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Western views on Arabs ‘outdated’, says Blair think tank

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The progressive attitudes and aspirations of people in the Middle East defy the way some Westerners stereotype them, says report
  • 19% of people polled in the West think region is forward-looking
  • Vast majority in Middle East favour modern reforms
  • Education is key to reversing stereotypes that dominate media

Western perceptions of the Arab world are out of synch with the modern reality, argues a new 73-page report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.  

“On average, less than a quarter of those polled in Western countries believe that people in the Middle East share all or most of the same values as them, such as support for secular politics, and respect for difference and freedom of expression,” states the report which was based on polling carried out on behalf of the former British prime minister’s London-based think tank.

“Even fewer think it is a forward-looking region characterised by hope, instead associating the Middle East with intractable conflict and violent extremism.”

Currently only 19 percent of those polled in Western countries think of the region as forward looking. 

By contrast, argues the report, the polling carried out in the Middle East reveals very different perspectives within the region.

Washington-headquartered Zogby Research Services interviewed 4,856 people in-person in the Middle East while there were 6,268 respondents to the UK-headquartered YouGov surveys carried out in Europe and America.

Bold reform agendas, such as Saudi Arabia’s modernisation programme, designed to liberalise its social institutions and drive economic diversification, are widely supported by people across the region, notes the report. 

The overwhelming majority are rejecting the ideology of politicised religious movements, instead favouring pragmatic governments that can create more jobs for young people, reform religious institutions and enhance public services such as health and education, it said.

“The risk for the West is our outdated misconception of what people in the region really think leads us to disengage at the very moment where there is an opportunity for us to partner with the region and its modernising elements for the benefit, not only of the region itself, but for our own security.”

The report also notes that there is broad support in the region for Saudi Arabia’s reform efforts and also cites the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, and the Cop climate summits being hosted by Egypt in 2022 and the UAE in 2023 as examples where collaboration with international partners has proven successful. 

“The peoples of the Middle East have by and large always embraced change. Few areas in the world have changed more than the GCC states in the last 50 years. Yet in some countries, they have not always been able to achieve all the changes they desired,” Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab British Understanding (Caabu), told AGBI.

“The so-called Arab Spring and more recent protests are powerful testimonies to how fed up many are in the region with the existing order, and their desire for better governance. These issues have not disappeared.” 

James Zogby, managing director of Zogby Research Services, told AGBI that he thinks the West’s pre-existing prejudices still permeate the reality of how it deals with the region.

“One Arab leader said to me ‘From Bush to Obama, to Trump to Biden, it has been a rollercoaster ride that has left us dizzy and we now can’t place our trust that what is happening now will be happening two to three years from now,” said Zogby.

“We now recognise that we can have a relationship with the US where we need one but we also have to, in effect, hedge our bets,” said Zogby.

“I think there is a disconnect, and I appreciated that the Blair Institute wanted to look at some of the areas so that the relationship can move forward based on a mutual respect and understanding.” 

Zogby said the key to addressing the disconnect and changing negative stereotypes is education. 

“It’s a massive undertaking that begins with learning,” he explained. “The stereotypes that dominate popular culture and media, and characterise political discourse, are just hugely destructive. There’s a need to re-examine how we understand the region.”