As part of its ongoing commitment to intercultural outreach, the Salam Project for Cultural Communication Team invited the Executive Director of the Berlin-based German Orient Institute, Dr. Gunther Mulack, to deliver a lecture entitled, “The Image of the Arab World in the Western Media”. Dr. Mulack was previously an Ambassador to several countries in the Middle East and Muslim world, and in May 2002, he was appointed as the first German Commissioner for Dialogue with the Muslim world and served until 2005.
The lecture took place at the KACND Dialogue Centre in Riyadh and was chaired by KACND Deputy Secretary General, Dr. Fahad Al-Sultan, who warmly welcomed Dr. Mulack, emphasizing his tremendous experience in the Middle East and the field of dialogue, as well as stressing on the ever-increasing necessity for honest dialogue and sharing of cross-cultural perspectives in order to break down the many barriers that are fuelling misunderstanding between East and West.
The lecture was attended by representatives of the German Embassy in Riyadh, as well a dynamic audience of Saudi journalists, intellectuals, academic and professionals, all sharing a keen interest in intercultural and inter-faith dialogue.
Dr. Mulack offered frank and constructive insights that stimulated a very open and productive discussion. Many of the guests attending have had years of experience in the field of intercultural exchange and their contributions provided very relevant anecdotal accounts of their encounters in dealing with often very negative and stereotypical views and narratives about Saudi Arabia, Saudis, the Arab and Islamic world. Of particular interest and added value were the contributions by the Saudi and Arab ladies attending, hailing from academic, diplomatic, business and media backgrounds. Dr. Mulack stressed the crucial importance of including women in all spheres of public, commercial and academic life in Saudi Arabia and stressed that many in the West, due to adverse media coverage, are often unaware of the many high-achieving and inspirational women that are today, actively contributing to Saudi and Arab society.
Dr. Mulack stated that the Western media operates on the principle that “bad news, is good news”. Consequently, the news that most readers in the West see the Middle East are only the negative stories that focus on extremism and acts of terror carried out by a minority that does not represent the majority. Unfortunately, many people in Europe are largely ignorant of the life, culture, and traditions of the Middle East. In particular, many in the West, fail to understand and respect the fundamental role that religion plays in daily life in the Middle East, often being unable to comprehend Arab/Muslim sensitivities, particularly when religion is attacked.
Dr. Mulack, along with some of the audience members suggested that there is often a deliberate campaign by certain elements of the media to only focus and highlight the negative. He stressed that greater intercultural communication was needed by both sides and that we should focus on a great many positives that do and can unite. When it comes to the image of Saudi Arabia, the onus is on Saudi Arabia to do more to promote a more positive and open image of itself; Saudis are warm and welcoming people, but the majority of people in the West do now know this. Ultimately, only the Saudis themselves can make the real effective change needed to enhance their image. He gave the example of the fact that the UAE and Oman have a very positive image abroad, particularly with Germans, who visit the two Gulf nations regularly.
He also addressed the alienation that many Arab youth living and growing up in Europe feel, in particular, those that are unemployed, lacking opportunities and education. These young people are often easy targets for extremist groups such as ISIS, who manipulate the sentiments of disaffected youth He stated that “Jihadists can take someone from zero to hero”. He stressed that countering the extremist narrative of violence, hate, and division, was essential, particularly at a time when social media has been cleverly manipulated by extremists to radicalize youth.
Despite the real issues that exist, there are tremendous positives. Dr. Mulack stressed that Saudi youth are some of the savviest in the world when it comes to technology and use of social media. Of vital importance to the success of Vision 2030, is engaging and understanding the youth of Saudi Arabia, through dialogue, thereby empowering them to play a vital role and contribution to the development of Saudi society.
He lauded the KACND dialogue Center for its core role in fostering dialogue at the national level. KACND’s mission is vital to assisting Saudi youth in giving added value to their society and projecting a positive image of the real Saudi Arabia that so far, many in the West do not see.
The lecture ended with a very stimulating question and answer session, offering invaluable insights from all who attended, with the hope that more such lectures will be hosted by KACND. It also transpired that Dr. Mulack spoke excellent Arabic, which delighted all who were there!