Is the rise of Russia in the Arab world fuelled by Kremlin 'propaganda'?

News outlets like RT Arabic that burnish Bashar Al Assad thrives at a time of distrust in traditional media

A picture taken on June 8, 2018 shows an unidentified directors of the Russia Today (RT) TV company at in their apparatus room in Moscow. (Photo by Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP)
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There was one thing both sides agreed on.

Russia is seen as a firm ally in the eyes of young Arabs - and the reputation of the United States is on the wane.

The findings of this year’s Arab Youth Survey, published last week, revealed that almost two thirds of 18 to 24-year-old's across the Arabian Gulf, Levant and North Africa now see Russia as a friend to their countries.

The US, meanwhile, is seen as an enemy by 59 per cent, a figure that has almost doubled from 32 per cent only three years ago.

The shift in perceptions, at least in part, can be attributed to the growing influence of pro-Kremlin news outlets, such as RT Arabic and Sputnik in the Arab world, analysts of Moscow's soft power tactics believe.

“It would be fair to say that RT and Sputnik are a contributing factor for sure,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who has studied the Arabic output of the Russian state-funded channels extensively.

“[The reach of the channels] is fairly major, especially among the youth, and that is especially important because it is the region’s largest and growing population. The Russian government is making a long-term investment here.”

But her claims were disputed by Russia’s Charge d’Affairs in Abu Dhabi, Yury Vidakas, who welcomed the results of the survey.

He credited the rise in Russia's repute to the popularity of President Vladimir Putin's foreign policy and a growing appreciation of Russian culture and society.

He rejected the claim that RT Arabic – formerly Russia Today – and Sputnik produce propaganda, instead he described the content as a counterweight to "fake news" about Russia spread by the West.

Even those suspicious of Russian intentions admit Moscow’s military interventions, most notably in Syria, as well as perceptions of an American retreat from the region over recent years, are potentially more influential factors in shaping opinions on Russia.

"These [survey] results are not surprising at all," Ms Borshchevskaya said. "They are consistent with what we should have expected given the trajectory of Russia’s activities in the Middle East, and US retreat from the region, at least a perceived one."

US President Donald Trump's provocative policies regarding Israel and his rhetoric towards Muslims are also widely seen to have damaged the country's reputation among Arabs.

The true impact of Russian-funded news coverage is "hard to say," Ms Borshchevskaya said. "When it comes to the influence of Russian information operations, measurement has always been an issue."

But what is of little doubt is that Russian channels have gone to extensive efforts to reach Arab audiences.

RT Arabic has been broadcasting for more than a decade, offering an around-the-clock TV channel, website as well as prolific social media accounts.

Sputnik, founded in 2014, also offers extensive coverage in Arabic. Across social media in particular, the brands have engaged millions of Arabic-speaking followers.

RT Arabic has published more than 550,000 tweets, significantly more content than Al Jazeera's 237,000, Al Arabiya's 174,000, CNN Arabic's 145,000 or BBC Arabic at 115,000.

The RT Arabic Twitter account has about four million followers, its Instagram has 900,000 and YouTube channel has 2.8 million subscribers.

The media landscape in the Middle East presents Russia with "unique opportunities", Ms Borshchevskaya wrote in a recent paper for the Washington Institute.

A lack of independent news outlets, above average social media use and a tradition of suspicion towards Western news sources created "useful openings" that the Kremlin is exploiting, she said.

Alongside non-partisan local and human interest stories, the channels present Russia “as a great power in the Middle East", according to Ms Borshchevskaya’s analysis, while also promoting “a divisive, conspiratorial, anti-Western ideology”.

The paper cited reports labelling all opponents of Bashar Al Assad in Syria as "terrorists", attempts to discredit rival Western news outlets as unreliable and a suggestion that a "deep state" in the US is working to undermine President Trump from within as recurring regular themes in RT Arabic coverage.

epa07529429 Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a Tsinghua University ceremony at the Friendship palace in Beijing, China, 26 April 2019. Putin received the title of honorary doctor of Tsinghua University.  EPA/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL MANDATORY CREDIT

Other examples of slanted RT Arabic output designed to put forward an anti-Western agenda included a recent video package from inside North Korea that downplayed concerns about hunger and working conditions, according to Jassar Al Tahat, a Jordanian journalist and freelance media monitor.

He said the Russian channels were keen to publish stories about the mistreatment of Muslims in the US, particularly if their faith was disrespected, to an Arab audience.

"RT Arabic enjoys a widespread viewership in the Arab region," Mr Al Tahat said. "It presents itself as an alternative to the Western narrative, but plays the role of a mouthpiece for Kremlin policies in the region." He said he believed its output was "highly linked" to how Russia and America were perceived.

However, other western analysts were more cautious. “It has probably had an impact around the margins,” said Donald Jensen, a former US diplomat and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis. “But it needs to be looked at in a systematic way.

“If you were to ask me, ‘do the Russian information operations in the Middle East have an impact?’ I would say, 'yes, probably'. But I couldn’t give you data supporting that.

"I don't think RT is anything other than a Kremlin mouthpiece, but in terms of measuring impact, it's complicated and I don't think we can make a generalisation.

“A lot of people say they like it for natural disasters and soccer coverage. A lot of viewers look for news that will reinforce their existing assumptions. So if you think America is an imperialist in the Middle East, you’re going to pick something that says that.”

Mr Vidakas, from the Russian embassy, said an increasing positive attitude towards Russia was the result of its “reliable” foreign policy in the region and rising numbers of young people visiting and studying in the country.

If people want to learn about Russia, they are welcome to watch. If they don't like to see it, people can change the channel

The successful World Cup, held last summer, also helped change perceptions about the country and counter "Western propaganda" which portrayed it unfairly, he added.

"I am not surprised by these survey results," Mr Vidakas said. "We have historic relations with the Arab countries and Russia is an important player in the region. It shows increasing understanding of Russia and its role in international affairs.

“More countries are realising that they can trust Russia, compared to the US, because we are providing help and assistance and do not interfere in their internal affairs.

"We are one of the most secure allies of the Arabic world and the perception of Russia is warm and positive.

“With the World Cup, people saw a different country to what was proclaimed by the western propaganda. We accepted millions of fans and proved Russia is a safe country.

"A lot travelled from the UAE and wondered why before there had been such fake news about Russia. They saw with their own eyes Russia is an open country.”

Mr Vidakas said RT Arabic and Sputnik presented an accurate picture of Russia in contrast to an unfair coverage the nation receives from western outlets.

“They are telling people about Russia, helping them understand the country, it is not propaganda,” he said.

"There are programmes such as Russian Travel Guide, which is available here, which has absolutely nothing to do with politics.

“If people want to learn about Russia, they are welcome to watch. If they don’t like to see it, people can change the channel,” Mr Vidakas said.