Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category


Plans! We Don’t Need No Stinking Plans!

April 5, 2016

One of the points I was making at the ISA Convention a couple of weeks ago was that in the real world public diplomacy organizations find it difficult to be strategic in the sense of creating a strong connection between their objectives and their means.  In part this is because public diplomacy organizations are always on, the routine logistical requirements of running a programme both on a day to day basis and in the longer term overwhelm the capacity of organizations to be strategic.   There’s no point worrying about SMART goals if you are more worried about keeping the show on the road at all.

Anyway another exhibit to buttress my cases emerged yesterday a US State Department Inspector General’s report on how the public diplomacy work of the embassy in Baghdad was contributing to the counter messaging part of the overall strategy against ISIL

The first item from the summary:

“Embassy Baghdad’s public diplomacy activities operate without formal strategic planning and goals.”

Public diplomacy is not discussed within the embassy’s Integrated Country Strategy  and there is no Public Diplomacy Implementation Plan.

The report obviously thinks that there should be plans but that’s not my point: lots of public diplomacy is reactive, and improvised rather than strategic.  From an analytical perspective it’s often better to look public diplomacies it through an organizational lens rather than an intentional one.


Morocco’s New Public Diplomacy Network: West African Sufi Brotherhoods

March 23, 2015

In theory public diplomacy is about building relationships. In practice countries rarely start from scratch they build from a base provided by relationships that already exist.

There’s an interesting example of this in a new report from FRIDE on Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Morocco has tended to ignore Africa but because of the economic situation in Europe and the regional security situation it has launched a diplomatic offensive to build relations with African countries. One of the relationships it is activating is that with the Tijaniyyah Brotherhood a Sufi network with millions of members spread across west Africa. Because the Islam in the region was originally spread by the Moroccan Almoravid dynasty the king of Morocco is regarded as a religious leader and Fez as destination for pilgrimage this network is being activated as an asset for Morocco. This means pledges to build mosques, offers of training for imams and cheap flights for those coming to Morocco on pilgrimage. The promotion of Moroccan sufi Islam is extremely welcome in Senegal, Guinea, Nigeria, Niger and Benin presumably as a balance to the activities of more hardline varieties of Islam.

Of course this being International Relations there’s a competitive element here – Morocco traditionally regards Algeria as a rival and the sufi card is one that Algeria, as a formally secular state lacks.

It’s also worth noting that as with many things public diplomacy initiatives that new tend to be repetition of things that were done in the past Kane (1997) points to previous efforts, from the 1960s to the 1980s, by the Egyptians, the Iraqis and the Saudis as well as the Moroccan to engage the Sufi brotherhoods as part of their public diplomacies.
Kane O (1997) Muslim Missionaries and African States, in Rudolph SH and Piscatori J (eds) Transnational Religion and Fading States, Boulder  Colo.: Westview, pp. 47–62.
Tadlaoui G (2015) Morocco’s Religious Diplomacy in Africa. Madrid: FRIDE.

Counter-Propaganda: The Case of ISIS

January 13, 2015

I’ve spent far too much time over the last few weeks thinking about counter-propaganda without really getting to a satisfactory conclusion so I’m just going to throw out some ideas and move on.   I’ll post on ISIS, then Russia, then draw a few general conclusions/recommendations.

