The West’s Mideast obsession

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The media in the Middle East carry a lot of Middle Eastern stories, of course, but why do most of the other media in the world do the same?

Asian media strike a better balance, but Western media, and any other media that basically follow the American news agenda, focus obsessively on the region. Between a third and a half of all foreign news stories in the Western print and broadcast media are usually about the Middle East.

Like fish that never notice the medium they swim in, people tend not to remark upon this familiar aspect of their media environment. I didn’t really become aware of it myself until I flew into Canada a few years ago, got a copy of the Globe and Mail, “Canada’s National Newspaper,” and found that every single story on the two pages of foreign news it offers was about the Middle East.

This is a phenomenon that cries out for an explanation, and it’s not easy to find a credible one. It’s certainly not oil, which is the lazy explanation. Oil is quite important in the global economy, and the Middle East has a large share of the market and an even bigger share of the reserves. But it’s been 37 years since the oil-rich Arab states once refused to sell their oil, and they couldn’t do that again.

“Couldn’t” because it would cause far too much disruption in their own economies. The 1973 oil embargo took place at a time when most of the major Arab oil-exporting countries had populations two or three times smaller than they are now, and when their people did not live in full-fledged consumer societies.

It’s different now. The cash flow from oil exports pays not just for imported cars and plasma-screen TVs, but for the very food that the local people eat: most Arab oil-exporting states import half or more of the food they consume. They also have huge investments in the Western economies that an oil embargo would hurt. Another oil embargo isn’t going to happen, and stories about oil belong on the business pages.

Well, then, how about the fact that the United States has invaded two Middle Eastern countries in the past 10 years, and still has troops in both of them? Does that explain the obsessive focus on the Middle East? No, because the obsession was there before the invasions. In fact, the causation is probably the other way round: the exaggerated importance with which Americans already viewed the Middle East was almost certainly a contributory factor in the Bush administration’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

The main factor in the Afghan decision, of course, was the foolish belief that invading Afghanistan would somehow help to suppress anti-American terrorism rather than stimulate more of it. Almost nobody in Washington seemed aware that they were falling into a trap laid for them by Osama bin Laden. The invasion of Iraq had more complex and even less rational motives, but was equally driven by the mistaken belief that this was a very important place.

The greater Middle East contains about 10 percent of the world’s population. The Arab world at its heart is only 5 percent. The whole region accounts for only 3 percent of the global economy, and produces almost nothing of interest to the rest of the world except oil. So why does it dominate the international news agenda?

The Europeans play a role in this, because the media in the former imperial powers take a greater interest in their former colonies than in other countries of equal importance. But the American media really set the agenda, and their fascination with the Middle East requires a different explanation.

A large part of it is driven by the deep emotional investment in Israel that many Americans have. Israel is not viewed as just another foreign country, to be weighed by its strategic and economic importance. It is seen as a special place, almost an American protectorate, and its foreign policy agenda (which is all about the Middle East) largely sets the U.S. media agenda.

The other big factor is the lasting American obsession with Iran, which is as great as the obsession with Cuba. Both countries have successfully defied the U.S., and that has been neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Combine the love for Israel and the hatred of Iran, and you have an explanation for the American media’s obsession with the entire Middle Eastern region. Most media elsewhere, especially in the West, just follow suit. It’s a huge distortion that leads to the neglect of much important news about the rest of the world, but at least the Middle East gives good value for money. The news it generates is unfailingly interesting.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars,” is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.