Sunday, January 5, 2014

VIEW: War of the Words


First Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / Jan 2014 issue




Burj Khalifa turns blue, high end resorts flourish a 2020 AED package, fireworks light up the sky and free ice cream was reportedly being handed out to rejoicing subjects. Dubai just made history by winning the rights to host 2020. It is the first Middle Eastern nation to do so.

A few days later congratulatory messages pop up on street corners praising the visionary leadership alongside motivational images of said leadership looking skywards. UAE just turned 42. It finds inventive ways to weave flag colors into everyday life, and the “Spirit of the Union” into its national tapestry.

Emirates is riding on a high these days. Their Expo bid, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, with its fetching new theme in tow has set them on a shiny new trajectory. The controversy generated in the wake has upset its oldest, most trusty ally - Pakistan.

Local papers in Pakistan, hint that it helped UAE win. Dubai based daily (Gulf News) insists that it did the opposite.
A Gulf News (GN) editorial came on the heels of their victory casting a nasty little spin on Pakistan’s voting habits after thanking all those who helped secure the win. The word ‘betrayal’ was traded freely. They went on to question our credibility as allies and casually touched upon what to them seemed to be purely one-sided investment in Pakistan’s political / economical future. Though Kabul was also called out for being a bad friend, the paper’s patronizing stance and obvious bias towards Pakistan is cause for concern.

By this time every one has heard the sanctioned version where Izmir, was already a strong contender in the initial round with 60 countries cheering from the sidelines. Where Pakistan had already committed to Izmir (Mar 2011) before UAE stepped into the fray (Nov 2011). And later when Turkey’s dreams of being the first to bring Expo to the Eastern Mediterranean region fell through, Pak votes went to Dubai in the 2nd & 3rd round.

The defamatory editorial had more than 900 heated responses before it was closed for comments. Most were from outraged subscribers, disappointed expats and stunned residents. Some threatened to revoke their subscription. Others suggested suing / firing / de-friending the editorial staff and paper. Many reportedly went through with it, despite the AED 400 voucher offered with each subscription. The story was picked up by the ‘Wall Street Journal’, and carried on Pakistani talk shows.

Pak-UAE relationship runs deep, and is not as one sided as GN suggests. From raising the UAE Air-Force, training its pilots and greening the city of Al Ain, to offering the controversial strip of land (Shamsi) and opening the hunting grounds and precious Houbara Bustard come November despite the universal condemnation by conservationists. Pakistan has been there from the very beginning, and UAE, now plays the role of a major investor in the region. It’s win-win for both. A baseless attack cannot undo half a century of friendship.

The report was challenged by Pakistan’s (Foreign Office) FO and a strong social media campaign finally prompted a response from GN which maintains that “….the Pakistan government, despite its official pledge to the UAE, has voted for another city on the night of November 27. As an independent newspaper, we have the right to question such action and call for a justification, if there were any.” It remains unrepentant and no apology was forthcoming. The paper’s insistence that these comments are directed at Islamabad and not the expat community that helped build their nation is ludicrous. Trends change quickly in Pakistan, it may be dictatorship one season and democracy the next but regardless of the changing fashion, the people and state are not separate entities. Cyber-ville will not let GN, and its platter of half-baked truths off the hook.

Pakistan, seen on the receiving end of terrorism is up against wall of negative perception fed by a fairly well-stocked propaganda factory that somehow manages to gloss over its counter terrorism role and project its least flattering, most Janus-faced side. That the ‘Most Wanted’ lot either trained here, had roots or hideouts in military cantonment’s does not help. Elsewhere, the media for all its democratic credentials appears strangely aligned to company policy, as the gulf between the (Pak-US) administrations widened, random references to Pakistan started to appear in movies, television dramas, sitcoms with greater frequency – and not in a good way.

The refusal to retract the insidious commentary raises questions about the source of displeasure. Though Emirates graciously thanked Pakistan for its support, do mischievous headlines demanding answers perhaps point to rumblings of discontent on a state level? If not then did the paper get a well-deserved rap on the knuckles? Given that the official pledge had been given to Turkey, the story has no foundation. But according to a Pakistani daily, our Federal Minister for commerce might have led the UAE emissary to believe otherwise. And that the UAE delegation was reportedly miffed at what to them probably appeared to be a last minute switch. Some worry that papers tow state lines and for them it is inconceivable that Gulf News risked jeopardizing Pak-UAE strategic partnership on its own. That it continues to propagate the lies is worrisome. ‘Khaleej Times’ - another leading daily from the Emirates - called out its fellow paper on what passes for fact checking in GN, so not everyone bought the Gulf rhetoric. Islamabad can respond by filing defamation charges against Gulf News.

Since then a clarification was issued from Pakistan’s side, but no action has been taken against the offending publication. That their ranting’s went unremarked could also attest to the wonderfully autonomous nature of Gulf media.

There are those who credit those ‘hidden hands’, in this case the Indian lobby, of masterminding the malicious attack; and while ‘said’ hands are our ‘go to’ reason for everything that goes wrong in Pakistan, enlisting a leading newspaper in their ‘discredit Pakistan’ campaign to launch a ‘war of the words’ between such close allies without worrying about consequences implies limitless reach.

UAE, with its carefully cultivated public image stands on the cusp of greatness while Pakistan, remains on the frontline of terror. One gets to battle its demons and the other has a party to plan. Neither can afford to let mischief mongers come in the way of their historically close ties.

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