  1. ISIS exists in two spaces. Firstly, on the ground in Iraq and Syria  and secondly, in the transnational space of the ‘global jihad’. These two spaces are connected but they are not identical.  Recent studies on ISIS have placed more weight on the first of these while a lot of Western political discourse either doesn’t discriminate or places more weight on the latter – in particular on the Western citizens becoming radicalized, travelling to the Islamic State and then returning to carry out terrorist actions in the West.   The argument is that it is the excellence of the IS information offensive that is allowing it to recruit foreign fighters and hence become successful on the ground. I think that this is precisely the wrong way round. The global rise of ISIS is not because of its excellent propaganda: it has excellent propaganda because of its military success.    The capture of Mosul and the defeat of the Iraqi Army gave it the basis for the proclamation of the Caliphate and at that point is launched an international strategic communications campaign to market itself. It’s a basic rule of wartime communications (see for instance the memoirs of British propagandists during the Second World War) that it’s much easier to make yourself look good when you are winning. Of course when you inflict a major defeat on the opponent the international news media will multiply the message while you will have plenty of images of captured equipment and personnel for your own productions.   This is not to say that activities aimed at potentially radicalized groups outside the region are completely useless but they are working at a major disadvantage.
  2. The most powerful counter-propaganda strategy in dealing with the IS will be to dislodge it from the territory that it holds. Where the two spaces come together is in the state-like nature of the IS this allows it to transmit the call to Muslims to come and live in the IS. It’s interesting that the message doesn’t seem to be come and fight but come and live. The more that the IS territory resembles a war zone and the more that its messages are focused simply on fighting (in the context of losing battles and news coverage that is about their defeats) the less potent their narrative will be.
  3. Western political leaders are in danger of forgetting that ISIS is not the only Salafi-Jihadi group out there.  ISIS is successful in the jihadist space because there is a demand for what it is providing. The preferred aim must be for the Salafi-Jihadi social movement to run its course, the defeat of ISIS won’t necessarily do this although the baroque cruelty will probably help to discredit the whole movement. The defeat of ISIS in Syria-Iraq may just create more market space for other Salafi-Jihadi movements ie Al-Qaida/Nusra Front which aren’t that much of an improvement.
  4. What’s the plan B?  The difficulty is that the weakness of the Iraqi army, the lack of any solution in Syria, the history of sectarian politics in Iraq, the ambiguous attitude of Turkey makes it difficult to see when a narrative of military reverses is going to become established.  This leads to the question of the extent to which IS can stabilize itself?  Many observers assume that over time it will alienate local tribes and become progressively more fragile.   One reason to attract foreigners to the caliphate is that that immigration produces groups that are not embedded in the local context and presumably more supportive of the overall project. But if ISIS is going to be there for sometime how to deal with it.  Here a strategy of economic warfare might be the solution.

Polling the Middle East: UAE, China, Russia Up

January 22, 2014

TESEV a Turkish think tank have been doing polls  on The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East for the past 5 years and I’ve just come across their latest version.  The fieldwork was conducted in August and December last year and covers 14 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.  Although there are lots of questions about Turkey the poll covers other regional issues

Lots if interesting stuff here including data on media use but a few highlights.

Generally respondents see economic issues as the most important facing their country.

The most positively rated countries across the region are the UAE (67% positive) and China (64%) followed by Saudi Arabia (60%) and Turkey (67%).  Israel is the least popular (7% positive) followed by the US (30%) and the UK (36%)

Despite perceptions of increasing sectarianism across the region Hezbollah rates a 44% positive rating only one point behind the GCC and two points behind the OIC – Al Qaeda gets 7%.

Which country is the greatest threat to the region?  Easy one Israel at 40% – but it’s down from 47% two years ago, US is 29% and Iran at 10%.


61% of respondents see Iran as pursuing a sectarian foreign policy versus 43% for Saudi Arabia, the country with the most sectarian policy is Iraq (65%).  Views of Iranian nuclear weapons programme is pretty evenly split with 38% supporting and 42% against.

Perceptions of the impact of the Arab Spring have become increasingly negative.  The two countries outside the region that are now seen as having the most positive impact are China and Russia (both at 38%)

Only 33% of Saudis approve of the military coup in Egypt versus 67% of Egyptians.  The former is interesting given the vocal government support for the coup.  Average regional approval is 43%

Finally only 44% of people in the region admit to having watched a TV series from the US versus Egypt, Turkey and Syria have penetration rates between 67 and 69%


German Democracy Support in Middle East

October 2, 2013

I’ve written before about the difficulties of democracy assistance programmes, so you might be interested in this piece from the International Herald Tribune, Judy Dempsey reports on the view of participants in a German scholarship programme for young people from the Middle East.

While welcoming the programme the graduates comment on who gets to participate –

The German Parliament’s scholarship has particular weaknesses. The Parliament’s administration asked the German Embassy in Cairo for help in finding participants. The embassy then contacted the foundations and other prominent nongovernmental organizations, choosing established, predictable channels rather than reaching out to different strata of society

The problem is that any programme large enough to make a difference is not going to fly because of the expense and because regional governments are not going to allow it.    As the report mentions

“Our government, for example, hates the foundations,” said Imen Nefzi, 29, who is involved in a nongovernmental organization in Tunisia. “They think we are foreign agents, that we are trying to undermine the system. It is not easy trying to build democracy even on a small level.”

Some German nonprofit organizations — like the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party — have been under constant pressure by the Egyptian authorities since 2011. Last June, its offices and property were confiscated.

Another issue was who to support

Others said that the Europeans were too selective. They supported only liberal parties while shunning the moderate Islamist movements that represent large parts of these countries’ populations

Well worth a read to get some local perspective on the democracy support activitity.



