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The selling of America

Published : Oct 11, 2002 00:00 IST

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The United States tries to market itself in Arab nations, but many young Arabs are suspicious and unconvinced.

TONY SABBAGH, a veteran market researcher who positions American brand-name consumer products from Beirut to Bahrain, has been listening to the latest American promotion in Amman: that of the United States itself. Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, combined with news at the top of the radio hour, as a way to sell the U.S. in a sceptical Arab world? Nice try, but try again, says Sabbagh of Washington's effort to convince sceptical young Arabs of the U.S.' good intentions through a new radio station that combines pop music with news snippets and is now broadcasting in five Arab nations. "You cannot create a product out of an image,'' said Sabbagh, the director of Middle East Marketing and Research and who has promoted cigarettes, colas and cars across the region. "You can only promote a product if you have one.'' The hostility of young Arabs to the U.S. is based on policies, he said, and unless Washington modifies its stand on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and backs off from unilateral action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein , the administration faces an uphill sell.

While American diplomacy might be influencing some moderate governments, the people remain unconvinced. A State Department spokesman said the public relations efforts were essential to combat the "misperceptions'' of American policy. An Arab television station, Al Jazeera, was broadcasting "pretty sophisticated stuff'' in its news programmes that cast a negative light on the U.S. that needed to be countered, he said.

Sabbagh's views clash with those of another marketing expert, the former Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers, who is now the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Beers, who made her name catapulting sales of Uncle Ben's rice, is heading the Bush administration's efforts to get the upper hand in the propaganda war through broadcasts, exchange programmes and the Internet. In addition to the new Radio Sawa, which means "together'' in Arabic, a $25 million State Department programme has been set up to offer scholarships for university-age Arabs to study in the U.S. Public opinion surveys in Egypt and Jordan - rarely published in these countries but reviewed by officials and foreign diplomats - show that many people feel under assault by American policies on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and now on Iraq, American and Arab officials who have seen the surveys said. The intensity of those feelings makes the task of selling the U.S. far more complicated than playing music and offering scholarships, they said.

ADDING to the difficulties is the limited array of tools available to the State Department. Gone are the days of handsome cultural centres with libraries run by the United States Information Agency in foreign cities. The independent agency, deemed an unnecessary relic of the Cold War, was shut down in 1999 and melded into the State Department. In Amman, for example, a popular American cultural centre at a major traffic circle was closed. It was replaced by an auditorium and small library in the new U.S. Embassy, which is away from the city centre and built like a fortress. The heavy security searches to enter the building have discouraged Jordanians from visiting it. As a substitute for the stand-alone libraries, the State Department is urging embassies in the region to open "American corners'' in university libraries and other institutions. Such a "corner'' is being tried in Bahrain, but for the most part embassies have resisted the idea because of its limited impact, American diplomats said. "It's half-baked, cultural-centre lite,'' said one.

Another programme that is facing problems is the $25 million Middle East Partnership Initiative, devised by Liz Cheney, the daughter of the Vice-President and a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Near East bureau. The programme includes scholarships enabling students from the Arab world to come to the U.S. But with severe new restrictions on the issue of visas, particularly for men from Arab countries between the ages of 18 and 45, the scope of the study programme is probably limited, a State Department official said, "This will need a long lead time,'' the official said. Liz Cheney, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the early 1990s, has also devised projects that call for training Arab non-governmental organisations in aspects of democracy and the rule of law. But how open autocratic Arab governments will be to the distribution of American funds to private groups was not yet clear, a State Department official said.

One idea of Beers' - to provide commercial-length spots to Arab television stations about how Muslims in the U.S. are respected - has been put on hold, the official said. There was some nervousness, he said, that the favourable portrayal of American Muslims would be seen as "pandering''. Sabbagh said he supported showing the role of Muslims in American life, provided the portrayals were believable. "This would be very useful,'' he said. "But it's all in the execution. It has to be real-life situations. That way you get credibility.'' He also suggested that Washington try to put a more human face on events in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. USAID was surely doing worthwhile work to help the Palestinians. That should be talked about, he said.

Radio Sawa's reception from its 18-to-30-year-old target audience has been mixed. In Qatar, a tiny Gulf state where attitudes towards the U.S. are relatively more favourable, the programming is popular. However, in Jordan where the Israel-Palestinian conflict has deeply soured public opinion toward the U.S., the reaction to Radio Sawa is: yes to the music; no to the news. Some taxi-drivers play the music, but turn off the news. "People here really do feel that support for Ariel Sharon is wrong and that war against Iraq is wrong,'' said Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of ElectronicIntifada, a website that analyses the Israel-Palestinian conflict. "No amount of spin is going to change that.''

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 11, 2002.)

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