Saudi Arabia is working hard to change the world’s perception of the Kingdom. Such a task is hard, taking into account decades of being one of the most closed countries in the world.
There was hardly any positive news on the Kingdom for years. Saudi Arabia was in the news of major foreign media outlets and TV programs almost exclusively in the context of oil, extremism, human rights violations and the absurd statements of some clerics. The only positive connotation was Hajj. All that was negative went viral. The news about Saudi Arabia was confusing: It was not easy to distinguish fake news stories from real ones, as the media turns black into white and white into black.
The stereotypes were dominant, predetermining not only perceptions, but the media agenda on Saudi Arabia too.
But times change and the country is getting much more open. However, just because you open the door, that does not mean everybody will be inspired to come into your house. People might be scared of what could be in there, having been brainwashed about the dark side of Saudi Arabia, which was abused by the foreign media.
I was involved in some research last year regarding how Russians perceive Saudi Arabia. The responses were generally associated with three subjects: Oil, terrorism/extremism, and camels and deserts. This can be attributed to the respondents having taken information for years mostly from Western sources, which are not particularly loyal or friendly with the Kingdom, despite strong bilateral ties and business relations. Russians, like many other nationalities, know nothing about the real Saudi Arabia. People have an image in their head that can hardly be changed, even by positive articles printed in enormous quantities all over the world.
We are living in the era of communications, where text has started to play the minor role. The modern world prefers watching to reading. Younger generations believe what they see with their eyes rather than what they read. In the epoch of media warfare, text is becoming the worst instrument of persuasion because, in every article contradicting widely-held beliefs, the readers are eager to suspect fake news or sponsored material.
People trust others who are like themselves. They are interested in their experiences, they are eager to read, watch, listen, follow and see what is grabbing other people’s attention: This is where the phenomenon of influencers comes from. Influencers are online personas who are interesting to other people, or an icon for them to imitate. Therefore, taking all of this into account, there are new ways of delivering the messages we need, of making sure they hit the targets required.
Saudi Arabia has already made a good start by arranging cultural expositions — these are a step in the right direction. By plunging people into the ancient tribal culture of the Kingdom, introducing them to dates and traditional coffee, national costumes, music and, most importantly, the fantastic Ardah dance, the Kingdom shows off its history and roots.
Yet, is this all that Saudi Arabia can show to foreigners? I doubt it. It would be the same if Russia only showed off its traditional dancing, handicrafts or chastushka poems, putting aside all its ballet, opera, modern art, and literature. Here it is important to remember that playing exclusively on traditional culture and heritage does not necessarily improve perceptions and counter the stereotypes. It just goes along with them.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel in terms of finding methods of promotion. The people of the Kingdom are the messengers of the country’s changes. The only thing Saudi Arabia should do is to help the youth speak out and express themselves.
Dia Aziz Dia, the designer of the Gate of Makkah, is a Saudi painter whose works are of great importance, but people living abroad cannot see his work except through his Instagram page.
There is little chance people would discover him if they did not take an interest in Arabic culture in general. But by taking an exhibition on the road, people would be able to make a great discovery that would influence their perceptions of Saudi Arabia. To meet the painter together with his work and to listen to him talk would bring even better results.
Art is also blossoming among the young people of the Kingdom. Rana Maghlouth, a young Saudi painter, is bringing oceans to people’s houses with her unusual maritime paintings — her art could change the perceptions of people abroad. Tasneem Al-Sultan is a chronicler of Saudi life and a wedding photographer, who tells through her work and brief touching annotations the love stories of the Gulf and beyond. She is the first Arab woman to become a Canon ambassador and is followed by more than 129,000 people on Instagram.
The list is long and includes writers, poets, painters, filmmakers and even rappers. The Kingdom needs promotions with a human face and it has many willing talents who can do much to change the negative perceptions of Saudi Arabia.
There is no need to fight with the media worldwide or shout them down, all you need to do is create a suitable atmosphere for these gifted individuals to express their feelings through their art.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme
First published at Arab News