to terminate the 28 employees a “flagrant act of retaliation” and said staff members who did not directly participate in Tuesday’s protests were among those who lost their jobs.

“Despite Google’s attempts to silence us and disregard our concerns, we will persist,” said Jane Chung, spokesperson for the protesters.

Announced by Google and Amazon in 2021, Project Nimbus has faced criticism for providing advanced AI and machine-learning capabilities to Israel’s government.

Amid the ongoing conflict, No Tech for Apartheid launched a petition urging both companies to cancel the project, alleging complicity in Gaza’s ethnic cleansing.

Google’s statement said the Nimbus contract was “not directed at highly sensitive, classified or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.” 

Sources have also indicated that both Google and Amazon are bound by stringent contractual obligations that prevent them yielding to boycott pressure, effectively trapping them in the current situation.

The protests come in the wake of allegations that Google is silencing pro-Palestinian voices.

One of the fired workers protested during a presentation by Google’s Israel managing director in New York City.

Employees have demanded that the company stop “the harassment, intimidation, bullying, silencing, and censorship of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim Googlers.”

They have also demanded that Google address “health and safety issues” in the workplace, which arose from the “mental health consequences of working at a company that is using their labor to enable a genocide.”