Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday. (AFP/File)
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Updated 03 March 2024
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Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

  • Saudi Arabia rose to 18th place in this year’s Brand Finance ranking, while Israel’s perception declined, possibly due to the ongoing conflict
  • This year’s survey encompassed all UN member states, assessing nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact

LONDON: The latest findings from Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index, one of the world’s leading brand evaluation consultancies, unveiled key shifts in the global soft power landscape, reflecting the intricate dynamics of the regional context.

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have solidified their positions, attention has turned to Israel’s ranking decline and the repercussions of the Gaza conflict.

Israel experienced a noticeable decline in its soft power standing, a trend exacerbated by the recent conflict in Gaza.

“As the Anholt Nation Brands Index has shown since 2005, public opinion does not tolerate conflict,” Simon Anholt, policy advisor, author and one of the world’s leading authorities on national image, told Arab News.

“Conflict harms the images of all parties involved, whether perceived as aggressor or victim, and the effect lingers. Current events in Gaza will likely harm the images of both Israel and Palestine for years to come (even though Palestine does not feature in the index), reducing their ability to attract trade, talent, tourists and investment.”

However, Brand Finance CEO David Haigh highlighted that the full impact of the war on Israel’s performance in this year’s index remains unclear.

“Overall, Israel has dropped fairly obviously, but (since the completion of the survey), things have become a lot worse not only in what Israel is doing, but also the reaction globally,” Haigh told Arab News, suggesting that the true impact may be seen in next year’s report.

He emphasized a shift in global sentiment against Israel, both in the short and long term, requiring “substantial” and “real” changes for image improvement.

“If you don’t do that, whatever you’re doing is just propaganda,” he added.

The survey, which offers “a comprehensive evaluation of nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact” deriving from a range of metrics, was conducted between mid-September and early November, showing a split in results before and after the war.

These metrics encompass familiarity, influence, reputation, and perception. Perception is based on eight pillars: business and trade, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media and communication, education and science, people and values, and sustainable future. 

Soft power, a concept coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s, denotes a nation’s ability to achieve desired outcomes through persuasion rather than coercion or financial incentives. It emphasizes appealing to countries instead of coercing them, in contrast to the traditional reliance on military and economic power.

According to the latest edition of the report, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have surged ahead in the rankings of the most influential soft power nations, outpacing other countries worldwide.

“Nations such as the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have not only ascended in the ranks of global perception but are weaving the fabric of their generous hospitality, innovative achievements, and peace-building initiatives into the tapestry of international diplomacy,” Haigh said, noting how this continued investment could signal the “dawn of a new era, where dialogue and collaboration are the cornerstones of the global order.”

Benefiting from robust oil demand and substantial investments in sports and tourism, the Kingdom achieved a score of 56 out of 100 index points, marking a 4.7-point increase from the previous year and surpassing Denmark.

Similarly, the UAE and Qatar have seen their scores rise due to their resilient economies and the successful hosting of high-profile events like Expo 2020 and COP28 in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The UAE also received a 10/10 score for “Strong and stable economy,” ranking first in that category, and scored highly for “Future growth potential” and “Generosity.”

Haigh said: “Saudi Arabia is very similar. Both have been investing heavily.” He emphasized how despite economic and political challenges, these factors have emerged as key drivers of both “Reputation” and “Influence.”

However, he pointed out that Gulf countries still have room for improvement in the aspect of “Familiarity,” an area where the entire region has historically lagged behind, and “Friendly people,” an aspect that the Brand Finance CEO attributes to high costs associated with visiting these countries and, thus, not being able to interact directly with their cultures.

“Although increasing numbers of people are going there on holidays, the exposure to the actual Emiratis (and Gulf populations at large) is quite low,” Haigh said, arguing that regular interactions are essential for people around the globe to understand “whether you’re friendly or not.”

The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday.

This year’s survey involved 170,000 respondents worldwide and an expanded ranking covering all 193 UN member states.

On a global scale, the US and the UK lead as the most influential soft power nations, with China ranking third, surpassing Japan and Germany, which hold the fourth and fifth positions, respectively.

Speaking to Arab News, Courtney Fingar, FDI consultant, journalist, and commentator on international investment trends, also addressed the potential economic implications of the Gaza conflict spreading beyond current borders.

“The war spilling (over) and escalating beyond the current borders is not good news for anyone in the region, but (also) not for the world.”

Recognizing the improved resilience of Gulf markets due to diversification efforts, Fingar cautioned against volatility risks, highlighting investors’ prioritization of security, a trend corroborated by the report.

She observed that the challenge for Gulf economies lies in “translating that attention and that energy into tangible investments,” Fingar said.

Saudi Arabia, alongside other nations, has prioritized economic diversification as a cornerstone of its Vision 2030. Central to this vision is the Kingdom’s effort to attract investment across various sectors, notably sports and tourism.

Florian Kaefer, founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer, a platform focusing on country brand reputation, emphasized Saudi Arabia’s significant strides in rebranding itself as a sustainable tourist destination.

Citing projects like Red Sea Global and AlUla, Kaefer highlighted the Kingdom’s shift toward a narrative imbued with purpose.

“Tourism, if it’s done well, like in terms of regenerative development — an approach that focuses on supporting local communities and creating positive relationships that will benefit society and the environment — has the potential to emphasize the power of a country,” he remarked.

Kaefer pointed out the transformative impact of high-profile events like the World Expo, to be hosted by Riyadh in 2030, in reshaping perceptions and benefiting countries striving to establish themselves as hubs of sustainability and regeneration.

“The image of Dubai has changed over the last 10 years quite a bit. I think Saudi Arabia is going to follow that path, which is smart regenerative development, sustainability,” Kaefer noted, underscoring the importance for the Kingdom to “stay true” to its promises of regeneration and sustainability, as this will enhance its reception and popularity both globally and domestically.

Apart from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, this year’s Global Soft Power Index also involved 14 other Middle East and North African nations.

Kuwait, Egypt, and Oman secured ranks 37, 39, and 49, respectively, followed closely by Morocco at 50, Bahrain at 51, and Iran at 62. Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon followed suit, securing ranks 63, 73, 77, and 91, respectively.

Iraq made a notable return to the top 100, securing the 99th position, while new entries like Syria (129th), Libya (139th), and Yemen (149th) also made their debut in the index.


PEN America awards canceled after writers’ boycott over Gaza

Updated 23 April 2024
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PEN America awards canceled after writers’ boycott over Gaza

  • Almost half of nominated authors withdrew works from consideration
  • PEN America accused of complicity in ‘normalizing genocide’ in Gaza

LONDON: PEN America has cancelled its 2024 annual literary awards after several authors boycotted the event over the organization’s perceived failure to take a strong stance against Israel’s war on Gaza.

The decision came in response to an open letter signed by dozens of authors and translators who withdrew their work from consideration for the awards.

Sixty-one authors and translators were nominated but 28 withdrew their work, according to a statement released on Monday, forcing the organization to cancel next week’s event.

“This is a beloved event and an enormous amount of work goes into it, so we all regret this outcome but ultimately concluded it was not possible to carry out a celebration in the way we had hoped and planned,” said CEO Suzanne Nossel.

The boycott emerged amidst growing tensions with PEN, with authors urging the organization to take a stronger stance on the Palestinian crisis and advocate for a Gaza ceasefire.

In the letter, PEN was accused of acting as a “cultural front for American exceptionalism” and complicity in “normalizing genocide” by failing to address the situation in Gaza adequately.

“In the context of Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, we believe that PEN America has betrayed the organization’s professed commitment to peace and equality for all, and to freedom and security for writers everywhere,” said a separate letter signed last month by several famous writers including Michelle Alexander, Naomi Klein and Zaina Arafat.

PEN America has defended its actions, citing its recent condemnation of the loss of life in Gaza, calls for a ceasefire, and the establishment of a $100,000 emergency fund for Palestinian writers.

The awards, which celebrates voices across various genres including writers of fiction, poetry, children’s literature and drama, was scheduled for April 29 at the Town Hall in New York City.


Russia orders jail term for Meta spokesman in absentia on ‘terrorism’ charges

Updated 22 April 2024
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Russia orders jail term for Meta spokesman in absentia on ‘terrorism’ charges

  • Andy Stone was sentenced to six years in what has been described as a symbolic ruling agaist Western social media platforms

MOSCOW: A Russian military court on Monday sentenced in absentia Meta spokesman Andy Stone to six years behind bars for “justifying terrorism,” as part of efforts to restrict Western social media platforms in the country.
The largely symbolic ruling came several months after Mosocw, which has blocked Meta platforms Instagram and Facebook, put the US citizen on a wanted list.
Judge Roman Kiforenko said the sentence would begin upon Stone setting foot on Russian territory or being extradited to Russia, news agencies reported.
The case followed a post by Stone in March 2022 — weeks into Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine — in which he said Facebook would not punish users calling for violence against Russian forces.
Stone said Meta had “temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.’“
“We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians,” the post read.
Nick Clegg, the President of Meta Global Affairs, said at the time that the policy would only apply “in Ukraine itself.”
Clegg said the decision was taken in “extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances” and was designed to protect “people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defense.”
Russia barred Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg from entering the country shortly after launching hostilities in Ukraine.
Moscow does not tolerate criticism of the offensive on social media, imposing fines or jail terms to thousands for denouncing the large-scale military campaign now in its third year.


Terry Anderson, US journalist held hostage nearly 7 years in Lebanon, dead at 76

Updated 22 April 2024
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Terry Anderson, US journalist held hostage nearly 7 years in Lebanon, dead at 76

  • Former AP correspondent was abuducted by pro-Iran Shiite Muslim group as part of “continuing operations against Americans”

LONDON: Terry Anderson, a US journalist who was held captive by Islamist militants for almost seven years in Lebanon and came to symbolize the plight of Western hostages during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, died on Sunday at age 76, his daughter said in a statement.
The former chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was the longest held hostage of the scores of Westerners abducted in Lebanon, died at his home in Greenwood Lake, New York, said his daughter Sulome Anderson, who was born three months after he was seized. No cause of death was given.
Kept in barely-lit cells by mostly Shiite Muslim groups in what was known as The Hostage Crisis, and chained by his hands and feet and blindfolded much of the time, the former Marine later recalled that he “almost went insane” and that only his Roman Catholic faith prevented him from taking his life before he was freed in December 1991.
“Though my father’s life was marked by extreme suffering during his time as a hostage in captivity, he found a quiet, comfortable peace in recent years. I know he would choose to be remembered not by his very worst experience, but through his humanitarian work with the Vietnam Children’s Fund, the Committee to Protect Journalists, homeless veterans and many other incredible causes,” Sulome Anderson said.
The family will take some time to organize a memorial, she said.
Anderson’s ordeal began in Beirut on the morning of March 16, 1985, after he played a round of tennis. A green Mercedes sedan with curtains over the rear window pulled up, three gunmen jumped out and dragged Anderson, still dressed in shorts, into the car.
The pro-Iran Islamic Jihad group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, saying it was part of “continuing operations against Americans.” The abductors demanded freedom for Shiite Muslims jailed in Kuwait for bomb attacks against the US and French embassies there.
It was the start of a nightmare for Anderson that would last six years and nine months during which he was stuck in cells under the rubble-strewn streets of Beirut and elsewhere, often badly fed and sleeping on a thin, dirty mattress on a concrete floor.
During captivity, both his father and brother would die of cancer and he would not see his daughter Sulome until she was six years old.
“What kept me going?” he asked aloud shortly after release. “My companions. I was lucky to have people with me most of the time. My faith, stubbornness. You do what you have to. You wake up every day, summon up the energy from somewhere. You think you haven’t got it and you get through the day and you do it. Day after day after day.”
Other hostages described Anderson as tough and active in captivity, learning French and Arabic and exercising regularly.
However, they also told of him banging his head against a wall until he bled in frustration at beatings, isolation, false hopes and the feeling of being neglected by the outside world.
“There is a limit of how long we can last and some of us are approaching the limit very badly,” Anderson said in a videotape released by his captors in December 1987.
Marcel Fontaine, a French diplomat who was released in May 1988 after three years of captivity, recalled the time cell mate Anderson thought freedom was near because he was allowed to see the sun and eat a hamburger.
In April 1987 Anderson was given a suit of clothes that his captors had made for him. “He wore it every day,” Fontaine said.
A week later, however, Anderson’s captors took the suit back, leaving him in despair and certain he was forgotten, Fontaine said.
Scores of journalist groups, governments and individuals over the years called for Anderson’s release and his Oct. 27 birthday became an unofficial US memorial day for hostages.
Anderson said he considered killing himself several times but rejected it. He relied heavily on his faith, which he said he had renewed six months before being kidnapped.
“I must have read the Bible 50 times from start to finish,” he said. “It was an enormous help to me.”
His sister, Peggy Say, who died in 2015, was his fiercest advocate during captivity.
She worked tirelessly for her brother’s freedom. She visited Arab and European capitals, lobbied the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and every US official and politician available.
Under pressure from the media and the US hostages’ families, the Reagan administration negotiated a secret and illegal deal in the mid-1980s to facilitate arms sales to Iran in return for the release of American hostages. But the deal, known as the Iran–Contra affair, failed to gain freedom for any of the hostages.
Born Oct. 27, 1947, in Lorain, Ohio, Anderson grew up in Batavia, New York. He graduated from Iowa State University and spent six years in the Marine Corps, mostly as a journalist.
He worked for the AP in Detroit, Louisville, New York, Tokyo, Johannesburg and then Beirut, where he first went to cover the Israeli invasion in 1982.
In that war-torn city, he fell in love with Lebanese woman Madeleine Bassil, who was his fiance and pregnant with their daughter Sulome when he was snatched.
He is survived by his daughters Sulome and Gabrielle, his sister Judy and brother Jack, and by Bassil, whom Sulome Anderson called “his ex-wife and best friend.”
Anderson and fellow hostages developed a system of communication by tapping on walls between their cells. Always the journalist, Anderson passed on news of the outside world he had picked up during captivity to Church of England envoy Terry Waite, being held hostage in an adjacent room in September 1990 after years of solitary confinement.
“Then the world news: the Berlin Wall’s falling, communism’s demise in eastern Europe, free elections in the Soviet Union, work toward multiracial government in South Africa. All the incredible things that have happened since he was taken nearly three years ago. He thought I was crazy,” Anderson wrote in his 1993 book “Den of Lions.”
After his release, Anderson taught journalism at Columbia University in New York, Ohio University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Florida until he retired in 2015.
Among businesses he invested in were a horse ranch in Ohio, and a restaurant. He unsuccessfully ran for the Ohio state Senate as a Democrat in 2004 and sued Iran in federal court for his abduction, winning a multimillion-dollar settlement in 2002.


