BBC centenary: Jeremy Bowen on why the Middle East matters

British broadcaster has reported on major events across the region

Jeremy Bowen has been the BBC's Middle East editor for the past 25 years. Photo: Alamy
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It is a mark of the BBC that for almost a quarter of its 100 years of existence, it has had the same Middle East editor.

Jeremy Bowen, who works in London, has been the voice of negotiations, conflict, presidential successions and the mourning of kings for the broadcaster, which bears the motto “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation” and marks its centenary this month.

War, though, not peace helps Mr Bowen open his latest book The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History drawn from his tenure in the position since 1989.

As a witness to the First Gulf War, he recalls arriving at the Amiriyah air raid shelter in Baghdad on February 13, 1991, to find the desolate scene of a bunker for civilians that had been bombed.

Surveying the charred remains and moving among the crowd of mostly silent men who had taken their children and dearest ones to the refuge, Mr Bowen had his own feelings of vulnerability.

“As a journalist from one of the countries responsible for killing their families, I half expected to be lynched. But they spoke politely to me, as much mystified as angry,” he says.

He then endured his own trial by media as the Pentagon and UK Ministry of Defence reported the shelter as a military command centre. The scrutiny only went away a day later when Iraqi guards outside Al Rasheed hotel fired their guns to celebrate the ceasefire called by Washington.

Powerful states looking in from outside need to stop making it worse. Do no more harm
Jeremy Bowen

The 25 chapters in the book range widely as readers would expect for such a diverse region written up from the vantage point of a journalist with a key post at an institution that plays such a critical role in reporting its affairs.

A glimpse into what it means to be at the scene of a major turning point in history is provided when Mr Bowen recalls the night that Yigal Amir gunned down Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 after the Oslo Accords. The journalist recalls how his cameraman listened to the Hebrew radio chatter and advanced, while he was live on air, saying: “Tell them he’s dead.”

There is no doubt that moment was pivotal. Mr Bowen points to the ashen faces of the Cabinet that met under Shimon Peres a few hours later. “Every face showed their horror at the killing and the daunting scale of the task that lay ahead,” he says.

Inside the Amiriyah shelter in Baghdad, a site that is currently maintained as a memorial to the bombing. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Syria civil war

A decade of conflict in Syria is at the heart of this book. Mr Bowen is a guide to the prewar Damascus as much as the depths of siege and fighting that caused so much hardship. Through him and his colleagues, especially in the BBC Arabic services far more than its English-language output, the window on the war was kept open.

He recalls how he tried to gain access to Eastern Ghouta in January 2012 at the start of the area's seven-year effort to defy the Syrian forces, as well as travelling to Douma, dark and cold because the regime had cut off the power. But, he says, “morale was solid”.

Back in London, Mr Bowen reports his conversation with the Syrian embassy’s press attache, who tells him Bashar Al Assad should get rid of the old guard or the system would sink. The diplomat said he still had hopes that Mr Al Assad’s survival instinct would see him “ride the wave of reform”. Nothing of the sort was on the cards from the country's leader and the aide slipped away into exile.

After US President Barack Obama drew the red line on chemical weapons attacks and Ghouta was hit in 2013, Mr Bowen was back in Damascus. Everyone, he reports, expected the American attack that never came.

Mr Bowen’s phone rang and it was the Syrian presidency. Called in thinking Mr Al Assad wanted to get an interview out on the BBC, the journalist was instead assailed by questions from the staff. “Jeremy, what’s it like to be bombed by the Americans?”

Residents walk through the destruction of the once rebel-held Salaheddine district in eastern Aleppo, Syria, in 2017. AP

For those who look, there is some lifting of the curtain into what happened at the BBC as the news was covered. For the most part, it is a picture of the professional at work, specialising in a beat and developing contacts that matter not just for a few months but for years to come.

His coverage of the war in Yemen was informed by an encounter with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president who had ruled for three decades, in 2009. Saleh liked the analogy that his rule was a long dance across the heads of Yemen’s snakes. By 2011, he had lost control and was badly injured in an attack. In 2017, he was killed by his former allies. Mr Bowen observes that his rule and character were such that he was never likely to die peacefully in his bed.

The indescribable hardships of life in Gaza can be seen in the face of Yousef Al Masri, who stood over his dead sons, age 7 and 11, 700 metres from the separation fence with Israel in 2021. Looking into Mr Al Masri’s eyes, Mr Bowen recalled the conversations he had with the Palestinian psychiatrist Ayad El Sarraj two decades earlier. Dr El Sarraj talked about the pain that the conflict was embedding in his children and, a generation later, the journalist could see it in the grieving father.

That is the kind of vantage point the BBC allows all its viewers and consumers to share.

Writing at the close about the effect of the war in Ukraine on food supplies, already precarious, in the Middle East’s poorest countries, Mr Bowen pulls back the lens to what matters.

“The Middle East is relatively small but it matters because it is right in the centre of the world,” he says. “The new forces unleashed by the war in Ukraine do not change that.

“Powerful states looking in from outside need to stop making it worse. Do no more harm. Then try to make things better.”

The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History, by Jeremy Bowen, is published by Picador (£20).

Updated: October 17, 2022, 10:16 AM