Over the past few decades, the Gulf states have become increasingly global in outlook, whether through investment in European and American sports teams, major partnerships with Western corporates, or their renewed commitment to global issues like combatting climate change. This approach has dovetailed with an increasing support and interest in media, both domestic and international, which is already having a significant impact in the Gulf and the wider region.
Nowhere is this global outlook more clear than in the hosting of global events, such as the UAE’s Expo 2020, which has been on display for the past six months. The World Expo highlights a clear desire to show allies how the Gulf’s interests align with the wider world, emphasizing an eagerness for integration and cooperation with international partners. No doubt that same vision will be on show in November 2023, when the UAE hosts COP28, which will place the Gulf at the centre of climate talks as they reach a crunch point.
Both of these events are globally significant, but also crucially generate significant interest in the Gulf, in this case situating the UAE within the international news agenda. Indeed, a further indicator of the Gulf States increasingly global outlook is their increasing reliance on the media – both domestic and international – to communicate.
The Gulf states’ efforts to draw media attention to them, is matched by their efforts to establish themselves as a media hub for the wider Middle East region. There has been significant investment and innovation in the sector in recent years, both in terms of drawing foreign media to the Gulf and developing existing Gulf media internationally.
Interest in the region as a base for media activity has grown in the past two decades. Dubai’s Media City, established in 2000, has drawn many of the world’s major news organisations, but continues to see recent additions, like CNN’s digital broadcast studio, contribute to their efforts to create a regional media hub.
Just as significant as securing foreign outlets has been the transformation and creation of Gulf outlets. In recent years longstanding media organisations in the region have adapted to become more globally facing, like the Emirates News Agency which recently repositioned itself as an international wire service. There has also been the investment in new media organizations designed to reach new audiences. Just last year it was announced that Saudi Arabia would be funding a new media organization in Washington DC in order to specifically reach the US.
All this support for traditional media has not seen social media neglected. Throughout the pandemic the Gulf states used a huge range of social channels to communicate coronavirus messaging, reflecting the enormous popularity of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram across the Middle East. Just last year, two Abu Dhabi-based firms invested $150m in the social media platform Telegram as part of an effort to boost its adoption across the region, so support for social media will inevitably grow.
While there has been change from the top down, there have also been organic efforts in the media across the Middle East and North Africa to change the tired global perceptions of the region. During the pandemic, Egyptian journalist Dina Aboughazala founded the media organization Egab, which produces ‘constructive journalism’ that both reports on issues and features a potential solution. While distinct from Gulf states’ charm offensives, efforts like Egab reflect a region wide effort to change Western perceptions of the Middle East, which have too often centered solely around conflict and disaster, and ignored the culture and achievements taking place.
It remains to be seen how successful the Gulf will be at transforming international perceptions, but by investing in media it is clear they will have access to a powerful tool. With the development of the Gulf as an international media hub, and the global ambitions of domestic Gulf media, it may well soon be the case that the days of the Middle East being distorted in the foreign press are coming to an end.
*Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, and an advisory board member of Harvard International Review. He can be reached at [email protected]