Trojan Horse? On the Arab Media as a Portal for Western Goods and Values.

By Jihad Fakhreddine

This 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.

Perhaps 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.

The West 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.

More recently, 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.

On the 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.

A more 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.

Or one 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.

In this 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.

Consumption 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.

Many of 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.

Were there 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.

The extent 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.

Marketers 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.

Regional 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 as Arab.

Marketers 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.

Attempts 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.

We need 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.

This is 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.

Attitudes 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.

Arab publics 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.

When asked 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.

A more 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.

Extent of perceived contradictions between Arab and Western value systems

Perceived 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).

How positively/negatively Arab value system is perceived to be influenced by the Western value system

Turning 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 ones.

The latter 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 in Kuwait.

Extent of which modernity as currently experienced in Arab societies contradicts Arab Traditional value systems

The data 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.

Hence 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.

The Arab 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 extent.

There 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.

Since 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.

At the 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.

The fear 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 neutral. TBS

Jihad 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.
Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
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Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo