Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world

Special An important new survey highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the the Arab world and the reality of the region. (AFP)
An important new survey highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the the Arab world and the reality of the region. (AFP)
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Updated 18 July 2022

Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world

Revealed: ‘Worrying and outdated’ stereotypes color Western perceptions of the Arab world
  • The study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change came out on the eve of President Biden’s Middle East trip
  • Two surveys found a wide gulf between Western attitudes and the reality of the situation in the region

LONDON: The countries of the Middle East are “backward-looking,” unfriendly, or even hostile to Western nations, and fail to share their values or aspirations.

These are the worrying and outdated perceptions of people in four Western nations — the UK, US, France and Germany — surveyed in a new poll conducted for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The same poll, however, reveals that, in fact, Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Tunisia “deeply respect the US and its values of freedom, innovation, and opportunity.”

YouGov conducted interviews online between March 20 and March 28 with 6,268 adults in four Western countries; the US (1,418), UK (1,780), France (1,065) and Germany (2,005).

Zogby Research Services, meanwhile, conducted face-to-face interviews between March 17 and April 7 with 4,856 adults in five Arab countries: Egypt (1,043), Iraq (1,044), Lebanon (857), Saudi Arabia (1,043) and Tunisia (869).

Published on the eve of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the timely survey and its accompanying report, “Think Again: Inside the Modernization of the New Middle East,” highlights the gulf between Western perceptions of the region and the reality of the situation.

Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister and founder and executive chairman of the Blair Institute, said that the results of the poll show that “people across the Middle East and North Africa, especially the youth, want societies which are religiously tolerant, economically enterprising and at peace with their neighbors.

“Leaders engaged in these reforms are supported; those wanting to exploit religious or tribal differences are not. And virtually in every country surveyed, opinions of the West, particularly the US, Europe and the UK, are surprisingly positive.”

Unfortunately, he added: “Western attitudes are lagging. 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, he warned, was that “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 modernizing elements, for the benefit not only of the region itself but for our own security.”

The institute’s report points to social developments in Saudi Arabia as an example of “the new Middle East’s shared vision for change,” but concludes that this vision and the progress it has already brought about has so far failed to register in the Western consciousness.

More than half of those polled in the West believe that people in the Middle East do not share the same values as them, such as support for secular politics, and respect for difference and freedom of expression.

Western perceptions of the Arab world are far removed from the reality. (AFP)

Neither, adds the report, “do they think it is a forward-looking region characterized by hope, instead associating the Middle East with intractable conflict and violent extremism.”

But from the perspective of the people who live there, the poll reveals that “the New Middle East is an altogether different place.”

For example, “an overwhelming majority support the Saudi modernization program and others like it that are reforming institutions, liberalizing society and diversifying the economy.”

Equally, “the majority are opposed to regressive religious movements and their role in politics.”

The report praises Saudi Arabia’s modernization program, championed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under the Vision 2030 blueprint for the nation’s future, as “the most comprehensive, regionally driven, transformative agenda since the post-colonial period.”

From liberalizing the country’s laws and policies to diversifying the economy, 73 percent of people polled across the region said that they support these transformative steps, including 89 percent of Saudis themselves.

The survey reveals much about the changing nature of Saudi society, including the waning influence of religious authorities.

Indeed, educational reform and the role of religion are key issues for almost everyone polled across all five countries in the region: 77 percent of Iraqis, 73 percent of Saudis, 71 percent of Tunisians and 65 percent of Lebanese believe their country’s religious education and practices require reform.

The report singled out Saudi Arabia for praise as a result of its many modernization programs. (AFP)

“What is clear,” the report states, “is that people want secular and pragmatic government, not leadership bound to outdated and destructive Islamist ideologies.

“Today, an overwhelming 75 percent agree that politicized religious movements are damaging for the region.”

This figure is even higher in Saudi Arabia, standing at 80 percent.

Saudi Arabia’s authorities, lawmakers and religious scholars, the report states, “have worked to modernize women’s rights, the judicial system (and) censorship laws and lift social restrictions, including gender-segregation laws.”

