[Editor�s note: This article is an excerpt from a policy paper entitled "New Media New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World" published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998. If you would like to order a copy of the publication, see http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/pubs/pp.htm]
Rise of Regional Debate and Regional Identity
The rise of regional information organs has reinvigorated a sense of common destiny among many in the Arab world. To a great extent, regional print media and television broadcasts have combined to create a regional media market—known to marketers as the "pan-Arab market"—which is becoming increasingly influential.
The regional media market is notable for several reasons. First, it is, in fact, a market. Relying on supply and demand, programming does not simply meet the needs of government broadcasters, but rather actively seeks viewers who enjoy a variety of news and entertainment options. The consequence is an enormous empowerment of the viewership and a dramatic improvement in viewer satisfaction with programming.
Second, regional markets are, indeed, regional. To a great degree, identical programming can be seen throughout the Arab Middle East. Although market-driven programmers direct their broadcasts primarily to groups with high value to advertisers—in the Arab world, generally wealthy Gulf Arabs—the programming itself reaches and influences many throughout the region who may not fit the targeted socioeconomic profile of each station.
Finally, regional broadcasting has created regional news organizations—both in terms of news coverage and delivery—that far surpass what had previously existed. Many of these news organizations are headquartered outside the region, giving them a degree of independence unprecedented in many countries. The consequence is the emergence of a press corps that both remains independent of the agendas of an individual country and seeks an audience that transcends national borders.
The potential results of the regional media market described above are not hard to imagine. In his insightful book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson makes a persuasive case that two factors controlled the development of national consciousness in state after state in Reformation Europe: commerce and linguistic unity. As printers sought to expand their markets beyond small numbers of Latin-literate elites, they increased their printing in vernacular languages (Luther's Theses drove much of the vernacular printing in Germany for decades). In so doing, they created communities of essentially monolingual people who spoke and wrote in similar languages, but whose communications were largely unintelligible to those from outside the region.(1) These communities drew together to form modern nation-states like France, Germany, and Italy.
The advent of print in the Middle East occurred after colonial powers had begun to lay down borders. Napoleon brought movable Arabic type to the region as part of his colonial project in Egypt at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and mass printing remained mainly the province of central governments—ones constructed along the lines of Western states—for most of the next hundred years. As a consequence, Arabic printing tended to reinforce barriers between Arabic speakers rather than to suppress them. Over the years, strong state institutions arose that tended to reinforce the separation between the nascent states of the region. One of those institutions was the state censor, which helped to promote the development of a national identity in much the same way that linguistic unity in Europe led to the perception of national identity.
Transnational media, however, alter this equation fundamentally. What is most apparent about the new technologies is that they facilitate the transmission of information independent of distance. Whereas national differences could be maintained in the twentieth century because geography and governmental efforts combined to create distinct markets for information, new technologies make it cheaper, faster, and easier for information to transcend those obstacles to create something much more closely resembling a single market. In that market, the imperative is to create products that enlarge and unite the market rather than those that fracture it. The consequence has been a generally heightened interest in international affairs, which often takes the complexion of "Arab-world- versus-the-rest" rather than investigating conflict between Arab states.(2) In addition, a regional dialogue among intellectuals has begun to emerge, especially on stations like al-Jazeera and in the pages of al-Hayat. To an important degree, this dialogue has expanded the bounds of debate in the Arab world, as it represents the injection of both new views and the back-and-forth of discussion into areas where such things had been relatively rare. This dialogue has also had the effect, however, of solidifying an "Arab consensus," which can become its own form of restraint. That is to say, as discussion is taken more seriously, serious dissent from widely held opinions becomes more precarious. Whereas many regimes protected the roles of "loyal oppositionists" in the past, the regional Arab marketplace may not be so kind to them in the future.
