Horse? On the Arab Media as a Portal for Western Goods and Values.
By Jihad Fakhreddine
paper was presented at the Eighth International Conference of
the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators (AUSACE)
in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 12 to October 15, 2003.
paradoxically, the Arab media-and particularly Arab satellite
television news programming- plays an incongruous role in depicting
the extent to which Arabs are assimilating Western ideas and
lifestyles into their own life. There is certainly more cultural
assimilation than meets the eye, especially since the dust of
what amounts to an unannounced clash of civilizations overshadows
the extent to which the global culture is impacting many facets
of Arabs' lives.
fails to see the extent of this assimilation mostly because
its view of the cultural changes taking place across the Arab
world is blocked by the political façade that dominates
the Arab world, a political façade that is invariably
very different from its own. It is through this lens that all
Western perceptions of the Arab world seem to be filtered.
due to the September 11th attacks on the US and subsequent US
reactions, culminating in the conquest of Iraq, the perceptual
lens has become even fuzzier, through the addition to it of
a layer of religious fanaticism. The notion "West is West
and East is East" no longer holds; the Arabs have by now
replaced the East.
Arabs' side, there appears to be a state of denial of the extent
to which Western culture, epitomized by American culture, has
touched or changed Arabs' lifestyles. In finding out how much
global culture has penetrated Arab societies through the Arab
media, one ought not to look at the contents of the headlines
of the Arabic newspapers, or at political analysis and the main
evening news on TV, or political talk shows. These are media
channels, where the distortion, or the denial, of Arab adoption
of aspects of global culture reaches deafening proportions.
appropriate place to look would be the advertising messages
of Western products on the same pages or on TV programs. Under
a headline that lashes out at US policies in the region, there
is a high chance there will appear a half-page advertisement
for a multi-national brand.
might equally well look at the American movies that are aired
right after the main news, and which capture a larger audience
than Arabic movies. Or at the inside pages of the "political"
newspapers that report on the lives and lifestyles of US or
European entertainment celebrities.
situation, the print media supplements the visual media in terms
of the dissemination of concrete illustrations of the global
culture. And although the Arab media is still largely Arab owned,
its basic survival depends on the advertising revenues of international
products and brands.
of these products and brands and attitudes towards them not
only manifest acceptance of these products but also demonstrate
some degree of acceptance of the culture that produces them.
the products we consume no longer pertain to basic needs but
are consumed for the symbolic values innate to them. And although
the symbolic values attached to these products and brands may
not be a replica of what they represent in the West, some aspects
are shared nevertheless.
not such universal symbolic commonality in what these products
or brands represent, they would not have been adopted in the
first place, nor would they be promoted for Arab consumers through
Western-originated marketing communication messages.
to which Western media programming and Western products are
influencing the lifestyles and attitudes of the average Arab
is not something that has been captured methodologically through
quantitative research. But manifestations of its impact abound,
regardless of the denial of its pervasiveness.
of Western-made products and brands (and perhaps policy makers
in the West as well) need to understand Arab consumers from
the perspective of their cultural, economic, and political vulnerability
and sense of insecurity.
events only perpetuate this sense of vulnerability and increasingly
put the Arabs on the defensive. The sporadic calls for boycotts
of US products are a manifestation of this defensiveness. In
turn, unable to sense how pervasive the propensity to boycott
multi-national or US brands is, some marketers have sought to
give their brands an Arab identity or make it as glocal as possible,
or at least have sought to assert the identity of ownership
of US or multi-national brands-the latter are very much identified
as US interests-are mostly the victims of US policies towards
the Arab region. Luckily, perhaps, opposition to the economic
might of the multi-national brands has not gained organized
mass support across the Arab world, as is the case in Europe.
This spares them one negative impact.
to influence Arab attitudes towards US and multi-national brands
ought to be built on a number of premises. First, the US policies
in the region are unlikely to take a more favorable turn, from
the perspective of Arabs. Second, the US or multi-national brands
are too vast to hide their identity. Hence the enhancement of
their acceptance could be better attained through their contribution
to the well being of certain segments of the population rather
than simply by enhancing their market share.
not be naïve and think that these international marketers
are non-profit organizations or they can change US policies
in the region. But it important to be reminded that at the core
of negative attitudes towards the US or the West is not just
the latter's regional polices, but equally their perceived indifference
to the well being of the Arab world.
manifested through their perceived indifference towards sharing
resources and technological know-how. Added to all of this is
the West's perceived disrespect for Arab and Islamic values.
towards the West, or more specifically, how (and why) positively
or negatively the West is perceived to be affecting the life
of an average Arab, has been captured in a recent Gallup poll
carried out in early 2002 in nine predominately Islamic countries.
