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How to handle the Western media bias leveled against Gulf Arabs

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Gulf nationals are convinced that western media has a bias against them. There is an ideological bias – western journalists find several aspects of the Gulf highly distasteful and this distorts their coverage. However, the bias is considerably smaller than Gulf nationals imagine, because Gulf nationals have deep misconceptions about media.

In western countries, journalists lean left politically, and there are three things that lefties generally dislike: monarchies, inherited income, and religion.

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The Gulf countries are monarchies. Moreover, western journalists perceive the Gulf’s hydrocarbon reserves as “inherited income,” analogous to the unearned land rents accruing to an aristocrat. They believe that Gulf countries don’t have to graft to earn a living, unlike countries that are poor in natural resources which have to toil, reinforcing their distaste of Gulf countries.

This widespread view reflects economic ignorance. While natural resources help, the experiences of many countries confirm that natural resources can just as easily lead to violence and destruction. Moreover, it is generally the socialist governments that have squandered natural resources, not the capitalist ones in the Gulf, a fact left-leaning journalists prefer to sweep under the carpet.

Historically, the importance of religion to political and social policy in Saudi Arabia has ensured that it is uniquely despised by western journalists. This is reflected in various hysterical pieces published in leading newspapers. The theories of Saudi-led oil conspiracies advanced by western journalists are particularly laughable.

However, while the bias certainly exists, it is wildly exaggerated by Gulf nationals, for two reasons.

A general view of Malaysiakini's newsroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 24, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)
A general view of Malaysiakini's newsroom in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia May 24, 2018. (File photo: Reuters)

First, generally speaking, Gulf nationals only read what western papers write about the Gulf countries. For many, there is a considerable language barrier, and so they only read the ones that are translated into Arabic and circulated via WhatsApp, which are invariably the ones covering Gulf issues. While these articles are almost always negative in tone, the Gulf readers assume that the coverage of other countries is neutral on average and that the Gulf countries are therefore being singled out.

This assumption is erroneous: western newspapers are full of negative analysis of every country, and the country that usually secures the most negative coverage is usually the newspaper’s home state. This is because it is a newspaper’s job to criticize, as part of its broader mission to hold people in power accountable. Moreover, negative news sells, even if it is depressing to read. Readers are inherently more attracted to a headline exposing a scandal or uncovering corruption than they are a generic slap on the back for a government official.

To illustrate this, as I am writing this article, I am looking at the top 10 most read articles in an established western newspaper.

The top nine are negative coverage of various countries due to war or Covid-19, except for the sixth, which is about a bloodless coup in a small country. Only the tenth escapes the negativity, as it is a selection of pictures of Muslims celebrating Eid al-Fitr across the world.

Therefore, if Gulf nationals took the time to read a more representative selection of western articles, and not just those about the Gulf, their perceptions of anti-Gulf bias would be attenuated.

The second reason is that the domestic media in the Gulf gives residents a highly distorted image of what media looks like in other countries. Unlike western media, Gulf media do contain lots of positive articles. Many pieces published daily are essentially press releases from a ministry’s communications department describing a government success story.

This fuels the erroneous assumption held by many Gulf nationals that western newspapers publish neutral or positive articles on average and that the ones that are about the Gulf countries are outliers due to their excessive negativity. The truth is that western newspapers enjoy criticizing their governments even when they are doing a good job.

If people in the Gulf read more widely, they would discover the unique character of their media, and correct some of the inaccurate views they have about foreign journalists. While western media is certainly biased against the Gulf due to the journalists’ ideological proclivities, the bias is nowhere near as strong as people in the Gulf believe it to be.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.