Branding the Middle East: Communication Strategies and Image Building from Qom to Casablanca

Unraveling Communication Strategies and Image Construction in the Middle East

By Steffen Wippel

Branding as a pervasive phenomenon and soaring academic theme

In Qatar, the small dairy brand Baladna (“Our Country”), established just a few years ago, experienced a tremendous upswing in 2017. Amidst the sea, land, and air embargo spearheaded by Saudi and Emirati leaders, this had tangible (geo)economic and (geo)political consequences beyond the development of a new product line: backed by important state support, the company imported thousands of cows, notably through the new Doha deep-water port, opened the same year. The “Made in Qatar” brand symbolised the resistance of a small country against its overpowering, malevolent neighbours, integrated lasting strategies of national self-sufficiency and food securitisation. It became a sign of national pride, reflecting successful long-term planning by the Qatari government, and a forward-looking state that cares for its citizens. Moreover, it induced a spread of “milk nationalism” across the Arabian Peninsula among countries concerned about their independence, competitiveness, and nation-building. This has strengthened the credibility of state narratives, the position of the rulers in power, as well as the respective nation brands.

The Dubai skyline from the sea with a series of iconic skyscrapers. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2012.

Worldwide, branding has become a rapidly expanding business since around the 1980s/1990s, although it is not totally new and has its roots back to antiquity, when handcrafted products, cattle, but also human beings started to be literally “brandmarked.” More recently, it has developed from product to corporate branding and has gradually been applied to places and people. This has been paralleled by growing academic interest and conceptual elaboration. In this context, branding is often understood as a comprehensive communication strategy that aims to generate favourable perceptions and images of its objects in a broad and heterogeneous public. As most publications are highly application-oriented, they call for the communication of a clear and homogeneous image and the establishment of a well-defined responsible agency. Yet, other strands critically scrutinise branding processes and situate them within general economic, political, and social trends. Accordingly, contemporary branding exemplarily reflects the eclectic, media- and experience-oriented character of postmodernity, embodies the neoliberalisation of the economy, and aligns with the current globalisation wave. Critical authors also underline that it is highly selective, excluding all disturbing aspects. They study political ends, e.g. of rulers; and point to negative side effects. Likewise, the actual practice of branding is very heterogeneous and kaleidoscopic, and takes place on many levels and by many actors.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), over the past two decades, in particular the hypercapitalistic city-state of Dubai has become a place brandmarked and succeeded in attracting worldwide fascination. Following its example, many other nations, cities, and project sites in the Gulf, the MENA region, and beyond have also sought to enhance their public reputation through attention-drawing means, ranging from creating novel architecture and organising cultural and sport events to announcing strategic urban and national visions. Similarly, several Middle Eastern products and companies – like the Dubai-owned airline Emirates – have become internationally recognised brands, whereas global brands seek to appeal to local consumers. In addition to cultural figures, namely political and religious leaders are increasingly involved in explicit self-branding, becoming icons with regional impact and global recognisability, too.

Qatar Airways logo: The oryx as a national icon. Source: Qatar Airways Logo, Uploaded 2 March 2010, 15 August 2023. Lacks the necessary level of creation to enjoy copyright protection, but is protected under trademark law.

A new publication filling an important regional research gap  

This background was the motivation behind compiling the newly published edited volume “Branding the Middle East: Communication Strategies and Image Building from Qom to Casablanca.” One of its central aims is to highlight the diversity and heterogeneity of branding efforts in this region, which has received little attention to date. While branding in the Western world and many emerging economies has been meticulously analysed, the MENA region, except for a few Gulf countries, lacks comprehensive and critical investigations. This neglect may be attributed to the fact that the countries there are perceived as autocratic, backward, and war-torn, with little incentive, capacity, or room for postmodern experiments. However, on the one hand, many countries in the region have developed into global players in terms of technology and the adaptation of cutting-edge (e.g. urban) concepts, which have then been copied within the region and outside. On the other hand, it is precisely in authoritarian regimes that branding fulfils multiple functions of nation-building, power protection, and global recognition. Even religion is not at all an obstacle to branding in neoliberal times, but it is used to successfully position goods or people labelled as “Islamic” in the local or global attention markets.

A Fanta advertisement poster in Tangier, Morocco, in Darija (Moroccan vernacular Arabic) in Latin script. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2013.

Hence, the book primarily explores a pervasive and ubiquitous phenomenon in the region that has not yet been studied in breadth and depth all its empirical manifestations. Overall, the diversity of the phenomenon makes it difficult to come up with one central message or universally valid interpretations; it would also be presumptuous to adopt a uniform theoretical, conceptual, or methodological approach to the subject. Rather, the value of this volume lies precisely in the variety of perspectives – most of them critical – on branding in the region; in the sometimes contradictory insights offered by the authors, who come from very different (also disciplinary) backgrounds; and in its comparative approach between the diverse parts of the MENA region. What can be said, however, is that while branding efforts have been increasing across the entire region, they have done so to varying speed, intensity, and sophistication.