The poll included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and
Morocco. Findings of this massive and unique poll are not just
important to policy makers in the West but are equally important
to the marketers as well.
think of themselves as being at the receiving end, caught in
an unclear situation which may be either a clash of civilizations
or interaction with the West. How little cultural commonality
the Arabs claim to share with the West shows that the much talked
about global village is still segregated.
to indicate the extent to which economic, social, and cultural
modernity as experienced in the West are in contradiction with
own value system, the majority of Arab adults see a total or
considerable gap. In Saudi Arabia 57 percent subscribe to this
view and in Kuwait 45 percent.
alarming perceived gap is voiced in countries that are considered
be in more direct interaction with Western culture such as Lebanon,
where 74 percent see a wide gap and Morocco where the figure
is 71 percent. Interestingly, the perceptual scenario in Turkey,
which is pushing for joining the European Union, is almost equally
intense-57 percent see a considerable contradiction.
of perceived contradictions between Arab and Western value systems
differences in economic, social, and cultural experiences are
not considered to be differences that can be simply looked at
as having a neutral impact on the evolution of the Arabs' value
system. Fears of negative effects abound. On a five-point positive-negative
impact scale fewer than a quarter of Arab adults see a totally
or somewhat positive effect (Saudi Arabia 19 percent, Kuwait
26 percent, Lebanon 16 percent, Jordan 5 percent).
positively/negatively Arab value system is perceived to be influenced
by the Western value system
to the perceived contradiction between the pace of current socio-cultural
modernity in the Arab world on the one hand and the indigenous
value system on the other, there seems to be more concern in
supposedly more modern Arab societies than in more conservative
see more congruency between the current pace of modernity in
their societies and how it ought to evolve. Of adult Lebanese,
49 percent see a total or a somewhat or total contradiction
with their own value system and this figure is 42 percent in
Jordan, as opposed to 25 percent in Saudi Arabia and 21 percent
of which modernity as currently experienced in Arab societies
contradicts Arab Traditional value systems
for the Gallup poll were collected at the height of tension
between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds subsequent to
the September 11, 2002 attacks on the US. The US-British occupation
of Iraq is not likely to have reduced these tensions; it may
have even aggravated them. Nor does a peaceful resolution of
the Arab-Israeli conflict seem to be in sight.
multi-international marketers in the region are bound to continue
operating in a marketing environment that is becoming increasingly
complex and where the cultural and the political dimensions
of international relations are extremely intertwined. These
dimensions are acting as a push rather than a pull effect, with
the Arab media evolving into a crucial player, gaining more
audiences, and improving its reputation.
media, especially the pan-Arab satellite television channels,
have become more influential in shaping the Arab public opinion.
Politically, these media may not be contributing to the creation
of positive attitudes towards the West, the producer of multinational
brands, but is willingly acting as the communication channel
for these brands. And it is concurrently increasing the share
of Western entertainment in its program mix to an even greater
is a lot of evidence that there is a promising Arab audience
for Western entertainment. The rate at which access to digital
satellite is progressing gives an indication of the openness
Arabs are demonstrating towards international media and the
US media in particular.
the September 11 attacks on the US, there has been more Western
programming on the pan-Arab satellite TV channels. Due to restrictions
on travel to the West and apprehension about the safety of travel,
there is now less interaction with the Western societies at
the personal level. However, the flow of multinational products
has not been reduced. More importantly, all Western advertising
agencies have already established a forceful presence in Arab
markets, and they are no less effective in shaping people's
consumption patterns in Arab than they are in Western markets.
level of assertion, Arabs seem to overstate the degree of their
apprehensiveness towards Western culture, but this should be
blamed more on the politics of the West than on the culture
itself. Behind the veil of many Arab women there is a version
of the appearance of Western women. Appearance is not the neutral
depiction of what the appearance symbolizes.
is that with less personal interaction with Westerners, Arabs
will interact more with images of the West. In such an environment
the media is likely to become the sole channel for the conveyance
of these images, and the media, as we know, are not usually
Fakhreddine is the research manager for media and public opinion
polls at Pan Arab Research Center (PARC). He is based in UAE and
writes on Arab media and US public diplomacy.