When my clients commission a presentation on the Arab region, I cannot presume that they know where it is. I always start with an unmarked map of the world where a sizeable landmass, shaded green, represents the 22 countries of the Arab League. Then I ask my clients to name those countries and to place them all correctly on the map.
If I collected a dollar from every one in the room who cannot do both or either of those things, I could . . . set up a sizeable philanthropic fund to promote Australia-Arab engagement!
But there are reasons why so many Australians know so little about the Arab region. I think these reasons are simple and list them as follows:
Australia’s national carrier Qantas does not fly to any Arab country, so until the Arab carriers (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Air) took up the slack, Australians’ traveling and trade destinations were always somewhere else.
Australia did not colonise any Arab country and doesn’t have any military bases in the region.
Australia’s Semitic religious schools (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) favour archaeological-historical annals over contemporary faith practice and seldom offer contemporary case studies in science, maths, arts, SOSE, or economics.
Australian media reports on Arab countries are rarely filed from within those countries.
The good news is that Australians’ innocence of the region can be turned to our advantage because we carry so little baggage in our approach.
Ignorance is one thing, while a mind made up is another altogether. The ignorant can become informed – a much simpler process than ‘unlearning’ inherited information, sometimes known as ‘received wisdom’.
Australia has the opportunity to approach the Arab region with something fresh, new and highly valued by the locals.
How we communicate that is a matter for serious contemplation.
My experience shows women are quick to feel high levels of comfort in Arab countries when reassured with appropriate, relevant, and correct information about what to expect to experience – particularly in terms of gender politics.
The result is that they connect quickly and relatively deeply with the local people and with their ideas on the world.
Engaging with Arab worldviews is not the same as concurring with them. But appreciating the integrity of those worldviews breaks the barrier to positive engagement.