Nadia von Maltzahn on Syrian-Iranian Cultural Diplomacy

September 23, 2013

Nadia von Maltzahn’s, The Syria-Iran Axis: Cultural Diplomacy and International Relations in the Middle East is one of the more unexpected contributions to the literature of public diplomacy on several grounds.  Firstly, there are few bilateral studies of public engagement, secondly, while there are many studies of public engagement by authoritarian regimes I can’t think of another one where the target is another authoritarian regime and thirdly, it’s about Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes.    Fourthly, this is a bilateral study where the author knows both the languages involved and has been able to get a degree of cooperation from people involved.

The study traces the development of cultural relations activities between the two countries since the independence of Syria after the Second World War up until the outbreak of the current conflict in 2011.  Although Iran and Syria concluded a friendship treaty in the 1950s and a cultural agreement in the 1970s relations between the two were a low priority.  After the Iranian revolution geopolitical interests – including antagonism to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Israel and the US brought the two countries together creating a relationship that has endured despite differences over Lebanon and Syria’s participation in the US led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991.  At its heart this is a relationship driven by politics and cultural relations work is there to support the diplomatic relationship.

As von Maltzahn shows there’s been a distinct imbalance in the relationship it’s Iran who’s been much more committed to cultural work.  Iran has a distinctive language and culture as well as its revolutionary tradition.  On the other hand Syria prides itself on its commitment to Arab unity which makes a claim of cultural distinctiveness problematic, how it distinguishes itself is through its hardline rejectionist stance.  The result is that Iran has spent heavily on a cultural centre in Damascus plus regional activities.  The instruments at work are familiar; language courses, magazines, lectures, support for the teaching of Persian in Syrian universities, film festivals, scholarships and so on.  The Iranian Cultural Centre in Damascus opened its doors in 1983, Syria did not reciprocate until 2005 and on a much smaller scale.  While Iran sees foreign public engagement as a routine part of its statecraft the Syrian Centre in Tehran is more of a one off – ironically, because of the state of relations between Iran and the rest of the Arab world, it had the potential to become a more significant part of the Iranian cultural scene than the Syrians perhaps realised.

As well as looking at the cultural centres von Maltzahn includes a chapter devoted to the experiences of students from the two countries and one on Iranian religious tourism in Syria.  As with other tourists Iran’s move within predictable patterns and don’t engage much with Syrians beyond that.  Rather than increasing Syrian understanding of Iran most of the tourists are relatively poor and rural and may have a negative impact on perceptions in Syria.

From the point of view of scholars of public diplomacy this will seem like a rather exotic study but the practices of cultural relations work will seem very familiar.  Highly recommended.


Beirut, France and the History of Cultural Relations

September 11, 2013

Working through the backlog of International Herald Tribunes left by my recent trips  I came across this article by Jay Cheshes on the continuing cultural presence of France in Beirut

“A Frenchman can easily live in Beirut without feeling displaced,” said Mr. Gougeon, who moved to the Lebanese capital from Paris in 1999, as he sipped local wine in Villa Clara’s leafy backyard after cooking a dinner of crispy-skinned duck confit and old-fashioned île flottante.

For more than a century, through all manner of turmoil, including a 15-year civil war and, more recently, ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, a distinctly French character has pervaded the city. Much of it is the legacy of the French colonial period — the mandate that lasted from 1920 to 1943 — but a cultural kinship goes back much further than that.

But how did this cultural kinship come into being?  Well it was deliberately created.  Lebanon, and the Levant more broadly, is the founding site of modern cultural relations work.  From the middle of the 19th century France supported the work of the Lazarist order in developing a network of schools in the region – for the Lazarists education was their secret weapon to defeat the advance of protestant (mainly American) missionaries.  The schools taught French and drew on a mixture of private and state funding from France.  The result was that French came to displace Greek and Italian as the lingua franca of the region. Unable to match the military or economic strength of Britain France chose culture as its instrument.

In turn the Lazarist schools inspired the Alliance Israelite Universelle develop its own network work of schools in the region which in turn provided an inspiration for the Alliance Francaise.  Over the course of the 19th century the ad hoc system of support and encouragement in one region of the world provided the inspiration for France’s global cultural network.

If you are looking for evidence that cultural strategies work France’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean through the century after 1850 provides a pretty good case to look at.  The irony is that a really successful strategy becomes invisible because its results seem so natural.