Modernizing and diversifying the economy is seen as a “high priority” for the majority of Saudis, 60 percent of whom identify technology and innovation, and 44 percent tourism, as the ideal sectors to generate employment.

More of those surveyed in the Kingdom favor their children receiving technological skills over religious education.

The report highlights that Saudi government thinking — and action ­— about the future is in step with the views of its citizens as the country moves to unlock the potential of non-oil sectors.

In 2021, for example, there was a 54 percent increase in start-up funding over 2020 and $33 billion invested in information and communication technology. The report also highlights there are now in excess of 300,000 jobs in the Saudi tech sector.

The Global Entrepreneurship Congress has ranked the economic and regulatory landscape in the Kingdom as the best environment for business start-ups out of 45 countries.

On women’s rights, by a margin of two to one, a majority of Saudis agree that women should have the same employment rights as men in private and public sectors.

Vision 2030 envisages women will comprise at least 30 percent of the workforce by 2030, while women’s economic participation in the Kingdom grew from 19.4 percent in 2017 to more than 33 percent in 2020.

All these developments, the report concludes, are popular in Saudi Arabia. Equally important, the Blair Institute says, is they should be supported by the West — and by the US in particular.

Despite its repuation for backwardness, the region is dynamic and forward-facing. (AFP)

Reflecting a history of friendship and economic and military collaboration that dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic February 1945 meeting aboard the USS Quincy on the Suez Canal with King Abdulaziz, founder of Saudi Arabia, “Saudis look to the US as their global partner of choice, despite decades of Western assumptions that anti-Americanism is on the rise.”

Saudi respondents to the survey gave their most favorable country ratings to China, the US and the UK, but 66 percent said that they would most like their country to partner with the US.

“As the Kingdom and its people make strides in transforming society and the economy,” the report states, “now is the time for the US and its allies to invest in the country’s future.”

The report also notes how Saudi Arabia is skilfully managing to balance the preservation and promotion of its own heritage with an embrace of Western culture — to the delight of its young people.

In “the once-conservative Saudi Arabia,” it says, “Vision 2030 prioritizes cultural expression with three aims: Promoting tolerance, professionalism, discipline, justice and transparency; preserving Saudi, Arab and Islamic cultural heritage and history; and preserving and promoting national identity in order to pass it on to future generations.”

There are also “commercial implications ... . Taking a global approach, Saudi Arabia is seeking international partners for its festivals, arts and museums, with the culture sector expected to generate $20 billion, create 100,000 jobs and contribute 3 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.”

At the same time, “music festivals and international sporting events are capitalizing on changes in the Middle East.”

The report cites last year’s MDLBeast Soundstorm festival, which was staged in the desert outside Riyadh and attracted a global audience of more than 700,000.

This state-sponsored event “witnessed young men and women openly mixing, wearing unconventional clothing and enjoying performances by popular Western musicians such as David Guetta — an appearance that caused great excitement among the Saudi youth. Sporting events, including Formula 1 ... are also drawing in a global audience.”

The report highlights that, as part of its national “cultural transformation,” Saudi Arabia has introduced a new visa scheme to encourage international artists to visit, and a residency program to allow artists to settle permanently.

Runners take part in the Tahrir Youth Marathon, in support of ongoing anti-government protests, in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. (AFP)

“The aim is to increase freedom for cultural exchange and to underpin the Kingdom’s plans to accelerate the arts and culture sector.”

In his foreword to the report, James Zogby, the managing director of international polling firm Zogby Research Services, which carried out the survey for the Blair institute, says that Western perceptions of the Arab world “are too often shaped by negative stereotypes and anecdotal evidence used to justify prejudicial views — rather than by reality.”

As a result, he adds, “our understanding of who Arabs are, and what values and aspirations they have, too often misses the mark.”

Western policymakers and political analysts “talk about Arabs and at Arabs, but they rarely consider listening to Arabs in order to fully understand their lives, and their needs and hopes for the future.”

