Home > Syria in the media > In the post-ideological age, Arab regimes go for image makeover

In the post-ideological age, Arab regimes go for image makeover

Running an Arab dictatorship is not as easy as it used to be. There was a time when all you needed was to parrot something about Islamist extremism/oil contracts/immigration/peace with Israel, and Western leaders were happy to do business with you. The growing influence of the media however, has meant that dictators have to try that little bit harder.

The Guardian has uncovered the role played by global lobbying firm The Monitor Group in improving the image of the Gaddafi regime in the US. The campaign, believed to be worth $3m, focused on paying for top academic figures from leading American universities to travel to Tripoli for personal conversations with the Libyan dictator.

The revelation reflects a growing desire by Arab regimes to improve the way that they are perceived in the West. This didn’t matter very much in the past when realpolitik considerations reigned supreme. However, the end of Soviet patronage, the decline of Arab nationalist ideology in favour of democracy and human rights, and the need to attract foreign investment to keep the armies of young people in employment, has meant that regimes in the region have had to embrace the PR industry.

Happy families: The Assads are obsessed with image

Improving a regime’s image abroad is as much about maintaining control at home. A state visit to a European capital, a well-placed article in a respected newspaper, or a well-timed photo-op creates the impression that the cherished leader is “backed by the West.” This disheartens the opposition, which assumes that the dictator and the West are in cahoots. The focus, as always, is on renewing sources of legitimacy, thereby consolidating the regime’s power over it’s people.

Cue Asma Al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria. She has appeared in Vogue this month to, and I quote the magazine, “put a modern face on her husband’s regime.” So we’ve established that it’s a marketing exercise. But it goes well beyond that. The messages that were being conveyed through the piece have been carefully constructed and tweaked to appeal to a Western audience. They seek to suggest that:

1- Assad’s Syria is a haven of security and stability in an unstable region.

2- Assad’s Syria is a “stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides.”

3- Assad’s Syria is a reforming and modernizing Arab state, with civil society being encouraged by the first lady herself.

Using these three basic messages, regime publicists have been at it for years, using any opportunity to get positive headlines.

The dictator’s wife may well be an attractive and intelligent woman, but all that is beside the point. It’s not really about her as a person, it’s about Asma the product. The PR men have turned her into a poster child for a Syria that does not exist, and whose sole purpose is to charm the Western media for the benefit of her husband’s regime.

The Vogue piece therefore is not a one-off. It’s part of a well-organized and well-financed image makeover executed by lobbyists and image consultants, and not much different to what The Monitor Group has been doing for the Gaddafis.

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Categories: Syria in the media
  1. pov
    March 7, 2011 at 3:01 am

    This piece is as propagandistic as the PR campaigns it mentions. It explains nothing about the perceived situation in Syria nor gives any substance to the claims made about the “regime” there.

  2. Fayez Yusef Hajjar
    March 7, 2011 at 6:22 am

    Not a very useful piece, though clearly the writer is passionately revolted by the Syrian regime and is willing to grasp at any connection that might equate Syria with the absurdities and brutalities of Gaddafi.

    There does seem to be a struggle going on within Syria to modernise its economy, but unfortunately this has meant that a neo-liberal model has been pushed through (similar to Russia’s mafia capitalism). The existing elites tend to corner the majority of new opportunities – but this is VERY different from Libya where the people have been left destitute. There has been real and sustained growth in Syria for most of the last half decade and it has affected normal people positively, even if not enough… hence the relative clam in Syria compared to the popular explosions of revulsion against the American-backed regimes and the Western supported dictatorships.

    Culturally and in terms of liberties, the ‘new’ politics of Bashar al Assad and Asma al Assad are clearly also at loggerheads with the entrenched old guard and the sense of discord and in-fighting amongst the elite is palpable. If Bashar al Assad wants Syria to become more like Turkey, its undeniable that he is the figurehead of an oligarchy that wants to remain stuck in the grim 20th century.

    The “Turkish” model is in fact a very interesting one now for the regimes of the Middle East – it seems that allwoing the destitution of their peoples will now no longer be so possible for the different Western-supported governments of the area. The alternative that many Western consultants are now investigating on behalf of the oil companies and different American and European governemnts, seems now to be to cajole and help their allies to enforce laws and limit corruption and so to allow real economic life, while at the same time having draconian control over the army and security apparatus to preserve ‘stability’ for Western interests (especially in managing oil production and strategic elements of foreign policy vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians for example).

    It will be interesting to see how far this can be pushed; for example, the humanitarian disaster caused by the ongoing Egyptian embargo against Gaza, of dubious international legality, nonetheless shows that the Egyptian army is willing to maintain Israeli interests to some extent even now.

  3. March 7, 2011 at 8:45 am

    and guess who runs the monitor group… chris argyris, a marcuse-styled marxist.

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