Eight in 10 Brits polled said they know little or nothing about the Arab world, while 52 percent of those who voted to leave the EU said they would never visit the Middle East, according to an Arab News/YouGov survey of over 2,000 UK citizens.
The poll, conducted in August, found that half of those who voted to remain in the bloc said they were interested in learning more about the Arab world, compared to just 25 percent of “leave” voters.
Stefan Sperl, senior lecturer in Arabic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said “a new kind of inward-looking mentality” had been reinforced by the vote to leave the EU.
“Brexit is a symptom of this,” he said. “The new nationalism is not linked to Britain, you find it everywhere, this is a globalized phenomenon we are facing.”
Many of those polled in the “UK attitudes toward the Arab world” survey subscribed to certain stereotypes, associating Arab culture with strict gender roles (52 percent) extremism and violence (23 percent and 14 percent respectively).
“Media reporting focuses more on these issues and much less on real day-to-day life in these countries. We are facing the problem that whatever is newsworthy is always more negative,” said Sperl.
“When it comes to the position of women especially, the image conveyed is too influenced by the negative,” he added. “In some Arab countries, women are a major part of the workforce and fully engaged in public life but these issues are much less known.”
“For people whose knowledge of the Middle East derives from what they see in the news, these points will be paramount.”
A majority of Brits interviewed in the survey also associated the region with vast wealth while just 6 percent linked it with poverty, regardless of large-scale migration and the impact of wars on the region.
Visible symbols of Middle Eastern affluence throughout London, such as the supercar-driving visitors to the Knightsbridge area, and high-profile property purchases, are likely to have driven the image of the wealthy Gulf Arab.
“It’s another source of misunderstanding,” said Sperl.
“The association with wealth is very understandable as the visibility here is very much slanted towards one particular reality. But if anything it diminishes any kind of empathy people might have with what is going on in the region.”
This has not necessarily detracted from the willingness of the British public to support humanitarian causes across the region, other commentators said.
“What we’ve consistently seen is generosity of spirit from the British public and I think if anything people are proud of the role that British aid can play in crises in the Arab world and beyond,” said Ruairidh Villar, senior media manager at Save the Children UK.
Despite only 18 percent of Brits saying they have visited the Arab world, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries remain popular with visitors from the UK, commentators said.
“In terms of business and tourism, we’re not seeing a change in attitudes in the bigger GCC markets,” said Andrew Campbell, managing director for the Middle East at Brand Finance, a London-based consultancy. “There’s been no deterioration in the strength of GCC brands from a British perspective,” he added.
Figures shared with Arab News by Euromonitor International showed that the UK remains a strong source market for the UAE in particular, accounting for 8 percent of visitors to the Emirates in 2015, which marked a 12 percent increase in the number of arrivals from the previous year.
However, elsewhere in the region countries like Jordan and Egypt have suffered a significant decline in tourist numbers due to recent regional turmoil.
“The perception (of the Middle East) from the news is often quite negative, with a strong focus on brutality and (Daesh) so rarely would people go off and explore the Arab world if they feel that everything on the news is dangerous,” said Middle East cultural and political analyst Nicolai Due-Gundersen.
• For full report and related articles please visit: How Brits view Arab world