Five Middle East Realities the Media Didn't Tell You

By Paul Kinsinger // Headlines often paint a grim picture of life in the Middle East. People who view the region from afar see a dangerous place full of angry extremists who can’t get along with themselves or others. Recent stories of human rights violations in Syria and power struggles in Egypt only strengthen the perception of dangerous fallout from the Arab Spring. Yet the media lens distorts reality by focusing on unusual or extreme events.

At Thunderbird School of Global Management we believe the best way to understand a culture is to experience it firsthand. Westerners who visit the Middle East might be surprised by what they encounter at the corner café — just as Middle East observers coming the other direction might be surprised by the lack of race riots or hate crimes on your street.

In both cases the reality is more mundane than what media headlines suggest. Unless you deliberately enter a war zone or place of civil unrest, the most surprising thing you might find at the corner café is normalcy. The Arab Spring has produced life-changing moments for many people, yet the daily rhythm of life has not changed all that much. Here are five realities the media often miss:

Reality 1: A lot like you

Religion permeates the Middle East, but most people you would encounter at the corner café are not obsessed with it. They don’t sit around contemplating big questions of politics or spirituality. They are more likely to discuss soccer, favorite television shows, business deals, or what they did on the weekend with their families.

Reality 2: Family values

Throughout most of the region, strong family values prevail. Parents and other relatives take care of their own. They spend time together. The bonds are multigenerational — an outgrowth of the region’s tribal origins.

Reality 3: Social responsibility

Westerners who view Islam with suspicion often overlook an enduring tradition within the religion that requires people of faith to help their neighbors. Acts of charity often occur within extended families, which function as a safety net that sometimes takes the place of government programs. Businesses also give back to their communities.

Reality 4: Diverse landscape

Islam creates many commonalities across the Middle East. So does the Arabic language and centuries of cross-border trade. But important differences also persist among the more than 20 countries within the region. It matters if you dine at a corner café in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan or Egypt. Even within the same country, the contrasts can be stark within rural and urban settings.

Reality 5: Opportunities for women

One key difference across the Middle East involves opportunities for women. Despite a longstanding tradition of male dominance in the region, some governments have made modest strides in recent years to improve conditions for women. Many Jordanian women, for example, own businesses or work in traditionally male-dominated industries such as science and engineering.

The Middle East still has its problems. Violence, corruption and intolerance remain. But, with few exceptions, these issues do not dominate the cultural landscape any more than immigration tension or handgun violence does in the United States.

Paul Kinsinger is a professor of business intelligence at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale and the director of a custom Thunderbird Executive Education program in Saudi Arabia. This article first appeared July 7, 2012, in the Arizona Republic.