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Bush Is Most Disliked Global Leader Among Arabs.

A new poll on Feb. 8 underscored deep Arab unhappiness with the US but said the negative image could be repaired if Washington brokered a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace pact. The survey of 3,850 people in six Arab countries rated President Bush as the most disliked world leader, while the US and Israel were viewed as significantly greater threats than Iran - with 67% of the respondents saying the US could improve its image by brokering a comprehensive Middle East peace deal. A smaller number - 33% - said this image change could happen if Washington withdrew its troops from Iraq.

Reuters on Feb. 10 quoted Shibley Telhami of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution as saying the results showed the Arab-Israeli conflict "remains the central prism through which people are evaluating the United States", even when the international focus is on the Iraq war and nuclear crisis with Iran.

Based on face-to-face interviews done for the Saban Centre by the Zogby Int'l polling firm last November and December, attitudes were surveyed in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the UAE. Respondents were asked to identify which world leader outside of their own country they disliked most. Bush was named by 38%, former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon by 11%, current Israeli PM Olmert by 7% and British PM Tony Blair by 3%. The most admired leader was Hizbullah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah with 14%.

As the US struggles with its image in the region, a group of former officials and diplomats, Democrat and Republican, is trying to come to the rescue, unveiling the results of what they hope will help bridge the gap between Arabs and Americans. Layalina Productions, a TV content provider which counts an impressive board of advisers, including former US president George Bush and former secretary of state James Baker, is behind a reality TV show which aims to portray America in a more appealing light. On the Road to America, now being aired on the popular Saudi-backed pan-Arab MBC channel, tracks Arab students travelling across the US on a 10-week journey.

Layalina spokesman Leon Shahabian says: "This is people-to-people diplomacy between the American and the Arab public. It's trying to introduce viewers to an America they may not be familiar with. The show's characters come from different parts of the Arab world, different ages, and react differently to American situations". With a look more Hollywood than White House, the show may well appeal to Arab viewers, many of whom are already enamoured with American soap operas and films. Yet analysts say it is unlikely to change Arab attitudes towards the US.

The FT on Feb. 13 quoted Dalia Mogahed, the executive director of Gallup's Muslim studies centre, as saying: "Everyone [in the Arab world] watches all kinds of American shows, but people differentiate between good action films and policies". Gallup polls show that opinion of the US has become steadily less favourable since 2002. Though Arabs and Muslims say they admire Western technology and democracy, and associate it most with the US, they disapprove of what they perceive as moral decadence and US disrespect for Muslims.

Yet anti-US sentiment among Muslims, says Mogahed, is still mostly driven by politics, and US involvement in conflicts such as the Iraq war. Among Arabs in particular, the US attitude in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a big issue.

Headed by former US ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg, Layalina was launched as a bipartisan effort after 9/11, with the original goal of starting a TV channel geared towards the Muslim world. But having soon found the market was already overcrowded - there are 250 TV channels in the region - Layalina, a non-profit organisation relying on donations, opted to be a content provider.

On the Road to America, produced with a Hollywood group and a company owned by MBC, is one of several series in the making. The show so far has received some attention in the US media but hardly a mention in the Arab press. Arab analysts are sceptical that Layalina's approach will work where government-sponsored public diplomacy has failed.

Muhammad al-Sayed Sa'id, an analyst with Cairo's al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, says: "The US attitude is always, we deal with everything but the politics. Whether in public or any other diplomacy, you are dealing with Arabs who feel humiliated and targeted". Mazen Hayek, the head of MBC's marketing and public relations, says the station's interest in buying On the Road to America was to show that there was common ground between Americans and Arabs despite US foreign policy.

Although US entertainment is popular in the region, it provides only a "snapshot" of the country. Hayek says: "On the Road to America has an unpolished image of America through the eyes of students, normal people. It feels real, and it shows cross-cultural interaction". With the Middle East racked by conflicts, most of which involve the US, the political images will no doubt continue to overshadow lighter appeals for understanding between the Arab world and the US. But Layalina faces another challenge: to survive in a market which is still undeveloped.

To attract donations, the company must find enough stations in the region to pay for its shows and convince its contributors that it is reaching a big enough audience. According to MBC, 10 out of the 250 free-to-air satellite stations in the Arab world account for 80% of the $550m broadcast advertising market and 60% of the audience. Shahabian of Layalina says: "The difficulty is to raise money for the shows. Television channels are not making a lot of money so cannot pay us a lot of money".
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 19, 2007
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