LONDON: Faced with a complex legacy of successes and failures in the Middle East, Britain has reached “crunch time” in its relations with the region, said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).
Speaking to Arab News ahead of Wednesday’s anniversary event to mark 50 years since CAABU’s launch in 1967, Doyle reflected on Britain’s relationships in the Middle East at a time when old conflicts remain unresolved and new challenges continue to emerge.
“Britain’s role in the world is in flux and nowhere more so than in the Arab world,” he said, emphasizing the need for “an informed and dynamic policy providing real leadership to help solve the region’s crises.”
Doyle added: “When we look across the Arab world now and Britain’s role in it, it’s not a pretty sight. We see numerous very serious conflicts, some of which Britain is directly very involved in.”
The “collective failure” to resolve crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Palestine illustrates the need for foreign powers intervening in Middle East affairs to address the underlying conflicts and tensions between countries and communities, which are “too often glossed over and ignored,” he said.
CAABU, which is committed to enhancing Arab-British understanding and improving relations with the region, pushes for a British government response based on resolving conflict from the roots.
It was founded in the wake of the 1967 War by a group of politicians, journalists and academics, and its members spoke up for the Palestinian community in Parliament at a time when few dared to voice their support.
Today, the organization maintains a strong focus on education, raising awareness of the factors at play in conflicts across the Middle East and challenging stereotypes about the Arab world in politics and society.
“We have definitely changed the tenor of debate on the Middle East in Parliament over the years,” Doyle said. He cited cautions against the hasty use of force and encouraging greater consideration of the impact on societies and countries being bombed, as well as the ongoing repercussions of foreign military intervention.
Looking ahead, Doyle described the “momentous challenges” facing external powers operating in a region filled with “fault lines.”
“As the region has become more divided, more polarized along all sorts of identity lines — Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Persians, and sectarian lines of Sunni, Shia, Druze, Christians — it’s become very hard to please everybody,” Doyle said.
Recent events have been a case in point, including the dispute between Qatar and some of its Arab neighbors.
“The balance between maintaining our relationships and human rights has been tricky and at times perhaps Britain has got that wrong,” Doyle said.
At other times, British foreign policy has been lacking in clout, he continued, citing the marginalization of European powers and the US in Syria and public concern over the situation in Yemen.
A YouGov Poll conducted by Arab News and CAABU in September revealed that 57 percent of Britons see UK foreign policy as ineffective, with 83 opposing the 2003 war in Iraq and little over 50 percent in support of UK airstrikes against Daesh in Syria and Iraq, showing rising sentiment against military interventions.
The same poll also indicated worrying levels of misunderstanding toward the region among Britons, with 81 percent of those surveyed admitting to knowing little or nothing about the region.
“It highlighted what we all feared — the massive level of ignorance in Britain about the Arab world,” said Doyle.
“That ignorance has led to hostility.”
This is one of the dangers CAABU aims to counteract through its education programs, providing basic introductions to Arab culture, Islam and Middle East conflicts in schools across the country.
“Relations with this area of the world and how Arabs and Muslims at the broader level are viewed may well be shaped by the acts of extremists and people who don’t want to see these healthy relations,” Doyle cautioned.
A spate of attacks by extremists across Europe this year, including five in Britain, and a rise in right-wing sentiment has given CAABU’s work in countering negative attitudes toward the Arab world a new urgency.
“We’re having to combat ideologies that we thought had been well and truly defeated, which really does scare us," Doyle said.
“If we’re going to have fruitful positive relations (between) all our countries and peoples we have a really significant ideological battle to win.”