Middle Eastern publics have never been more important to global peace and security. Our inability to engage with these constituencies through effective policy and communications has left a vacuum that is being exploited by extremism.
For many decades the Middle East has been the focus of global attention. Capitals around the world have grappled with creating effective policy towards the Middle East – and by extension communicate with it.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern publics rages on – yet without much success.
Where have these strategies gone wrong?
Fundamentally, they misunderstand the target audience.
Policy and communications are different sides of the same coin.
When governments move to carry out policy initiatives, they are often accompanied by a communications strategy that reaches out to recipients of that policy.
Crafting an effective communications strategy hinges on understanding the target audience.
Demographics in the region are by no means homogenous, yet they are addressed as a collective unit. In reality constituencies are broken down by tribe, clan, religion, sect, and socio-economic status. These identities transcend state borders. This is coupled with a political culture that is reflected in an old Arab proverb: “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, and me and my cousin against strangers.”
Communications strategies must take this into account, and tailor messaging and tactical execution according to the configuration of the targeted constituency.
In a piece published by Foreign Policy, Manal Omar, the Vice President of the MENA Centre at the United States Institute of Peace recommended strategic coordination with local voices in the Middle East to communicate policies.
In many ways, this method of communication should not be foreign to policymakers.
When the Clinton Administration was embroiled in controversy and couldn’t have a substantive policy discussion on the national level, it went local to get its message across. The President would give back-to-back interviews to local station affiliates across the country. Not too long after, the Blair Administration adopted a similar strategy when it faced obstacles from the national media, mobilising the Prime Minister to make regional visits and address local audiences. Both cases had deep penetration rates, and the core messages were able to get through.
In a time when the Middle East is characterised by political instability, the breakdown of traditional state structures and the rise of extremist groups, these local constituencies have become more polarised and better defined. The stakes have become higher, and it is incumbent on policymakers and communications specialists to grasp how to properly engage with the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern publics.
At the end of the day, in the Middle East, it’s local, stupid.