Erbil, the Kurdish city in north Iraq, was recently chosen as the Arab Capital of Tourism for 2014. The selection which was made by the Arab Council of Tourism comes midst security concerns sparked by last month suicide attack, the first since 2007.
Choosing a non-Arab city for such title raised eyebrows particularly among other competing rivals such as Beirut, Sharjah and Saudi Taif. However, recent visitors to the city can testify that over the past year, Erbil which is trying to follow the footsteps of Dubai as a business hub for investors, has also become a frequent destination for Arab entertainment stars such as Lebanese Raghib Alama, Hafia Wahbi and Nansi Ajram.
While the majority of the population speaks little Arabic, the city officials seem determined to win Arab recognition. In their public relation efforts to do so, officials managed to convince Arab pop music Diva Samira Said to sing “Erbil”, a poetic song that praises the city’s history and nature scenery. Saudi news website, Elaph posted a video showing the star while filming the song. Watch the video below.
The Moroccan star who became famous after she moved to Cairo in the 1980s is expected to be nominated for this year World Music Award.
While the selection of Said may seem impressive for many potential Arab tourists, some Arab-Iraqis or Kurds might think otherwise. The star was one of several well-known Arab entertainment stars that the former regime of Saddam Hussein used to promote the latter’s image as an Arab leader during the war with Iran. Below is a video of a song she recorded in Baghdad back then.
Said collaborated with Iraqi artists affiliated with the Iraqi Ministry of Information and Culture to make the song which praised Iraq under Hussein who was behind series of anti-Kurd military operations dubbed as “Anfal campaign” including Halabcha where a notorious chemical weapon attack took place.
From a public relation perspective, one must give credit though to the Kurdish officials for their diligent effort to beat costly campaigns such as those launched by UAE’s Sharjah and Saudi Arabia’s Taif. Over the past months authorities in the Kurdish autonomous region hosted a range of activities including international peace marathon and a beauty contest.
However, there is a clear contradiction between the message the campaign is sending and authorities’ actions. While the campaign aims at promoting Erbil as an attractive destination for Arab tourists, Kurdish authorities are preventing Arab Iraqis living in neighboring provinces from visiting the city.
Following last month suicide attack, border security subjected Arabs coming into the region from other parts of Iraq to special security measures. Some media reports suggested that some were denied entry and forced to turn back.
While it is understandable that the campaign is designed to target external audience, Arabs outside Iraq, it is also important also to remember that messaging in any PR campaign needs to be believable for people to act on it. A city that does not welcome Arabs living inside the same country, Iraq, and where the use of Arabic language is shrinking, is risking a good portion of its tourism revenues.
Furthermore, Using a celebrity endorser such as Samira Said to project Erbil as a city tolerant of Arabs will still be hard to sell even among Saddam’s fans and Arab nationalists who are on loggerheads with the Shia Iraqi government in Baghdad. Celebrities in integrated marketing campaign require to have some attributes such as: trustworthiness, expertise, attractiveness and similarity to the target audience.
Said has many of these attributes indeed, but the PR team of Erbil’s tourism campaign forgot to conduct a thorough background check to examine her past affiliations. She might very well be seen as someone who switches alliances so easily for the sake of financial gains.