To Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region projects a spectrum of images, both positive and negative. To a tourist, the region offers historic and exciting destinations to visit. To a businessperson, MENA provides a wealth of investment opportunities, large and small, at a strategic geographic center between Europe, Asia, and Africa. But even while the region undeniably holds an immense amount of opportunity, that opportunity comes with a lot of risk. The significant amount of risk in the region can unfortunately obscure and overwhelm anything positive about MENA. The perception of high risk, uncertainty and instability in the Middle East is often the first characteristic that comes to mind to a Western visitor, especially if they’ve never visited or worked in the region before.
After all, an oversimplified vision of the Middle East is common in Western countries. It is easy to rely on stereotypes of a monolithic region that is all Arab, all Muslim and rife with oil-rich economies, terrorism and authoritarian governments.
The slightly more informed observer might note that there are Sunni versus Shia dynamics, or that the residents of the region speaks a lot more languages than Arabic.
Even these extra details though are hardly detailed enough, nor do they offer a fully expansive view of a region that comprises, by most counts, 20 very different countries and countless cultures within.
Simplified perceptions of the complex Middle East region tend to ignore entire countries such as Turkey, Iran and Israel that are not Arab, and tend to ignore the presence of rich and varied cultures comprising minority communities and cultural traditions. That dynamism within the Middle East is what attracts the informed observer, visitor, traveler, and foreign resident to the region again and again.
Some of the perception of uncertainty and risk is the result of how across the region countries are in flux politically and economically. Especially since the Arab Spring, it is clear in the Arab World in particular to observe swiftly changing political dynamics.
Rapid programs of economic reform are reshaping entire economies that grew stagnant and reliant on oil and outdated social contracts. Middle Eastern citizens are demanding more and more accountability from their governments. But again, the flip side to that dynamism is a high risk profile and instability, especially in certain countries in the Middle East.
To navigate that instability requires education, knowledge, and first hand experience in the Middle East. A little bit of research will show that the state of affairs in Morocco’s economy is worlds apart from what’s happening in Tunisia’s.
Iraq’s unique needs as it reforms its electoral laws differ from what its neighbor Iran needs. Turkey and Egypt will consistently encounter peaks and valleys in their relationship as they grapple with different attitudes toward political Islam and the role of the military in government.
As Saudi Arabia introduces significant economic reform programs, it will compete with its neighbors in the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and what’s ideal for the UAE or for Qatar may not be ideal for Saudi Arabia. These are only a handful of some of the countless examples of diversity and variance in the Middle East.
One solution to this negative perception is recognizing the vast variety within MENA. There’s a reason why the Arabic phrase “from the ocean to the gulf’ exists as a descriptor for the Arabic speaking range of countries within the MENA region. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, the Middle East and North Africa truly sits at the crux of unique, strategic and vast geography.
The major negative perception associated with the MENA region is that its instability presents an insurmountable security challenge. As long as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and Al
Qaeda maintain core groups within MENA, it will be hard to dispel some of the legitimate concerns over instability and insecurity.
Political instability within Europe has grown more profound as a result of the spread of terror attacks committed by or inspired by the Islamic State. The United States has never been the same since Al Qaeda successfully attacked in 2001.
Persistent fears over the threat caused by terrorism can preclude successful engagement in the region. It is tempting for a Western observer to relegate the entire region as unstable and plagued by terror.
Fear of terrorism has collided with political instability in the Euro zone, the migration crisis, and uncertainty over how to deal with authoritarian leadership styles in some places (like Turkey) complicates some negotiations. But these security challenges are not insurmountable, but must be managed, fought and dealt with.
Another mistake that, if corrected, would help in adjusting misconceptions of the MENA region is misconstruing Middle Eastern for Islamic or all Middle Easterners are Muslim.
While Islam is the dominant religion throughout the Middle East, there are many Christians, Jews, Buddhists, religious minorities and even atheists in MENA. Misconstruing the Middle East as inherently Islamic is a dangerous misconception that risks blurring the diversity in MENA and the truth about the region and how it operates, which is often of very secular standards.
What can change the perception?
Education about the Middle East from Middle Easterners is the primary tool to dispel stereotypes held by Westerners with negative, oversimplified perceptions of the MENA region. Prudent research and time spent in the region, or with people from the region, is key.
Even without traveling to the region, more and more informed media coverage is changing negative perceptions. The quality of reporting coming out of the Middle East is improving all of the time. Sometimes challenges of access negatively affect the quality of material, but, by and large, the field of reporting in the Middle East is only improving.
Twitter alone is a vibrant community in which to find native perspectives of the swiftly changing dynamics unfolding in MENA. Middle Eastern art and literature are changing this perception. New films from Middle Eastern directors have crowded festivals. The ease of visiting the Middle East, through Middle Eastern airlines that route through Turkey, the UAE and Qatar, have made the region easier than ever to get to. There is, of course, a certain extent to which combating the negativity in Western perceptions of the Middle East will be a difficult task so long as radical terrorism and the war on terror are still raging.
Indeed, there is legitimate unrest in certain portions of the Middle East. The Islamic State is still a viable terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, even though its territory is shrinking. The group will still be able to co-opt and inspire many attacks by recruiting to its hateful message. Violent extremist organizations such as Al Qaeda do exist and thrive in the region. Aside from terrorism, an end to many of the proxy conflicts that continue to rage in the Middle East would end negative perceptions.
But even though war on earth isn’t ending anytime soon, to focus only on that in MENA, to only consider those corners of Yemen, Syria and Libya that are mired in violent conflict, is to do the rest of the region a serious disservice. The majority of the region is safe and deserving of attention, business, travel and investment. But perceptions will only change with real tangible contact, visiting and real understanding derived from education.
Countries and cultures can sometimes be selfish and want what’s best for their own before they fight for what’s best for others and for the global community. It’s easy for Western governments to view Middle Eastern governments as places to fight terrorism and buy oil, which satisfies their own security and economic needs. It’s much harder to take the entire region comprehensively for what it’s truly worth. MENA, by nature of its geography, has always been diverse, has always been strategic, has always been a crucial place in which to invest and understand. The future only holds more of that reality, not less. As such, managing risk is imperative. The first step to managing risk is to equip oneself with an understanding of the historical context, the depth of current events and the direction in which trends are moving in the future.