"The Arabs and the Horn of Africa: the dialectic proximity of identity", a conference organized by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) at the Doha Institute, wrapped up on Tuesday, November 29, with speakers stressing the need for greater Arab strategic vision in addressing the crises in the Horn region.
The event was attended by a select group of researchers and other scholars from the Arab world and the Horn of Africa countries, including Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, as well as academics from the United States and Italy who are interested in the affairs of the Horn region.
Presentations during the conference's eight sessions dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including the historical, political, economic, security, strategic, cultural, social, and media dimensions of the relationship between the Arab world and the Horn of Africa.
The proceedings culminated in a roundtable discussion in which participants sought to answer key questions of the present and the future regarding the relationship between the Arabs and the Horn. Dr. Sayyar al-Jamil, Director of the Research Unit at the ACRPS, opened the discussion session by posing several questions on the sources of crises and the state of fragmentation suffered by the Horn of Africa, as well as the absence of the Arabs from efforts to help resolve these issues despite the significant impact of conditions in the Horn of Africa on the strategic security of neighboring Arab countries - especially in light of foreign interference in the region and Israeli infiltration. The participants' comments focused on the need to build a strategic vision for the Arab states vis-à-vis the Horn of Africa, and the necessity of making a greater contribution toward resolving the ongoing political crises and conflicts. The objective of such initiatives would be to create sufficient harmony and stability in the region as to provide strategic depth for Arab policy and a permanent base for Arab investment, given the large opportunities available in the Horn.
The roundtable was preceded by a final regular conference session devoted to discussing the attitude of the Arab media toward the major issues in the Horn of Africa. Dr. Tariq al-Sheikh, a Sudanese researcher and journalist based in Qatar, argued that Arab media outlets were largely responsible for the deformation of the media depiction of Somalia, limiting it to images of violence and famine. He added that Somalia, as depicted by the Arab media, consists of disparate stories and news items on violence, murder and Al Qaeda, with the issue of piracy occupying center stage in recent years. As for the international media, it covered Somalia by either stressing its status as a geostrategic location, reminding its audience of the "rosy" colonial past, or focusing on specific questions such as the 1992 American intervention in Somalia, the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, and the question of piracy. Dr. al-Sheikh urged the Arab media to transmit a more authentic image of events in Somalia, and the rest of the Horn of Africa, by covering news on the ground and by critiquing the official Arab neglect of the Somali crisis.
On the other hand, Mr. Faisal Mohammad Saleh, programs director at Tiba Press, argued that the stereotypes of Africa in the Arab mentality are inspired by the Western media, which reflects the Western mentality. He added, however, that the Arab media does not seek to change this image, working instead to edify it in Arab society. He pointed to the fact that the African in the Arab imagination represents an "other" who is viewed as primitive and uncivilized, and quick to resort to violence. This also applies to the African Arab countries such as Egypt, Sudan, and the states of North Africa. Saleh spoke of the lack of resources of the Arab media, which prevents them from establishing offices and correspondents in various parts of the globe, including Africa and especially the Horn region. Thus, the Arab media often resorts to the ready alternative, which is the coverage emanating from Western agencies and outlets - and these are often the main source of news for the Arab media. He associated this problematic issue with the fact that the developed countries, which dominate the news and information industry, do not pay sufficient attention to the issues of developing countries and their quests to achieve development and stability.
Mrs. Afrah Thabit, of the Directorate of Information and Communication at the African Union Commission, said in her paper that the Arab media was ill-equipped to deal with the issues of the Horn of Africa, which negatively impacted interactions between the Arab world and the Horn region. She said that the Horn had long remained outside the sphere of Arab media interest, despite the historic links, geographic proximity and strategic importance involved. Mrs. Thabit added that the presence of the Horn in the Arab media was limited to wars between its states or within them, or to natural disasters that afflict the region such as droughts and famines; the Arab mental image of the region is limited to these contexts. Mrs. Thabit also criticized the Arab media's tendency to focus on the region exclusively during times of crises, which means that the Horn of Africa is only mentioned by the Arab media when troubling events are taking place, drawing the attention of the Western media before its Arab peers notice the importance of the incident. This is usually followed by a loss of interest in the region and its affairs.
Mr. Mohammad Taha Tawakkul, Horn of Africa correspondent for the Qatari News Agency, lamented what he described as intentional neglect regarding the issues of the Horn of Africa in the Arab media. In his view, this is the only acceptable explanation, since the Horn region is almost never present in the arena of Arab journalism and its outlets except through Western and international coverage. He added that the affairs of the region's largest country, Ethiopia, are never mentioned in the Egyptian press except from the angle of Egyptian interest in the waters of the Nile River. A paramount example of this came when Egyptian magazines and newspapers had to apologize after having ignored the visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to Cairo last September - a trip that coincided with an official visit by his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.