ARAB LEAGUE: 'We are trying to restore trust with the United States'
Thomas Cromwell

Representing the Arab League in Washington is not the easiest job. For one, the League, as an organization, does not enjoy the full diplomatic status of a foreign state. For another, Arabs as a people continue to suffer from the worst possible images and stereotypes, negative perceptions that were only heightened by the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, carried out by Arab youths. 

Ambassador Hussein Hassouna, who took over the post a few years ago, is as good a man for the job as you could find. With a long history of diplomatic postings for Egypt, his homeland, and an earlier stint for the League at the United Nations, Ambassador Hassouna brings a soft touch to the daunting task of improving the image of Arabs in Washington and the United States as a whole.

“As Arab officials in this town, we are still facing the repercussions of 9/11” he told, in a recent interview. He noted that “although time has passed, issues like the trial of [Zacarias] Moussaoui reminds people of these atrocious events, where a minority of killers perpetrated acts which no Arab or Muslim can agree to or support.”

Arabs appreciate America
However, Ambassador Hassouna is keen to point to the underlying strength of ties between America and the Arab world. “Despite [9/11 and its repercussions], relations between the United States and the Arab world have been strong and friendly,” he said, “especially when you remember how the Arabs looked to the United Sates as a champion of the Woodrow Wilson principle of self determination.”

He noted that, in 1956 “President Eisenhower stood up to his closest allies, the UK, France and Israel, to demand the withdrawal from Egypt, and later the role played by American presidents in brokering peace between Egypt and Israel and then Jordan and Israel, as well as the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.”

The image problem runs both ways
“But September 11 cast a shadow over all of that,” the ambassador said. “We as Arab officials are trying to restore trust between the United Sates and our respective countries. We are trying to improve the image of the Arabs in the United States, which is closely related to improving the image of the United States in the Arab world.”

He added: “What we need is not just a better understanding of the issues, and bridging the gap, but also to work together to promote a stronger relationship. That is why we need to work on joint economic, cultural and media projects.” He said “the Arab League mission is doing this in many ways,” and mentioned several programs it is actively pursuing.

US-Arab Economic Summit
On June 26, high-level decision-makers and business-people from the Arab world and the United States will meet in Houston at the second US-Arab Economic Forum, which is designed to improve mutual understanding and strengthen business ties. The Arab League is a co-sponsor of these forums, launched after 9/11 in collaboration with the Dearborn-based US-Arab Chamber of Commerce. The ambassador said the forum will go beyond business: “We are also working on several joint councils, on businesswomen, on mayors, a visitors’ program; some concrete mechanisms that it is hoped will be adopted at this important meeting.”

Arab Cultural Festival at the Kennedy in 2009
Another important initiative, is “for the first time we are working with the Kennedy Center on launching a very huge Arab Cultural Festival in 2009, bringing together all the 22 member states, in a coordinated effort through the Arab League, which will present to the American public, first in Washington and then throughout the country, the best we have in art and culture, in literature, poetry, music (traditional and modern), dance, painting, sculpture and fashion. I think this will have a big impact. We have to select the best we have in the Arab world, to show that we have high standards of people in the arts and culture, and to show the American public that we have a great culture and civilization, and to remind them that our culture and civilization enriched those of the West, many years ago.” He also noted that in recent times four Arabs won Nobel prizes. 

“We also work closely with the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (the ADC). They have just opened in Washington their new premises, and we think this can be a showcase for Arab American Culture. We hope to have some joint cultural activities with them in Washington.

“Last year we participated in the opening of the first Arab American Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan, which again shows the Arab American achievements in this country, in all fields of knowledge, and contribution to American life.”

Changing the Arab image is not easy
The ambassador pointed out that although “we are trying to change the Arab image, it is not easy. It is an uphill battle.” A major beef is that the mainstream media do not seek the input of Arabs themselves, preferring rather to tap ‘experts’ on the region to comment on current affairs. “The media in this city are a little blasé. They know better. They only resort to [calling on] Arabs when it fits their story and their agenda,” he said. “There is a striking difference between media in Washington and the rest of America.”

He then recounted a good experience with media in Springfield, Missouri, where he recently attended a program on America, Islam and the Middle East, and gave interviews to the local stations of CBS and Fox News.

He complained that the media “always focus on the negative things happening in the Arab world. They focus on the number of people killed in Iraq, those who are taken hostage, the beheadings: things which we all condemn. There are also very many positive things happening in Iraq, Palestine and the Arab world in general.”

As an example, he mentioned a meeting convened by the Arab League in November last year, at its headquarters in Cairo. “It was the first time that all the leaders of Iraqi parties and factions had been brought together to discuss reconciliation. It was a very fruitful dialogue and a common communiqué was issued on the consensus.” The ambassador said that the participants agreed to hold a second meeting in Baghdad, to take place in June this year, after the formation of the new government. “But there was hardly any mention of this positive political development in the American media,” he said.

