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.
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.