An additional and unexpected consequence of the new transnational media is the extent to which they introduce Arabic speakers to forms of Arabic speech to which they had not previously been exposed. Like many classical languages, a relatively wide gulf exists between formal, written Arabic and its vernacular, spoken form. Whereas formal Arabic is fairly uniform from place to place, spoken Arabic varies greatly, even within a single country. Some dialects are widely understood across the Arab world. More than half a century of Egyptian movies, radio broadcasts, and television serials (combined with a steady flow of Egyptian schoolteachers throughout the region) has ensured that Egyptian colloquial Arabic is the most widely understood in the Arab world. Other dialects, like Moroccan, are difficult even for native Arabic speakers from other countries to decipher. Satellite television has served as an important medium for introducing Arabs to unfamiliar dialects and breaking down some of the verbal barriers that divide the region. This process is still in a very early stage and homogenization of the language is still a long way off, but it is an important example of ways in which ties between Arabs have been strengthened by the new technology and barriers have been broken down.
The question (unanswered as of yet) is whether the growing sense of regional integration will be generally a force for dissension or one for accord. On the one hand, the new media are acting in many ways to integrate the Arab world with the West--not only by bringing the Western style of press inquiry to the region, with its concomitant effects on politics, but also in extending the reach of Western consumer culture and the icons of Western culture more broadly. One might reasonably expect that the diminution of differences between Arab and Western culture would promote mutual understanding, or at least expand the common ground on which Arabs and Westerners can interact. One could also envision, however, a situation in which the establishment of a "pan-Arab" culture unites Arabs at the expense of Arab-Western relations, strengthening already extant sentiments that the Arabs have suffered at Western hands, and increasing tensions between the two. Under a "Clash of Civilizations" scenario (3), Western technology and political structures would coalesce around anti-Western themes, at the same time embracing the Western media but rejecting the Western message.
The "regionalization" of news has had an especially important influence on Arab public opinion toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the one hand, Arab television has blasted away the isolation experienced by Israeli politicians and policymakers. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared on an Orbit call-in show in 1996, for example, and a growing number of historical documentaries appearing on Arab television include interviews with relevant Israeli figures. No longer content to provide a one-sided perspective on either history or the recent past, Arab producers are finding that including Israeli views increases a show's credibility and viewer interest. Israel is no longer ignored or denied in the Arab media, but increasingly is presented as an important regional actor.
At the same time, transnational Arab media (particularly the satellite television stations) are projecting negative images of Israel to the region. Using a network of television reporters in Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, Arab stations regularly include in their evening broadcasts reports on Israeli settlement construction, home demolition, and open conflict with Palestinian Arabs. At the same time, the Arab media (print, television, and internet) closely monitor the statements of the Israeli government and often evince a rather sophisticated understanding of Israeli internal politics and Israeli governmental policy. Although there is no systematic evidence that the new media have contributed to a hardening of positions against Israel in the last few years, in conversations with a wide variety of Arab viewers the conclusion seems clear: the Arab media do appear to have an influence on public opinion, and when there is little good news to report on the Arab-Israeli front, that influence is anti-Israeli.
An interesting (but currently unanswerable) question is whether the Arab media could be helpful in ameliorating Arab-Israeli tensions if the climate were improving. On the one hand, the rise of communal feeling, which the regional media could be expected to promote, would advance Arab interests at the expense of non-Arab neighbors. On the other hand, confidence-building gestures could be communicated directly to the Arab public unmediated by Arab governments. On balance, it does not appear that there is anything inherent in the media to promote either rapprochement or conflict, either with Israel or with the West.
Rise of a Chaotic Information Regime
It has become a truism of Western writing about the Arab world to talk about the fatalism, lack of independent thinking, and subjection to authority that prevail in the region. Whether the supposed "failure" of Arab societies is attributed to characteristics of Islam, "hydraulic societies," or "Asiatic modes of production," there is a tendency for Europeans and Americans to see intellectual life in the Arab world as a dismal affair, at least for the last half-millenium.
Although this image is simplistic and exaggerated, there is a kernel of truth to it. Whereas Western societies have for centuries delegated a large degree of moral autonomy to the individual, such a phenomenon has not become widespread in the Arab world. That is to say, although it is normal (if inquisitive) to say to someone in the West, "What do you believe about God?" the normal question in the Arab world would be "What is your religion?" on the assumption that someone would adhere to orthodox religious beliefs even if one's observance diverged from orthodox practice.(4) There have certainly been innovative and free-thinking Arabs, as well as Westerners who submit blindly to authority, but it is probably accurate to say that individual reasoning (even in the absence of much knowledge) is a more highly prized characteristic in Europe and America than in the Arab world.
