Tony Blair Institute says West must 'stop taking influence in Middle East for granted'

Global leaders are being urged to build on Abraham Accords to forge more robust partnerships with the region

Shoppers in Najaf, Iraq. The Tony Blair Institute is calling on the West to stop taking its influence in the Middle East for granted. AFP
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Britain and its allies should capitalise on the Abraham Accords to foster stronger ties with countries in the Middle East, the Tony Blair Institute said.

In its latest report, experts say “the door for engagement is open” for the West to enhance co-operation “in areas of mutual strength” with the region, which it said is among the least institutionally interconnected parts of the world.

They also said the time had come for the West to “stop taking the Middle East for granted”.

The landmark Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between the US, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, could serve as a solid foundation for dialogue between countries around the globe and the Middle East, according to a report by the TBI.

The non-profit organisation was founded by the former Labour Party leader who served as prime minister of the UK from 1997 to 2007.

Almost two decades on from the UK’s role in the US-led invasion of Iraq, Mr Blair continues to face questions from journalists and members of the public about his actions.

The 58-page document titled How Not to Lose Friends and Influence in the Middle East: The Narratives Advancing Russia and China’s Soft Power, made several bold recommendations.

It noted how “as a result of decades of conflict, the Middle East is one of the least institutionally interconnected regions of the world” and said Europe and the US had a key role to play in reaching out to the region.

"The West should stop taking influence in the Middle East for granted"
Emman el-Badawy, Middle East policy expert at the Tony Blair Institute

Despite the widely held belief that many people in the Middle East hold a hostile view of western nations, experts said their polling suggests “it is clear the door for engagement is open”.

“Following the historic Abraham Accords, countries are coming together to co-operate across a range of sectors and fields to a greater extent than before,” the authors wrote. “In addition to security matters, there has been a flourishing of cultural, trade and research ties between countries that previously had no formally recognised relations.

“The West should seek to enhance and build on these steps, including through the Abraham Accords, in areas of mutual strength.”

Students are seen in class on the first day of the new school term at a primary school in Baghdad, Iraq October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

It suggested Britain in particular could step up its efforts to link up with Middle East states through membership of the Commonwealth. Increasing support for media platforms including BBC Arabic and BBC Persian, which have been hit by funding cuts, should also be considered, the TBI said.

The report drew on Horizon 2020, the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation, which had a designated project for the region. The Middle East Research and Innovation Dialogue aims to intensify and encourage links between the 27-member bloc and nations including Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.

TBI experts noted how Horizon 2020 is the world’s largest multinational research fund, with observer states already including Israel, Turkey and Tunisia.

The report recommended that the UK and the US “should join with Europe to cultivate a new regional Middle East research fund to support student mobility, early-career grants and major research grants”.

“As states in the Middle East seek to diversify their economies beyond natural resources, supporting the region’s knowledge and learning would be a meaningful and substantial contribution,” it added.

Emman el-Badawy, Middle East policy expert at TBI and co-author of the report, urged western leaders to adopt a new approach to the region.

“The Middle East is one of the world’s youngest regions and will be an epicentre of economic dynamism this century," she said. “And TBI polling shows that western and Middle Eastern cultural and economic values are becoming more aligned.

“However, there is a real sense in the region that the US and its allies have rested on their laurels in recent years, as evidenced by the so-called US pivot to Asia.

President Xi [Jinping's] visit to the Middle East and the signing of formal co-operation agreements last week underlines that the West risks falling behind.

“It is up to the West to respond to that challenge and stop taking influence in the Middle East for granted. The US and its allies need to make a renewed effort to rebuild partnerships and counter disinformation.”

Abraham Accords - in pictures

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the non-profit conducted polls in seven Middle East countries ― Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. The results showed a favourable view of many western countries but, often, China is of equal or more interest to people in the region.

The report noted how Russia’s investment in certain countries “seems to be paying off”. Iraq was singled out as an example of how Moscow’s investment “is leading to greater interest in Russia among the populations there”.

The findings suggested that the UK and the US are “viewed more favourably than is often assumed”, but China is seen in an equally positive light.

“In response to the significant hard and soft-power investments in the Middle East by the West’s competitors, what should a revitalised approach to the Middle East look like?” the authors wrote.

“This report concludes by arguing that the West must compete with Russia on security while this focus must shift to the economic field with China.

“Through a renewed security commitment, an ambitious investment agenda and reinvestment in soft power and accompanying narratives, the West can still reassert its leadership in the Middle East and support the agency of its allies.”

Updated: December 15, 2022, 12:01 AM