Panel “Branding the Middle East” at Deutsche Orientalistentag, 16 September 2022, Berlin. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2022.

Based on several extended panels at international conferences over recent years, the book examines the branding of products, places, and persons in the Middle East and North Africa, including some studies from adjacent regions and the wider Islamicate world, with a focus on place branding given the current research landscape. It critically analyses strategic communication and image-building processes in the context of globalisation, neo-liberalisation, and post-modernisation, and, in a regional perspective, of increased endeavours for “worlding” and widespread, long-lasting authoritarian rule. In particular, the volume looks at the manifold actors involved in branding activities and their interests, motives, and strategies, and investigates channels and forms of branding. Beyond simply presenting the omnipresent logos and slogans, the individual chapters consider the complexity of tools used, ranging from widely reproduced cityscapes and other material artefacts to the personal reputations of producers and potentates and a variety of social, cultural, and political activities. On a more abstract level, Natalie Koch’s chapter on Gulf milk nationalism in this volume exemplary demonstrates the entanglements of different spatial scales and various kinds of branded objects, which, instead of being easily separated, show frequently significant cross- and co-branding effects.

Special attention is given to the positioning of objects of branding in time and space. Recurring ruptures at local, regional, and global levels have shaken established images of people and places, but have also allowed existing brands to be repositioned and new ones to be created. In the Middle East in particular, branding is also often a matter of countering negative worldwide associations with the region, generating more positive images. Besides their external function, communication strategies are directed inwards, towards consumers ready to buy, as well as national and urban citizens, in order to create social cohesion. In authoritarian contexts, branding is particularly successful, but also necessary to stabilise the power of the rulers in the face of lacking democratic legitimisation and crumbling social contracts. At the same time, geopolitical and geo-economic considerations, interstate relations, and interurban competition are essential aspects of branding, especially in a conflict-ridden region such as the MENA.

A master of political self-promotion: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Source: U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. U.S. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain. Retrieved here, 15 August 2023.

In these endeavours, visions repeatedly overtake reality, simulations precede or even replace actual realisations, and the deliberately unsaid or concealed is fundamental for promotional representations, which preferably turn to the embellished, cleansed, and smoothed. Eventually, the papers elucidate the extent to which brands are socially constructed, even if relevant actors tend to essentialise them. Moreover, branding goes hand in hand with processes of fragmentation and persistent inequalities that it even itself often promotes directly. As will be shown, populations can react to top-down branding with strategies of appropriation and resistance that counter official ideals. Furthermore, the branding of places, empires, and rulers – even if the concept did not yet exist under this name – was already practised in the early Arab, Ottoman, and Islamic realms. With the colonial era and arriving industrialisation and tourism, product and destination brands also became more widespread. In this anthology, therefore, historical case studies complement the focus on contemporary branding efforts.

The organisation of the edited volume

In total, the book comprises around 35 chapters, including several “snapshots,” all organised in five parts. The authors represent a wide range of social sciences and humanities, not to mention more specialised and interdisciplinary fields like area studies, urban studies up to drinking studies, and are of Western and Middle Eastern origin.

A brief opener situates the volume’s cover image within Omani branding efforts, which contribute to reconstruct continuous transregional connections within the wider Indian Ocean region. After a brief lead-in, the first chapter of the introductory section explores general theoretical and conceptual approaches to branding as mentioned above, which serve as a broader framework for this book. It includes a journey through the global, mostly Western, history of branding, a clarification of terminology, and a look at the global macro-contexts, in which contemporary branding takes place. The second chapter presents a synthesis of existing literature, which, more often implicitly, addresses the regional manifestations of the branding phenomenon. It provides a comprehensive overview of empirical developments and their interpretations in the MENA region, from product and personal branding to a tour d’horizon of place branding, from the Gulf to the Maghreb and the region’s peripheries; a short conclusion gives an outlook on research gaps. This links up with the final introductory chapter that sets out the overall aim, genesis, and structure of the volume and explains its various parts and chapters.

Al Nassma, producer of ḥalāl-certified camel milk chocolate, Dubai: Chocolate box and Dubai Mall chocolate stall. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2022.
Dubai Mall chocolate stall. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2012.

The next part starts with branding in the field of “Consumption, Culture, and Lifestyle.” First, this relates to beverages, from “national” dairy products in Arab Gulf countries to tea in Mali, but also alcohol advertising, both contemporary and colonial, in North Africa and Lebanon, and their links to nationalism, history, and way of life. Islamic features, such as the branding of Dubai as the capital of the Islamic economy and the spiritual brand conveyed by an Egyptian religious scholar, contrast with the selling of Beirut as an “Orientalised” queer-friendly place. From Damascus to Berlin, fakes that are not really fakes contribute to the ongoing Islamisation of fashion brands. With omnipresent signs and logos, South Indian products and places, too, want to partake in Dubai’s glamour and fame.