British man investigated for hate crime after viral racist rant against Muslim women

Updated 21 April 2024
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British man investigated for hate crime after viral racist rant against Muslim women

  • ‘I don’t understand why people stand by and let it happen,’ says witness

LONDON: A hate crime investigation is underway following a viral video of an attack against Muslim women in East London, police confirmed on Sunday.

The incident occurred on Saturday in Romford when a white male, wearing glasses, targeted the group, some of whom were wearing hijabs and pushing shopping trolleys.

The footage, shared by Redbridge Community Action Group, shows the man following the women down South Street, a busy shopping area, while shouting and gesturing aggressively as they attempt to leave the scene.

The man is heard using profanities and labeling the women “Muslim traitors.”

In an outburst caught on camera, he accused one of the women of supporting missile attacks against Israel, adding: “We don’t want you here.” He went on to use an expletive.

The Metropolitan Police has confirmed it is treating the confrontation as a hate crime.

Scotland Yard posted on X: “We are aware and urgently investigating this clearly unacceptable incident. We will be speaking to the victim later.”

Vaseem Ahmed, 55, who was participating in a rally supporting a free Palestine, and located near Barclays Bank on the high street, witnessed the incident.

As police arrived, Ahmed noted that the activists dispersed, with the confrontation occurring as the women headed home.

He told The Independent: “I’d say to him (the white male) ‘If you’re going to be brave, do the same thing in front of some Muslim men (and) then see what the outcome is.’

“Don’t target innocent people; it’s the worst kind of bullying. And grow up. Some of the stuff he was saying was really vile.

“He was so angry and so worked up he couldn’t get his words out properly. It wasn’t the most eloquent rant.”

He added: “I know those women from other demonstrations. I was shocked in the way it happened, but then not shocked at the same time. Islamophobic attacks have skyrocketed since Oct. 7.

“A lot of government ministers and even Rishi Sunak refuse to call out Islamophobia when it happens, and people get emboldened.

“We are visibly Muslim, especially women, (and) they become easy targets. That’s the saddest thing.

“I didn’t see anyone intervene. They might have been concerned for their safety, but all you have to do is shout a few times; you don’t have to put yourself in danger. I don’t understand why people stand by and let it happen.”
 


Arab News scoops 4 Merit Winner nods in 59th Society of Publication Designers competition

Updated 20 April 2024
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Arab News scoops 4 Merit Winner nods in 59th Society of Publication Designers competition

  • Awards across print, digital, infographics and illustrations ‘testament to talent and dedication of design and editorial teams’

LONDON: Arab News, the leading English-language daily newspaper in the Middle East, has won four Merit Winner awards at this year’s Society of Publication Designers competition.

Arab News’ “The Kingdom vs. Captagon” Spotlight piece garnered recognition in the two categories — Custom Feature and Single Page.

The two remaining accolades went to the “Onions’ tears and inflation fears” in the Feature Opener category and the “Guide to Hajj” in Infographic, commended for its exceptional data visualization.

“We are extremely proud to have won four awards at this year’s prestigious SPD competition,” Omar Nashashibi, head of design at Arab News, said.

“To win awards across print, digital, infographics and illustrations is testament to the talent and dedication of the Arab News design and editorial teams in creating engaging content for our readers.”

Since 1965, the annual SPD awards have promoted and celebrated excellence in editorial design, photography and illustration across both print and digital mediums. This year, the competition’s jury received thousands of entries from around the globe.