Apart from a two- year assignment in Afghanistan, I’ve spent almost my career as a diplomat working on Middle East issues, either in London or overseas. And along the way, I learned Arabic, spending a year studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and a year at a Language Institute in Cairo.
But I had never worked with the media. So it was something of a surprise to end up, in July 2011, as the UK Government’s Arabic Spokesperson in the region, based in Dubai. I was charged with the responsibility of explaining UK policy to the Arab media, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
A woman in the Arab media
So almost 2 years in, how has it been? Firstly, many people told me I would make an impact simply by being a woman in the media in the Middle East. I didn’t really buy it. I thought it might hold some truth in some parts of the Gulf, but not more widely across the Middle East where women were present and powerful in the media profession. I was wrong. I’ve been amazed at how many people, including women, and including women in the media, have talked to me about how amazing it is that the UK Government spokesperson is a woman and how great it is for audiences to see someone who challenges their expectations and stereotypes of a British diplomat - which apparently is still a middle-aged, middle-class, English-speaking Englishman.
I thought Facebook was a threat to privacy and professionally dangerous, and Twitter was for, well, twits! Change the world in 140 characters – I don’t think so!Rosemary Davis
I’ve also found it genuinely heart-warming how appreciative people in the Arab world are about my efforts to speak Arabic, a notoriously difficult language. I work hard at my language and do my best, but I know my Arabic is far from perfect. But reactions, both from media professionals and members of the public, have been so positive and encouraging that it inspires me to keep going and to keep trying to improve.
Of course, I also took up my position only a few months after the start of the Arab revolutions that sprang up so quickly and unexpectedly around the region. They took everyone - regimes, foreign governments and world media included - by surprise. And so it was no shock that some media outlets were uncertain, in the earlier days, about how to cover them. Today there is still debate about how the media influences political events in the region. And there are still plenty of examples of media repression, particularly in Syria, where most outlets are banned and journalists operate at great personal risk.
Press freedom in the Arab world
But we have seen welcome advances in press freedom in many parts of the region, after decades of oppression and state control. In the UK we understand that a truly free, independent and objective media cannot be created overnight – it took hundreds of years to achieve press freedom in the UK. And that is why advice and training to the media in the Middle East is a central part of the UK Government’s Arab Partnership Program to support the development of media in more open and democratic societies.
Which brings me to social media, a forum which has been revolutionized by the Arab Spring. two years ago, when I arrived in Dubai, I had no experience of social media. I thought it was something “the youth” spent time on when they should really be been doing something more useful. I thought Facebook was a threat to privacy and professionally dangerous, and Twitter was for, well, twits!! Change the world in 140 characters – I don’t think so!
Then I arrived in Dubai to take up my current position. During the job handover, my predecessor gave me a short tutorial on how to use twitter. After 10 minutes of being bamboozled by hash tags, handles, hootsuite, re-tweets, twitpics and all the rest of it, I figured I’d be quietly letting it die to focus on more important things. Two years on, I’m on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr and hoot suite, and I know my way around reddit, storify, topsy and trendsmap.
Why? Because during the Arab Spring people turned to social media to communicate, to express opinion and to organize in a time of uncertainty and upheaval. And that was just the beginning. Today, social media is an integral part of the media landscape in the Middle East. It is no coincidence that a growing number of UK ambassadors and diplomats in the region are active on social media, recognizing that through it they can reach and, more importantly, interact with a new audience. Social media will never replace traditional media, in terms of reach, influence and credibility. But today, social media is an essential tool for engaging, for sharing opinions and for reaching out, particularly to the younger generation. And it is a great equalizer, providing a unique opportunity for people to interact directly with leaders, influencers, royalty and celebrities. Change the world in 140 characters, well…
So I have one more year in this position as Regional Spokesperson. What will the media landscape look like by the time I hand over to my successor? Who knows. But let’s hope by then we see more progress towards an Arab media operating safely, freely and holding governments to account. And let’s hope also that a woman representing the British Government in the Middle East won’t be quite such a novelty!
Rosemary Davis is currently the Regional Arabic Spokesperson at the British Embassy in Dubai. Previously, she held the position of Head of Counter-Narcotics at the British Embassy in Kabul. Davis also has experience working with the UK government on missions in New York and Brussels.