Changes underway suggest that this difference is likely to decrease over time. On the one hand, sharp advances in education and literacy are empowering individuals in a new way. As one scholar has suggested, what is new "is the unprecedented access that ordinary people now have to sources of information and knowledge about religion and other aspects of their society. Quite simply, in country after country, government officials, traditional religious scholars, and officially sanctioned preachers are finding it very hard to monopolize the tools of literate culture."(5)
As the foregoing passage suggests, literacy's increased empowerment of the individual extends beyond the religious realm to affect social and political thinking as well. Current censorship battles, whether they involve the literary analysis of religious texts by the Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, or the call for a widespread reinterpretation of Islamic law by the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur, are more a sign of boundaries being tested than they are of a new repression in the region.
Increased literacy is not the only engine in this process. In many ways, international travel on the elite level has played just as important a role. It is no accident that much of the new and independent thinking in the regional news media has been led by Arabs who have studied and lived overseas and who, in some cases, still do so. As will be discussed below, technological advances reintegrate individuals (and their thoughts and words) from the Arab diaspora into the Arab world. Undeniably, in country after country, the domestic media have absorbed more and more of the "internationalist" mode—they have become more challenging and more exciting, and, in all but a few countries, they have abandoned the practice of simply parroting a government "line" handed down from above. A close observer of Persian Gulf politics wrote in 1997:
"It seems to me that it is now much easier for more people in the Gulf to be exposed to views and interpretations of politics that are counter to those of their governments. These governments have never had a monopoly on "truth" for their societies, but now their challengers have broader audiences to which to appeal in writing, and more ways to get the written word into their hands and homes. Tolerance might not result, but this certainly "pluralizes" the market of ideas."(6)
As a consequence of this emerging marketplace of ideas, the currency of an idea increasingly depends not so much on its sponsor as it does on the public's receptivity to it. Whereas public acclaim is not always a good indicator of an idea's worth, the emergence of a marketplace of ideas does serve to undermine unworthy ideas before they become longstanding policy.(7)
In addition, the rapid expansion of information available to Arabs will put an increased premium on their ability to sort through that information and separate the important and meaningful from the scurrilous or irrelevant. As two veteran political scientists explained in a recent journal article, "A plentitude of information leads to a poverty of attention.... The low cost of transmitting data means that the ability to transmit it is much less important than it used to be, but the ability to filter information is more so. Political struggles focus less on control over the ability to transmit information than over the creation and destruction of credibility."(8) Credibility is the product of an active evaluative process by recipients of information. The ability to assess the credibility of information depends partly on experience and partly on trust, and it is a skill that can be learned and improved. In an Arab world awash in information of all kinds, individuals are called on to evaluate data countless times in a single day. Not all credibility assessments focus on political information; in the intermediate term, the bulk of them will probably involve commerce, as consumers evaluate the various brand-name products seeking to establish themselves in the Arab market.(9) The likely effect on politics is clear, however. With the rapid growth in the amount of information that reaches them, Arabs will have to evaluate political data and reports with a more critical eye than they have done to date, and governments will have to put forward information in a competitive marketplace of ideas in which those ideas will increasingly stand or fall based on their acceptability to the public rather than on governments' ability to compel their acceptance.
Public Opinion and Arab Identity
The increased debate about public policy issues has resulted in many governments' increased need to be attentive to public opinion. Decreasingly satisfied with accepting government "lines," Arabs have increasingly engaged in domestic discussions throughout the region that have served to shape government opinion instead of merely being shaped by it. For example, in private discussions with U.S. government officials in late 1997 and early 1998, regional leaders frequently cited public opinion concerns to explain their reluctance publicly to support the use of force against Iraq, regardless of their distaste for Saddam Husayn. Public opinion is also cited by some Arab leaders as a powerful force in their calling for the normalization of relations between all Arab countries, which would involve rehabilitating Iraq, Libya, and even Sudan from their current positions as rogue states subject to international sanctions. Widescale efforts to aid the "suffering of the Iraqi people" have been increasingly visible in the Arab world, although in all cases the suffering has been described as a consequence of international sanctions, not the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Husayn.(10) The issue is not so much that these "rogue" regimes are honorable but that they are Arab. Many Arabs perceive that these countries have been singled out for opprobrium because of their Arabness, and for that reason all Arabs should rally around their cause. Another issue that has become ascendant in recent years is the idea of preserving an Arab Jerusalem. Arab television stations have telethons for their causes, and foundations establish sites on the World Wide Web.
