Tony Blair tells West to embrace Middle East's desire for change

Polling by former British prime minister's think tank shows 'outdated misconceptions' about the region

Tony Blair was UK prime minister from 1997 to 2007. AP
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People in western countries should set aside their negative stereotypes of the Middle East and embrace its desire for modernisation, former UK prime minister Tony Blair has said.

Polling by Mr Blair's think tank found evidence of what he called "outdated misconceptions" of the region, with people in Britain, the US, France and Germany likely to see it as unstable, discriminatory and potentially hostile.

Conversely, the survey found most people in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq said they regarded western countries positively and believed in equal rights and peaceful co-existence between faiths.

They also expressed optimism about the future of science and technology in the region, contrary to the prevailing western view that the region's economy is rigid and stagnant.

Mr Blair, who ordered British troops into Iraq as part of the US-led invasion in 2003, said there were "surprisingly positive" attitudes in the region towards the UK, US and Europe.

"People across the Middle East and North Africa, especially the youth, want societies which are religiously tolerant, economically enterprising and at peace with their neighbours," he said.

"Unfortunately, western attitudes are lagging [behind]. We still think of the region as backward, intractable and irredeemably hostile to us. And whilst of course there is evidence for those attitudes in parts of the Middle East, the polling shows they do not represent the majority.

"The risk for the West is our outdated misconception of what people in the region really think leads us to disengage at the very moment where there is an opportunity for us to partner the region and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

'Third way'

A 73-page report by the Tony Blair Institute said there was broad support in the region for Saudi Arabia's reform efforts, intended to drive diversification from oil.

The report cited 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 of international engagement bearing fruit.

It invited US President Joe Biden, visiting the region this week, to support a "third way" between the status quo and radical governments in the region — invoking one of Mr Blair's catchphrases when he was Labour Party leader.

The report said majorities of between 67 per cent and 75 per cent of those polled in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia believed that women should have the same rights as men at all levels of business and government.

However, only 9 per cent to 15 per cent of people in Britain, the US, France and Germany believed women's rights were making progress in the Middle East.

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Between 41 per cent and 49 per cent of western respondents thought countries in the region were "hostile or generally unfriendly" towards the West, while most thought it likely that there would always be conflict in the Middle East.

By contrast, 72 per cent of those polled in the Middle East expressed a favourable view of the US, with 67 per cent regarding Britain positively and 62 per cent saying the same about France.

The report said that despite continuing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Palestine, there had been "significant progress towards ending war in the region, as Middle Eastern leaders have taken steps to build a co-operative and peaceful future".

"However, the prevailing view among western publics is that the Middle East is more often a source of problems than solutions," it said. "In spite of this, people in the Middle East and much of its leadership desire regional peace and partnerships with western nations."

The polling in the Middle East was carried out by Zogby Research Services, with 4,856 people interviewed face to face. There were 6,268 respondents to YouGov surveys in Europe and America.

Updated: July 13, 2022, 11:38 PM