Mishaal Al Gergawi

Gulf Government Silence Speaks Volumes

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Nowadays, every time I read an article relating to the recent political developments in the Gulf I look for a government statement but rarely find one.

In these challenging times for Gulf states, a number of developments ranging from arrests of political activists in Gulf countries, the Iranian spy ring in Kuwait, the Omani government media blackout and the recent criticism the Saudi foreign minister received from fellow Saudis on social media over providing a very detailed interview to MSNBC’s Tom Brokaw on the kingdom’s future plans — demonstrate very clearly that GCC governments continue to be weak at communicating their positions to the public domain.

My suspicion is that the rationale behind this is to avoid feeding the issues at hand with more material that would in turn be debated and shared by local and foreign tweeters, bloggers, reporters, journalists and analysts.

This rationale is flawed since those commentators are commenting anyway. And in the absence of a clear public position a vacuum appears; one that can only be filled with a combination of speculation, rumours, exaggerations and fabrications.

A little over a year ago, I wrote an op-ed article titled The world is run by those who show up. The piece lamented Dubai’s public media arms for failing to properly address the phenomena that was Dubai bashing.

In it I argued that the denial of such harsh criticism, which led to it being initially dismissed and eventually being viewed as purely motivated by personal grudges and metropolitan rivalries, allowed for those gross exaggerations to be taken at face value and were largely considered accurate reflections of the state of Dubai.

Official spokesperson

Like Dubai bashing, the regional unrest in the Gulf is varied in its polarising capacity. Most government media arms have dug their boots in and have become firmly entrenched in their positions. That their positions are correct is irrelevant. After all, how strong is a position that isn’t communicated?

The Gulf countries continue to fail to recognise the value of having an official spokesperson that is both empowered and informed.

Of course this has a lot to do with GCC governments’ hesitant tendency to clarify their positions on a set of issues for fear that further
developments might force them to reverse such positions and charter new courses. This probably has a lot to do with the lack of an institutionalised public policy and the thorough research and scenario planning that would come with it. The view that this vague caginess strengthens their position is flawed. Most GCC governments believe that if an issue is ignored long enough it will be rescinded from societal memory. This was probably true in the cable and print media era but not in the current age of social activism
and online discourse.

The fact that most government media arms are led by individuals who established their career in that previous era and, I suspect, outsource their twitter and facebook accounts to social media consultancy houses has a lot to do with this school of thought. For a region with at least two media free zones, three media conferences a year and a number of communication schools, we do a pretty bad job at communication.

In conclusion, I believe GCC governments urgently need to do the following:

– Set the record straight: There’s a lot of negative speculation. A silent government is largely viewed as a guilty government and the worst quotes are the so and so did not respond to requests to comment on this story.

– Communicate the way forward: With respect to some countries, there is a sense that every day is taken as it comes and there is a lot of finger crossing. This only goes to increase concern about the way forward.

– Spokesperson: Appoint an official speaker who has the information (data, background information, etc) and is empowered to communicate it with the media. This allows for the governments to lead the conversation as opposed to continuously play catch up.

– Liberate the local media: There is so much that is miscommunicated by foreign media just because the local media can’t discuss it at the level of granularity that the former can. This allows for the loss of much of the situation’s nuances.

The Gulf, in my view, continues to face political, economic and social challenges of global relevance in the long term. While participating in the conversation is the least of our challenges and should be addressed immediately, it is as good a backdoor as we’ll ever get into the complexity of those challenges. Otherwise, assumptions, insinuations and speculations will continue to dominate the public sphere; but such are the winds of our times and with them we must sail and prevail.

Mishaal Al Gergawi is an Emirati current affairs commentator. This article was first published in UAE daily, The Gulf News

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