The Popular Image of North Africa and the Middle East

Reference work entry

Will the popular image of North Africa and the Middle East change after the Arab Spring? Keith Dinnie examines the possibilities in his article for Place Branding and Public Diplomacy journal.

The recent dramatic upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East have gripped the world’s attention in a way that has unmistakable echoes of the collapse of communism in 1989. What effect, if any, will these developments have on the reputation and image of the countries concerned?

Much will depend on whether real reform occurs or if the old regimes manage to hold onto power. Should the pro-democracy movement peter out, with a return to authoritarian rule, then it is unlikely that there will be any positive change in each country’s image. Real radical change is the basis of improvement in country image.

If democracy does take root in the region, then such a historic shift can be expected to lead to significant changes. Instead of being submerged by a somewhat negative ‘Middle East region brand’ effect, individual countries will begin to assert their own unique identity. Instead of being monopolized by the image of one political leader, countries will be able to project the full richness and diversity of their respective cultures, as Spain has done in the years following the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975.

Spain’s transition to democracy and its subsequent cultural renaissance paved the way for it to become one of the countries most often quoted as an example of a successful nation brand. If real political change materializes, there is no reason why the countries of North Africa and the Middle East should not now follow a similarly positive trajectory. The obvious caveat is that these countries must avoid the post-dictator, political vacuum chaos of Iraq.

There are no limits to the creativity with which nations can attempt to project their identity to the rest of the world. On the other hand, the range of uncontrollable image determinants is very wide. They range from word-of-mouth and national stereotypes to export brands and the behaviour of a country’s citizens.

Unfortunately for most of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, country image perceptions held by foreign audiences have been dominated and distorted by politics, whether projected by the personal image of a military dictator or a more diffuse regional image of extremism, terrorism and so on. All the other factors have been overshadowed, resulting in country images that are incomplete, inaccurate and grotesquely skewed in a negative direction.

For Egypt and Tunisia, the situation is redressed to some extent by their tourist industries. Indeed, it is unlikely that many foreigners who have visited Tunisia in the past 20 years are or were aware of the country’s leadership and political regime.

Visiting a country as a tourist may provide only a superficial impression of a country, but at least it allows personal interaction with locals and the host culture. In the absence of a significant tourist industry, external perceptions of other Middle East or North African countries are mediated to an unhealthy extent by the international media. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the striking absence of alternative image-formation factors such as sports performances or export brands, image determinants that can play a hugely significant role in country image perceptions. The country image of New Zealand, for example, is powerfully amplified by the All Blacks rugby team, whereas the country image of Japan is tightly linked with globally successful corporate brands such as Sony, Toyota and Toshiba. However, most foreign audiences would struggle to associate anything comparable with the countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

The closed nature of one-party states tends to be reflected in a lack of support for the promotion of cultural activities. The countries of North Africa and the Middle East lack influential cultural organizations such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut or the United Kingdom’s British Council, both of which play an important role in downplaying those two nations’ imperialistic past and in supporting a more cosmopolitan image. This type of soft power projection through public diplomacy has not as yet been embraced by most countries in North Africa and the Middle East. The opportunity to do so now beckons, provided that the revolutionary impulse towards more open societies does not fade away.


  1. Dinnie, Keith, ‘The impact on country image of the North Africa and Middle East uprisings’ in Place Branding and Public Diplomacy (volume 7, Number 2), ed. by Simon Anholt. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.Google Scholar

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