Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Zogby Says Saudis Need Better PR Strategy in US

— The Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia (Royal family)needs to hone the communication skills of “smart Saudi women” to put across its message effectively to the American audience, said a prominent Arabist intellectual from the US during a press conference here yesterday.

“The country is wasting its resources in trying to reach out to the Americans through their media. Such a strategy has turned out to be counter-productive,” James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI), told mediapersons at the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce & Industry (CSCCI).

Pointing out that Saudi Arabia should review its communication strategy, Zogby said talented Saudi women from the mass media could be mobilized to explain the Saudi point of view to the target audience, such as the American youth, the elite, opinionmakers and other influential people in the US.

Zogby also disclosed that current thinking in the US administration was in favor of relaxing visa restrictions for students and businessmen wishing to visit the US. “They do realize that they were overreacting to events in the aftermath of Sept. 11. New procedures would be put in place by the State Department. As a result, the restrictions would be eased somewhat,” he said.

He said it was a smart move on the part of the Saudi government to try to send more students to the US. This would increase pressure on the State Department to rationalize the visa procedure for both students and the business community.

At the press conference, Zogby distributed a copy of the presentation that the AAI made to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who will be visiting Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries to urge them not to give aid to Hamas and also help in the reconstruction of Iraq.

“USAID (Agency for International Development, the main organ for foreign aid from US public funds) programs strengthen Palestinian civil society, empowering moderates to affect change in their government,” states the letter. “Withdrawal of US financial support as punishment for the results of a democratic election it actively supported could cause a breakdown in civil society. This vacuum could lead to civil war or increased interference from regional players.”

Asked about the US double standard in dealing with the Arab states vis-a-vis Israel, Zogby said: “Double standard in the US is not the issue. Asymmetry in the balance of power is the main problem. When one side is much stronger than the other, it speaks from a position of strength and defines the debate. That’s how George W. Bush succeeded in defining Sen. John Kerry as a weak candidate in defending America’s security interests, even though John fought in the Vietnam War and Bush did not.”

By the same token, said Zogby, the Israelis have succeeded in defining their conflict with the Palestinians as one concerning the war on terror.

“An Israeli delegation visits the US every week for interaction with influential sections of the society,” he said. “They have also hired an American PR firm for giving them expert opinion on how they should handle their media campaign. Thus, a large number of Americans have been locked in place by negative perceptions about the Arabs.”

He said Saudi authorities should design a new communications strategy that relies on people-to-people contacts, and visits to places in the US other than Washington and New York in order to explain the Saudi perceptions.

“It’s true there are Americans who appreciate what Saudi Arabia has been doing as a responsible member of the international community,” said Zogby. “But there is still an information gap which has not been bridged by the advertising campaign.”


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