Sand, War and Fast Cars: (Mis)Representations of the Middle East

Sand, war and fast cars. Whether it's a news segment or a Hollywood movie, misrepresentations of the Middle East can be pervasive. NYU Abu Dhabi ...

Feb 14, 2015

Sand, war and fast cars. Whether it's a news segment or a Hollywood movie, misrepresentations of the Middle East can be pervasive. NYU Abu Dhabi students, as they circulate different sites of the Global Network University, may encounter the problem of stereotypes frequently, both abroad at home.
As freshman Sue-Ann Lau from Singapore put it: “When I told my family and friends I was coming here they thought three things: terrorists, the veil and oppression.”
Although we are in the most communicative era of history, helped by the advent of the Internet, distortions of the Middle East aren’t necessarily disappearing; rather, they seem to be becoming more universal.
To many foreigners, the Middle East is synonymous with oil. Intervention, local or foreign, is often perceived as being motivated by petroleum.
Freshman Patrick Reid, from the USA, explained the Middle East’s reputation as an oil-producing region:
“This stereotype will continue to be proliferated as long as the international community sees the region as a tool for manipulation of oil prices to harm foreign economies,” said Reid.
While the discovery of oil in the Middle East has invigorated many countries’ economies, including that of the UAE, oil’s image in the international media may overshadow recognition of diversified economies and unique cultures. Many don’t see oil-producing countries as being fully independent, despite efforts to seek alternate resources.
Just as Borat seems to have defined Kazakhstan for a generation of impressionable moviegoers, NYUAD students have noticed that, back home, games like the Call of Duty franchise and movies such as “American Sniper” only reinforce the dogma of a war-torn Middle East.
“In Hollywood, there’s so much about terrorists and war that we all become suspicious, especially in Asia,” Lau explained.
News stories are often rife with generalizations about Muslims — with many foreigners still clueless to the different sects of Islam. The recent Charlie Hebdo attacks gave rise to media coverage on Muslim communities around the world, with many calling for Muslims to vocally distance themselves from Islamic fundamentalists.
Yet some have commented on a discrepancy in the coverage of other tragic events, such as the mass-murder in Norway by Anders Breivik. Breivik was a member of the Christian Church of Norway, yet after his tragic attack, there was no vocal call for Christians to distance themselves from him.
Fast Cars
The UAE isn’t immune to gross generalizations, either. Some students here at NYUAD have commented on stereotypes about local culture, which positions Emiratis as being extraordinarily wealthy and describes a culture of materialism paralleling society’s development.
Popular shows such as “Top Gear” do little to change clichés, opting instead to chat about the flamboyant Dubai police cars. Pre-1970s Emirati culture seems to be buried beneath generalizations and stereotypes, ridding the country of a vibrant local heritage.
“Where I’m from, there’s some degree of insanity that accompanies how people think of the Middle East,” said Reid. “It’s all just full of stereotypes about terrorists and war. And it’s a harmful stereotype, because Middle Easterners are discriminated against.”
Tyler Headley is a contributing writer. Email him at
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