The negative portrayal of Arabs by Hollywood

Samar Fatany
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Regional and global CEOs, CMOs, presidents and vice-presidents attended the Top CEO Conference and Awards held on April 10 and 11 at Bay La Sun Hotel & Marina, KAEC, to address global issues to help businesses overcome challenges, embrace a new reality and prepare for a sustainable future.

One interesting session was on the Arab image in the West. The moderator was Faisal J. Abbas, editor-in-chief of Arab News. The panelists were Khaled Almaeena; Elisabetta Martini, Italian Consul General; Dr. Gunter Mulack, executive director of the German Orient Institute in Berlin and Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation.


It is time we focus on more positive and peaceful collaborations between global communities to defuse escalating tensions and stop racial discrimination

Samar Fatany

The participants all agreed that Saudi Arabia and the Arab world have a negative image in the West. Almaeena blamed Hollywood movies that send incorrect messages about Islam and Saudi culture and tradition. He cited a few examples of movies that portrayed Arabs as villains and terrorists. The blockbuster “True Lies” debuted in 1994, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a spy for a secret government agency and featured a fictional terrorist group called the “Crimson Jihad,” portrayed as sinister and anti-American.

The barbaric Arab stigma

Some of the most discriminatory films include “Rules of Engagement” (2000) and “Death Before Dishonour (1987). In fact the stereotype of the barbaric Arab has crept into Western culture over many years and can be found in every other movie in the West today. If they are not portrayed as terrorists, Arab characters in Hollywood films are the greedy oil sheikhs, never the honest respectable banker, doctor or teacher.

Racial stereotyping of Arabs has, unfortunately, produced negative consequences, including hate crimes, racial profiling and discrimination and bullying.

Michael Garin, CEO of Image Nation, explained that Hollywood producers do not intentionally produce anti- Arab movies. They could be too lazy to look for a pro- Arab script that could be a box office hit. Garin spoke about ways to build bridges between Hollywood and the Arab world. He argued that it is not easy to make films that everyone around the world wants to see. One of the challenges is to find projects, like Fast and Furious or Star Wars (both partly shot in Abu Dhabi) that are location-based rather than character-based.

Image Nation is actively working on projects where movies would be adapted for local production in different areas. The producers would basically make an Arabic version and an English-language international version. Then there are projects where Arabs can participate in the US production.

Image Nation is an Abu Dhabi and China government-backed Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC) set up to jointly invest in movies and TV content produced in Hollywood, the United Arab Emirates, China and other countries.
Garin praised the success of the movie Barakah Meets Barakah, the debut of Saudi writer/director Mahmoud Sabbagh that has been selected to represent Saudi Arabia in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race. The movie definitely debunks some of the stereotypes and ¬confronts some of the prejudices about Saudi society. Earlier Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 2013 movie Wadjda, was Saudi Arabia’s first official Oscar entry.

Almaeena agreed and gave another example of the production of the movie “Bilal” and how it shows that Islam is not racist as Bilal was an Ethiopian. He urged Arab investors to support the production of such movies to counter the negative image portrayed in the West.

Gunter Mulack, executive director of the German Orient Institute in Berlin, stressed the need for people in the Arab world to be more self-critical in order to address their shortcomings and change the negative perception abroad. Elizabetta Martini, Italian Consul General, said that there was an urgent need to engage the media to promote better relations between the West and the Arab world. “Modern diplomacy is all about the media and interacting with journalists,” she said.

Deconstructing misconceptions

Art, music, films, television and multi-ethnic and cultural initiatives can be effective tools to address Western misconceptions about Arab culture and the Muslim world. Misconceptions between Abrahamic faiths have antagonized many and Islamophobia is also on the rise.

Hollywood films largely overlook the fact that there are many Christian Arabs who live in the United States and the Middle East alike. It is time we focus on more positive and peaceful collaborations between global communities to defuse escalating tensions and stop racial discrimination.

The severity of the refugee issue demands immediate solutions to address the human rights of refugee communities that were threatened with war, terrorism, and Islamophobia. The production of a movie honoring war victims in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan featuring a more humane treatment of refugees could be the way to peaceful coexistence.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is another main cause of the continued turbulence in the Middle East. Recognizing the plight of the Palestinians in Hollywood movies could also have a positive effect. Only when film productions and Western media assume an honest role in identifying the real enemies of humanity can the world live in lasting peace and harmony.

The Top CEO discussions brought to light many issues that require innovative strategies to address the challenges facing the region and the global community at large. Such events are of critical importance to the region. The Top CEO Conference organized by Mediaquest and its energetic Co-CEO Julien Hawari should be commended for its hard work and dedication in connecting the captains of business and industry with those involved in societal development.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette.

Samar Fatany is a Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station. Over the past 28 years, she has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the kingdom. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. She has published three books: “Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions,” “Saudi Women towards a new era” and “Saudi Challenges & Reforms.”

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