Interestingly, Islam has also emerged in some elements of the media as a unifying force for the region. It is impossible to say whether this is driven primarily by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Muslims, or by the dominance of Saudi financing in the transnational Arab media. Nevertheless, it is important to note that, whereas states and elites led the charge for pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s, transnational Islamic movements and their mass followings are much more important actors today, and their efforts are being significantly abetted by the new media.
A final impetus for the "new Arabism" is that as Arabs interact with non-Arabs, they become increasingly aware of their "Arabness." Although none of this obviates their loyalties and identifications with their individual states, Arabs' increasing interaction with non-Arab cultures, and their treatment by those cultures as Arabs rather than as holders of specific nationalities, moves Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, and Saudi Arabians to have a heightened Arab identity vis-a-vis the outside world.
Reintegration of Arab Diasporas
One of the most fascinating results of the new transnational media is the extent to which they have allowed the reintegration of Arab emigrants into Arab life and society. No longer cut off from their homelands, many Arabs living in the West read Arab newspapers (either in print or on the internet), watch Arab television (MBC, ART, and LBC are available in the United States by satellite and in some areas by cable), and actively seek out Arab sites on the internet. Even Iraq's United Nations ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon, breaks out of his isolation in New York by heavily using the internet. He told the Washington Post, "I do the internet, I keep up with the latest news, I browse through the CNN page and the web sites of newspapers I cannot get here. There are lots of Iraqi community chat rooms. I don't give my name. Regardless of their political, social or economic background, they [the people in the online chat rooms] all feel that what is happening to the Iraqi people is unfair."(11)
The image is a startling one, but the fact is that there is an online community of Arabs based simultaneously in London, New York, and many cities of the region. As the amount of information about the Arab world available outside the Arab world blossoms, location becomes less and less relevant for one to play an active role in modern Arab society.
Something as mundane as decreasing prices for international telephone calls play a role as well. For many years, countries have raised the price of or taxed international phone service to subsidize domestic operations. Under World Trade Organization rules, however, international phone tariffs are expected to drop precipitously in the coming years. As they plummet, so too will the costs of faxes and other transmissions of information over phone lines (including the use of international phone lines for internet access). Because of relative ease of use and a large installed base, in the intermediate term the telephone may prove more important than the internet as a conduit for new ideas to enter the Arab world and for reports of conditions within the Arab world to reach Arab communities outside.
The enlargement of the Arab community to bring Arabs back into contact with their own societies (and doing so increasingly through interactive media, given the growing prevalence of the internet in the United States) has had the remarkable effect of reinserting expatriate Arab intellectuals into the Arab world. A host of Western-based Arab academics—many of whom left the Middle East to undertake doctoral research and then found employment in the West studying the Arab world—are becoming fixtures in the new Arab media.(12) Western-based Arab newspaper correspondents and columnists also "write back" into the Arab world, and they are clearly affected by their surroundings. The internationalization of media coverage has, to a great degree, become like a huge exchange program, in some ways making the West more aware of Arab concerns, but in many ways making the Arab world more aware of the political and social mores of the West. There is a remarkable cross-fertilization of ideas taking place between Arab intellectuals in the West and their colleagues remaining in the Arab world, enabled and driven by the new media.
Even within overseas Arab communities, the internet is causing fascinating changes. As anthropologist Jon Anderson points out, online "communities"—chat rooms, bulletin boards, usenet groups, and so forth—are not typical of the societies from which their members have emerged. The online Arab community is disproportionately composed of scientists, engineers, and students; theologians, politicians, and military officials are underrepresented. The result, Anderson reports, is that individuals who at home would yield to the opinions of specialists find themselves venturing into religious and political topics. In so doing they bring the insights and tools of their professional training to the discussion, resulting in a new "creole" discourse that combines elements of discourse from their own places of origin with Western scientific training and scholarly inquiry.(13) Arabs still in the Arab world can monitor and participate in most if not all of these discussions, although in doing so they are potentially subject to the same sorts of monitoring that characterize all of their internet use.