The third part concentrates on branding pre-modern empires and modern nation states, starting with Ottoman architectural practices of imperial branding. Contemporary nation branding includes the search for, first, a unifying national logo and, second, a green brand in the UAE, as well as the link to spatial planning in Oman. Egyptian destination marketing oscillates between addressing a Western-oriented and a more conservative Arab public, whereas, after independence, Gulf States also used postage stamps to demonstrate national progress. Finally, Gibraltar is increasingly trying to imagine itself as an economic and cultural bridge between Europe and the Maghreb.

Architectural landmarks in Doha, Qatar: West Bay business district skyline. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2011.
Architectural landmarks in Doha, Qatar: Canale Grande, Villaggio Mall. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2011.

Part IV turns to the many facets of city branding. Like Gibraltar, Tangier is also being positioned at spatial, but also cultural and temporal interfaces. As in Cairo, the branding of Middle Eastern places mostly relates to brand-new developments and sells a prosperous future. Yet, “slum-free” urban action programmes are another means to brand cities, e.g. in Egypt and Morocco, while often passing over the local populations’ interests. In a Turkish neighbourhood, by contrast, local people are trying to adopt official branding narratives and assert them against state repression. The brand development of the Iranian city of Qom reflects a turn towards an Islamically gilded capitalism. While in Gulf cities like Kuwait, urban advertising may outlive long-abandoned projects, another chapter investigates residents’ brand perceptions of Casablanca, which prides itself on having developed the first comprehensive city-branding strategy in the whole of Africa.

Welcome Edirne city logo with the Selimiye Mosque in the background. Photo: Birgit Krawietz, 2017. Courtesy of the photographer.

The final section of the book addresses the branding of other, less studied places. The branding of the new town of NEOM in Saudi Arabia and the Eyüpsultan neighbourhood in Istanbul, both primarily serve the self-promotion of political leaders. More ephemeral sites, such as refugee camps, also undergo branding processes, while the naming of mosques in Denmark relates to different national and geopolitical backgrounds in the Middle East. In Istanbul, from past to present, tulips ubiquitously have been showcased as symbols of Ottomanism. Conclusively, demonstrating immaculateness and purity, untainted by the downsides of everyday life, can be a particular goal of branding, as is practiced in Dubai.

The book explores a fascinating and multifaceted phenomenon within an understudied and diverse world region. It offers different approaches, investigative perspectives, and research findings, examining the complex interplay of brand actors and regions. The analysis extends to the various levels, forms, and manifestations of branding, shedding light on both conscious and unconscious political and social consequences. Positioned within the broader global phenomenon of branding, the book significantly contributes to our understanding, especially in the context of the Middle East.

The Dubai brand in Europe, “Dubai jeweller” in a popular neighbourhood in Leipzig. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2010.
Qatar Destination Brand promotional poster at a bus stop in the Berlin suburb of Spandau. Photo: Steffen Wippel, 2022.

In this respect, it will be particularly relevant for researchers and students in various area studies and disciplines, including human geography, international relations, international economics, media and urban studies, and the broader field of social and cultural sciences. It appeals to those interested in branding, marketing, image- and identity-building, and public diplomacy within and across their disciplines.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has generously made the online version openly accessible through the Merian Centre for Advanced Studies in the Maghreb (MECAM) in Tunis. Hopefully, this edited volume will also inspire further research, as many fields of branding, such as the emerging “green branding” or more studies on the personal branding of leaders and personalities from art and culture, but also research on countries particularly affected by war, unrest, and crises and unfriendly to research, could only be insufficiently covered.


About the Author

Steffen Wippel is Postdoc Research Fellow and Publication Manager for the MECAM at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) │ GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies (IMES), Hamburg; previously he coordinated the Interdisciplinary MECAM Fellow Group “Resources and Sustainability” at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. Before that, he worked at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin, several German universities, and the University of Southern Denmark in Odense. He holds a PhD in economics from the Freie Universität Berlin and a habilitation degree (Dr. habil.) from Erlangen University. His interdisciplinary research focuses on regionalisation and urban development in the MENA region. For further information see: https://mecam.tn, http://www.wippel.homepage.t-online.de;  http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Steffen_Wippel; https://www.giga-hamburg.de/de/das-giga/team/dr-steffen-wippel.


The Book

Branding the Middle East:
Communication Strategies and Image Building from Qom to Casablanca

Edited by Steffen Wippel

Studies on Modern Orient Volume 38 | Edition Klaus Schwarz. Berlin/Boston: Walter De Gruyter, 2023

xvi+660 pages, 87 col. ill., 9 tables

ISBN Hardcover 9783110740622; eBook 9783110741100

Open Access: https://www.degruyter.com/document/isbn/9783110741100/html   


Citation: Steffen Wippel, Branding the Middle East: Communication Strategies and Image Building from Qom to Casablanca, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.01.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50000



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 9. Januar). Branding the Middle East: Communication Strategies and Image Building from Qom to Casablanca. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vk2y

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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