The Middle East as a region has a ‘brand image’ problem. War, terrorism and — in the words of a soon-to-be- departing US president — evil, are terms that still abound in the generalized view of the region. Although the Gulf countries are getting double digit marks for growth, tell people in Europe or the Americas that you’ve just been in Lebanon/Syria/Iran/Jordan etc. and the response is invariably, “Oh, isn’t it dangerous there?”
There is always a short or long answer to this. But based on the past year, outside of Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, there has been remarkably little to brand the Middle East as any more of a hot spot for war, terrorism or evil than most other parts of the world.
The region has arguably been the victim of its own craven desire for publicity — at once complaining of skewered coverage, yet getting proportionally more coverage than other places. The region’s geostrategic importance, energy and the role of Israel all play their part in this, but this over exposure of the ‘dangerous’ images of the Middle East has taken its toll on brand perception.
Compare this image to that of say Brazil, where people associate the country with samba, football and sunshine, yet in terms of street crime and robbery Brazil is far more dangerous than the majority of Arab streets, whether in the day or after dark. Equally Europe, the strongest of regional brands, has had its share of terrorism, and the chances of being mugged in Barcelona or pick-pocketed in London are exponentially higher than in Beirut or Aleppo.
Or take India, riding high on a brand image of an ascendant power in the region and the world, destined to take on China. While this may happen with India expanding its nuclear capabilities, a still-strong economy despite the global financial turbulence, and a gigantic domestic market, what has hardly dented brand India over the past year, at least internationally, is the spate of bomb blasts and attacks that have rocked the country.
This includes last month’s battles in Mumbai and the 63 bomb blasts in seven states over the previous eight months. As Executive went to print there were more than 100 dead in Mumbai, with security forces still skirmishing with pockets of armed extremists in the city. Between 2004 and 2008, there have been at least 25 major bomb attacks and hundreds of smaller incidents. Such violence has been carried out by Islamist groups, separatists and, in what has recently come to light, also by right-wing Hindu groups.
India ranks in the top three globally outside of war zones for terrorist attacks, yet if you tell people you’ve been to India, they respond with a type of concern typical of India’s brand, “Oh, isn’t it so dirty and poor?” — a far cry from the concern voiced when people hear you’ve been to the Middle East.
This is India’s challenge, as many recognize, yet it has not overly affected its global image. And while many countries in the Middle East face the same issues, there is also the impression of the petrodollars and glitz of the Gulf. The Middle East clearly has a mixed brand image, given the economic discrepancies between the GCC and the Levant.
Although tourism, a major part of a country or region’s brand image, is relatively strong, the association or a one-off terror attack alone is enough to make non-Arab tourists cancel their trips. When I visited Luxor in Egypt a year after the attacks on tourists in 1997, there was hardly a visitor; good for me but not the local economy. Egypt and Jordan saw a massive drop in tourists following September 11, 2001. Lebanon has also been quiet following the July War. And while Syria’s numbers have surged in recent years, the tourists are 75% Gulf Arabs.
But although India might not be doing that well in the foreign tourism stakes, only getting 3.5 million visitors a year — paltry in relation to its population and the 6 million Dubai gets, the 11 million that visit Egypt or Syria’s 4 million – people don’t call off their vacation because of a bomb blast.
It is time for the Middle East to start putting another image of itself across to the world to disassociate itself from the terrorism that does happen and portray all the positives that make the region such a wonderful place to visit and live in. There is no easy solution to this in the face of media portrayals, but that can also be used to the region’s advantage too, for there is a great deal of interest in the Middle East. There is also the talent and brains to achieve this. Above all it will take belief in the region, at the micro, country level as well as at the macro for this to happen. Brand India appears to have a strong belief in its future, and so should the Middle East.
PAUL COCHRANE is a freelance journalist. He is
currently in the Indian subcontinent.