In all of this cross-fertilization, there are two groups involved. The first are bilingual Arabs, resident either in the West or in the Arab world. They have a choice of language in which to communicate, and often they will communicate some kinds of messages in Arabic and others in Western languages, especially English. The second groups, however, consists of a larger group of Arabs who are not bilingual. For this group, the media are considerably more important and more broadening. The transnational Arab media become not only their link to other Arabs, but also a fundamental link to the rest of the world. Although some dismiss the new ideas as "corrupting," for large portions of the Arab public this link to the rest of the world is both fascinating and desirable.
There remain large segments of the population, however, for which the changes outlined above are irrelevant to their lives. The regional Arab media remain something of a rich man's game, and penetrations beyond the elite level is slight except in wealthy Gulf states. The effects of the "cross-fertilization" of ideas and reintegration of diasporas will be uneven in the short and intermediate term, although the strong desire for transnational media among the elites in country after country suggest that the media will have a strong effect, even if that effect is from the top down.
The Growing Importance of Market Forces
To date, market forces have played a relatively minor role in Arab countries. State sectors have generally been strong (either as a legacy of Arab socialism or as a consequence of state control over petroleum revenues), and private sectors have been somewhat weak. States have either owned media outlets outright or orchestrated the existence or demise of these outlets. Advertising revenues—the mother's milk of media production the world over—has been paltry. As former al-Hayat editor Jihad al-Khazen bemoaned, total advertising spending in the Arab world in 1994 was $900 million, while Israel itself had an advertising expenditure of $800 million.(14)
Yet, the trend has begun to shift. The regional Arabic-language print and satellite-broadcast media described above have seen a marked increase in advertising spending in recent years. In 1997 alone, for example, advertising spending on pan-Arab (i.e., satellite) television grew by 96 percent over the previous year, to $202 million.(15) Between 1995 and 1997, advertising spending in pan-Arab magazines increased by 36 percent, and in newspapers by 14 percent.(16) The total Arab advertising market has enlarged as well, growing from $1.13 billion in 1995 to $1.54 billion in 1997.
The products advertised are familiar to most Americans. The top ten brands advertised in the regional Arab media and in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are Toyota, Nissan, Marlboro, BMW, Pampers, Pantene, Hyundai, Ford, and Chevrolet.(17) Pampers is the most-advertised brand on television in this market, followed by Pantene. Toyota leads in newspaper spending, and Marlboro in magazines. By type of product, the most advertised products on pan-Arab television were adult personal hygiene and health products, followed by shampoos and other hair products, and candy and snacks.(18) The foregoing suggests that what is emerging is not merely a Western-style advertising market, but Western-style brand-name development, Western-style consumption patterns, and personal lifestyles that are more Western, at least in their outward manifestations.
This trend toward Westernization is neither a completed process nor a foregone conclusion; in addition, it is hard to foresee how more Western consumption patterns (disposable or consumable branded goods) might affect other aspects of Arab life. It has become a trope of Western media reports about Saudi Arabia and Iran to note that veiled women in those countries are sometimes impeccably dressed under their black cloaks, but whether such patterns of dressing (and consumption) reflect a stable situation or one on the verge of change remains unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the shape of Arab media in the future very much depends on the shape of the Arab media market, and that market is dependent on a continued shift toward higher per capita incomes and increasingly Western patterns of consumption. If the media market grows, media outlets will continue to experiment with content to draw more viewers. Arab viewers will likely see more sex and scandal, and political coverage will likely grow more daring, at least in the near and intermediate term (but they will undoubtedly continue to shy away from offending Saudi political sensibilities). Although in the future not all television may resemble LBC or al-Jazeera, the two stations have proved that Arabs thirst for new kinds of programming; meanwhile, the continued high viewership of MBC suggests that even playing things relatively straight can create a powerful media force in the region.
