When the Middle East really means just ‘Arab’

Fear of offending Arab countries still leads to Israel’s exclusion, 20 years after the boycott ended

By Jan Shure, May 14, 2009

In case you need reminding, we are almost half way through 2009. It is 31 years since the Camp David agreement, 20 years since the formal Arab boycott of Israel ended and 16 years since Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, leading, supposedly, to the normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Yet how often does the phrase “Middle East”, in any commercial context, actually include Israel? And how often is it a handy euphemism for “Arab nations”? Just this week, King Abdullah of Jordan talked about a “57-state solution” whereby the entire Muslim world would recognize the Jewish state as part of a wide-ranging peace deal to be brokered by the Obama administration — a clear enough signal that such normalisation is overdue

This is always made very clear at the UK’s main travel exhibition, World Travel Market, where the “Middle East” region invariably fails to include Israel. At last year’s show, Israel was next to Portugal in a sector entitled “Europe and Mediterranean”, while all its geographical neighbours were in another hall, in a sector called “Middle East and North Africa”. The organizers of WTM may, of course, have placed Israel there on security grounds, possibly even at the request of Israel.

But no such excuse exists for the World Travel Awards Middle East Gala Ceremony, held in Dubai last week. There were awards in 42 categories, from best Middle East Airline and best Middle East Airport, to best hotel, best car-hire, best leisure hotel, best spa resort, best… the list goes on. With anything from three to 10 nominees per category, there were around 300 nominees — in Lebanon, Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Egypt — in fact every Middle Eastern Arab country you can name (apart, possibly, from Iraq, for whom tourism has not been a priority of late). And not one in Israel.

Media partners for this segment of the World Travel Awards included BBC World News, Europcar, Virgin Atlantic and many others. Did it occur to none of them that “Middle East” doesn’t actually mean Middle East, it means Arab? Or is doing business with Arab countries so delicate that a bout of selective myopia is acceptable?

Organisers claim that “this year around 42,000 voters participated in selecting winners. Voters were apparently also asked to vote on “micro favourites such as the Middle East’s Leading Suite, Middle East’s Leading Travel Website”.

I wonder whether any of the 42,000 voters — spotting that these were nominally Middle East awards — put forward anything Israeli. And, if so, was the nomination deleted? Or is there such a widespread realization that “Middle East” really means “Arab” that they didn’t even bother? I haven’t, of course, seen all 42,000 nominations, so there could have been some. But if so, how odd that not a single part of Israel’s high-quality tourism offerings deserved a win or even a fourth place in even a single category. 

Whether the Jewish state was formally excluded or merely by-passed in an unofficial boycott, I would like to know if anyone challenged the organizers on the exclusion. If not, perhaps it is about time someone in the travel industry did just that.

Jan Shure is the JC’s travel editor

Last updated: 12:27pm, May 14 2009