Using social activities to improve the Arab image
The ambassador noted that the League is using social events to improve the image of Arabs, at least in Washington. Recently, the League hosted a reception at the Willard Intercontinental to celebrate its 61st anniversary. The event was well attended “for the first time by American officials, by ambassadors from all the different regions, by academics and the media.” He pointed out that, “we were keen at this celebration to present Arab food, including dates from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, Arab wine, from Lebanon and Algeria, and a Palestinian musician playing the Aud.”

New blood among Arab ambassadors
Ambassador Hassouna is also encouraged by a new crop of Arab ambassadors. They are “full of energy and passion,” he said. He noted that the new Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki Al Faisal, has been very active talking about his country’s positions around the country. There is also the first woman Arab ambassador, from Oman. “She has been doing an excellent job in lobbying for a free trade agreement with the United States.” These and others are giving new life to the Council of Arab Ambassadors, which meets at the Arab League office regularly.

One positive result of 9/11
He said that one good thing to come out of 9/11 is “the increased interest in the Arab world. I have found there are so many students now enrolled in courses about the Arab world. I have also been invited by the Virginia and New Mexico military institutes, where the cadets were very interested in the region.” He stressed that “Arabs and Americans should seize on these opportunities to build up good relations.”

Reform of the Arab League
“It is progressing gradually,” the ambassador said of the program of reform that Secretary General Amr Moussa has been pushing for the Arab League. “It is like an evolution, not a revolution.” The ambassador pointed out that at the last summit, in Khartoum, Moussa was unanimously returned to office for another five years. “[Having Moussa lead the League] is one thing all the Arab members agree on,” he said, noting that Moussa “has been pushing for reform, and it is happening.”

Arab League has lead regional initiatives
He noted that all major Arab initiatives of the last years have been adopted in the framework of the Arab League, including the Arab peace initiative adopted in Beirut in 2002, the Arab Free Trade initiative, the initiative to create a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, the convention to fight terrorism, the organization to promote the role of Arab women, concern for the environment, etc. “But to implement all these initiatives the League has had to revamp its structure. It has changed the voting rule from unanimity to a majority (2/3 or a simple majority, depending on the issue). It has also set up a pan-Arab parliament, with representatives from Arab parliaments.

The League has also accepted the input of Arab civil society in the work of the Economic and Social Council. And at the Khartoum summit the League created a new Council for Peace and Security, like the one established by the African Union, set up to deal with conflicts in the region.   

Regional solutions to regional problems
“The League has evolved, to make it a more efficient organization, which is very much needed,” the ambassador said. “In today’s world, all issues are global. On the international level, the United Nations is the best forum to deal with them, because you need global solutions, whether for weapons of mass destruction, or the environment, organized crime, drugs, terrorism, etc. On the regional level, the Arab League and other regional bodies, like the African Union, the Organization of American States and the European Union are the best forums to deal with these issues because they can provide regional solutions to regional problems, and they understand the root causes and cultures. This is recognized by the United Nations, which has developed its relationship with all these regional organizations to provide them with know-how and technical assistance.”

At the Tunis summit last year, “The League adopted a collective vision of reform in the Arab world. I think the League is a catalyst for member countries to implement more reform. The League is to follow up with periodic reports on reform, to the meetings of heads of state.”

He concluded on an upbeat note, saying that “Countries are recognizing the central role of the League in the region, and have extended support to it.”

Biography of Dr. Hussein Hassouna, Ambassador of the League of Arab States to the Untied States

1997-2002: Ambassador of the League of Arab States to the Untied Nations
1996-1997: Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt for International Legal Affairs and Treaties
1992-1996: Ambassador of Egypt to Morocco
1989-1992: Ambassador of Egypt to Yugoslavia
1986-1989: Director of Cabinet to the Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt
1983-1986: Director, Egyptian Press & Information Bureau, Paris, France
1978-1982: Political Counselor, Egyptian Embassy, Washington, D.C.
1976-1978: Special Advisor to the Egyptian Foreign Minister of Legal; and International Organization Affairs
1971-1976: Member, Permanent Mission of Egypt to the United Nations, New York

Representative of Egypt to major United Nations conferences, Non-Aligned, Africana and Arab meetings

Member, Egyptian delegation to successive Middle East peace negotiations in Cairo, Tel Aviv and Washington, D.C., leading to the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty

L.L.B & PhD in International Law, Cambridge University, England

Lectured at major universities in the United States, Canada, England and France, including Yale, Georgetown, UCLA, McGill, Cambridge and Sorbonne

Author of a book on Middle East conflicts and articles on international law and world affairs in various publications, including the American Journal of International Law, World Policy Journal, and United National Publications