The important thing to keep in mind is that if the media in the Middle East become more market-oriented, they will provide more of what people want to see and read. This will not necessarily be highbrow material, but if the Western experience is any guide, the Arab media will find that pushing boundaries often proves a more successful strategy than staying far away from them.(19) In such a scenario, a more market-oriented Arab media could be expected to be more daring on sex and politics than what has been the case, although one would expect that they would retain some respect for regional mores, at least in the immediate term. If the broadcasts and printed press are too "out there," they merely come across as imports, and that can affect their broad acceptance.
That marketing expenses will rise enough to make broadcasting profitable (or at least to keep losses to an acceptable level) is by no means certain. Persistently low prices for petroleum products will depress the economies not only of the Gulf states, but also of the countries that export labor to those states. Lack of a marketing infrastructure discourages advertising as well. The difficulty this author had in determining even broad ranges of viewerships for leading television programs—and the corresponding difficulty marketers must have in determining who is seeing their advertising and buying their products—is a barrier to increasing advertising expenditures enough to sustain a broad mix of television programming.
In the event that free-to-air stations never become commercially viable, the satellite television market will likely become bifurcated. The first resulting segment would be state-sponsored satellite television. While Qatari-backed al-Jazeera has challenged the status quo, with time and the intervention of governmental interests it seems more likely that the future face of government-sponsored television will be more staid. There will be a strong impetus for states to essentially sign nonaggression pacts regarding their state-run media, and the media will again emerge as the foreign policy tool that they were when Gamal Abdel Nasser first harnessed them in the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas many satellite stations are now based out of Europe, their migration back to the region and increasing government control over their operations will tend to dampen their aggressive news coverage.
The other part of the market likely to survive would comprise the fee-for-service stations like ART and Orbit, driven by high per-user fees and a superior ability to monitor the viewing habits of their wealthy customers. How many such networks the market can sustain and at what level of fees is unclear, but they appear to have identified a way to remain afloat without subsidies from outside parties. For the foreseeable future, these stations seem destined to have their sights fixed mostly on the Saudi market, where incomes are highest (and individuals are most able to pay the requisite fees) and entertainment alternatives the lowest. Whether viewers of such stations will, under the influence of Western-oriented programming, become so unlike their countrymen in dress and speech as to pose a social or political problem for their societies is unclear. Clearly, factors other than television are influencing Arab behavior; still, the January 1997 arrest of seventy-six young adults in Egypt—many of them students at the American University in Cairo—for "satanic practices" influenced by their watching American music videos on satellite television must be a cautionary tale. In many poorer societies in the Arab world, satellite television is contributing to a phenomenon in which some segments of society are educated and oriented in an entirely different way than the mass of their compatriots.(20)
Migration of Production Back to the Region
As an additional result of the increasing market orientation of the Arab media is their likely migration back to the region for at least some of their production. Producing material in high-cost cities like London, New York, and Washington cannot compete economically with the production costs in Amman, Cairo, or possibly Beirut. Of course, many of the regional Arab media have been shaped by their growth outside the Arab world and are more liberal in their approach to social and political affairs than was common heretofore in Arab countries; extraregional production allows them a somewhat greater degree of freedom of expression. Yet, the time will come, sooner rather than later, when economies will induce these organizations to return to the region. Their move will be eased by the generally more open media environment prevailing in the Arab world, especially in the cities mentioned above. Saudi-run organizations will have the most difficult choice to make, however, because the kingdom is among the least open societies in the region, and the efficiencies of doing business there are among the least compelling. Observers may therefore see Saudi-owned companies setting up shop in other Arab countries. ART has already done so with its move to Cairo; al-Hayat maintains a large operation in Cairo and may move the production of some of its pages to Beirut.
The still-nascent Arabic-language internet market lends itself to the offshore basing of operations. Flourishing Jordanian- and Egyptian-based internet consultancies are a sign of how cost-effective it is to design products in one country and sell them in a second, more expensive country. The paying country need not even have an internet link of its own. The government of Iraq maintains web pages in Jordan, and Saudi companies can easily base their web page operations anywhere they wish (even the United States). All of the new media make the location of production secondary to the content of the product itself, and talented editors, writers, announcers, and programmers can work virtually anywhere.