Monday, February 14, 2005

We Need Our Best, Brightest to Improve Our Global Image

The article below was written by Khaled Almeena, editor of Arab News, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East's leading English language newspapers. It is reproduced here with his permission.

By Khaled Almaeena

The prime minister of Hungary apologized last week for joking that the Saudi soccer team had “very many terrorists” on its roster. Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany made the remark at a Socialist Party event, referring to Hungary’s 0-0 tie against Saudi Arabia in Turkey last week.

“I think that there were many terrorists also among the Saudi soccer players and our sons fought with death-defying bravery against the terrorists, so a draw away from home is a fantastic result,” Gyurcsany was quoted as saying by the state news agency.

On Tuesday, he said his comments were made in the context of a TV show parody, and anyone who took them seriously is driven by “political intolerance or even ill-will.”

Even his apology was halfhearted. Gyurcsany, a former communist, knows nothing about Saudi Arabia. His remarks shocked many Hungarians who also do not know much about the Kingdom but believe that a person in such a responsible position should not utter irresponsible remarks about a country that has its own status in the world and a special place in the hearts of more than a billion Muslims.

Apparently his advisers did not tell him that an international counterterrorism conference was being held in Riyadh at the time he was uttering his foolish and frivolous remark.

He had no idea that municipal elections were going to be held.

He had no idea that Saudi Arabia was one of the key players in the battle against communism and that Hungarian Freedom Day is the result of those countries that faced the communist onslaught and were steadfast to contain it.

Prime Minister Gyurcsany is unaware he offended not only Saudis but also Muslims the world over. I spoke to a senior journalist who said that there was a protest and that the 11 Arab ambassadors in Budapest have viewed this statement with “seriousness.”

I am happy to note it; however, I believe that a more effective response should be made.

To show our displeasure, we can even recall our ambassador for a short time. Economic activities should be downgraded or even suspended temporarily.

I am not exaggerating. Would this prime minister utter such scandalous remarks about other nations? When a German minister spoke unfavorably about the United States, she was forced to resign.

When Prince Harry wore a Nazi armband on his sleeve at a fancy costume party, the gates of hell broke open. There were calls from Israel for him to visit the crematoriums at Auschwitz.

When Marlon Brando made a remark that Hollywood was dominated by Jews (he in no way insulted them) he was forced to apologize. But we are fair game! People, institutions and governments attack institutions, our religion and us. John Ashcroft, former US attorney general, made some very disparaging remarks about our religion.

US Army Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, considered a hero by many Americans, also created a stir by making inflammatory comments.

The list goes on and on.

What then are we going to do about it?

Just as we don’t think it’s proper to make offensive remarks about other cultures and religions, we are offended by remarks made about us.

Should we, with the advice of public relations firms with their own interests at heart, place ads in Hungarian and American newspapers, saying, “There are no terrorists on the Saudi soccer team!!”?

Should we send a delegation to Hungary “explaining” our position?

What should we do?

I firmly believe that we must take a proactive stand. I am a strong advocate of free speech and the right of any individual to speak out, but it should be implicit that those rights come with responsibility, logic, tolerance and — most importantly — truth.

The statement of the Hungarian prime minister was bereft of these virtues.

In the light of this incident and others certain to come, it is crucial that our embassies abroad forge strong connections with local media and be ready to respond to such verbal attacks immediately.

Our diplomats should have insight into the happenings in their host countries and do what foreign ambassadors do here — visit the newspapers, exchange views and even arrange for journalists to visit their countries.

The main thing is to establish personal contacts.

Let’s not leave the management of our nation’s image in the hands of public relations companies more concerned with their contract terms than our reputation around the globe.

We already have enough examples of its consequences. It is also important that we review the selection process of those going abroad on diplomatic missions.

They have to be truly global.

I know of one (and there are many) who spent a decade in a country and didn’t bother to learn the language, let alone perfect it.

In the 21st century, in a highly complex world with a focus on speed, technology, immediate decision-making and a probing global media, we cannot afford to be complacent.

Fortunately, our country has a large number of highly qualified and committed men and women who can stand up against the best of the world and spread an understanding of our people, our culture and our faith. All they need is less bureaucracy and the chance to excel.

They would be viewed more favorably than some of our present diplomats are because they would be able to expand upon the good will that already exists for our country worldwide and present an image in which we all can take pride.