One consequence of this has been “the oversimplification of a complex region, which has led to costly policy disasters. In recognition of these failures and still hampered by attitudes shaped by negative perceptions, some voices in the West now argue for disengagement from the region.”

Zogby had this message for Western policymakers and political pundits. “Check your biases at the door and listen to what Arabs are telling us about what they want.

“As my mother used to tell me, ‘If you want others to hear you, you must listen to them first.’

“Thanks to the institute, Arab voices are speaking to you. Listen to what they’re saying.”


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Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis
Updated 56 min 10 sec ago

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis

Kuwaiti charity offers psychological aid to victims of war, crisis
  • Team of 30 psychologists, specialists will provide support to refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey

KUWAIT: A Kuwaiti charity is offering psychological aid and emotional support for victims of wars and crises in the Middle East.

The International Islamic Charity Organization charity has established a team of 30 psychologists and specialists who will provide support in three refugee-hosting countries: Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Kuwait News Agency reported on Monday.

Othman Al-Asfour, head of the lICO Tarahum team, said that the initiative affirms an integral part of social and psychological support in humanitarian aid.

Psychologist Dr. Shereefa Al-Khamees stressed that refugees were in urgent need of psychological aid as much as handouts and donations.

The psychological health of the affected is very delicate and requires thorough treatment and support, Al-Khamees added.


Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation
Updated 05 December 2022

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation

Jordan, Algeria launch new phase of cooperation
  • Jordan’s King Abdullah, Algerian president witness signing of two agreements and three MoUs
  • Governments instructed to take steps to boost investment, commercial opportunities in both countries

ALGIERS: Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune have launched a new phase of bilateral relations.

The leaders held talks on Sunday in Algiers to discuss boosting Jordanian-Algerian cooperation in politics, economics, trade, investment, and defense, Jordan News Agency reported.

The meeting, which was attended by senior officials from both sides, also affirmed interest in maintaining coordination and consultation on Arab causes and other issues of mutual concern. 

King Abdullah reiterated the centrality of the Palestinian cause and the need to protect Palestinians’ legitimate rights. 

He called for a just and comprehensive peace plan based on the two-state solution which establishes an independent and sovereign Palestinian state along the June 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital. 

He also reaffirmed the significance of maintaining the historical and legal status quo at Al Aqsa Mosque.

Following the meeting, the leaders witnessed the signing of an agreement on visa exemptions for diplomatic passport-holders, as well as a cooperation program between Jordan News Agency and the Algerian Press Service. 

Three memorandums of understanding on political consultations, cooperation between the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy and the Algeria Institute of Diplomacy and International Relations, and the mutual recognition of maritime qualification certificates for seafarers, education programs, and maritime training between the two countries were also signed.

King Abdullah and President Tebboune further instructed their governments to take the necessary steps to encourage investors and businesses to explore investment and commercial opportunities in both countries. 

They were also directed to move forward with agreements that would expand collaborations in health care, energy, medical tourism, hotels, transportation, aviation training, higher education, and cultural exchange between universities. 

Economists have praised the outcomes of King Abdullah’s state visit to Algeria.

Jordanian Senator Mazen Darwazah said that Jordanian investment in Algeria has gradually increased over the last two decades, with the drug industry spending nearly $1 billion.

Jordanian-Algerian Business Council Coordinator Khaled Al-Soub said that Algerian law allows Jordanian investors to expand their projects and acquire shares from foreign partners. 

Energy expert Hashem Akel said that Algeria was rich in petrol and natural resources and hoped that energy imports from the country would increase after Jordan receives preferential prices.


Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit
Updated 05 December 2022

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit

Italy pledges ‘full cooperation’ with Jordan during king’s visit
  • ‘Many common points were found during the talks,’ source in PM’s office tells Arab News
  • Trade, cultural and defense cooperation were the core issues discussed

ROME: Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pledged their country’s “full cooperation” with Jordan “in every field,” during a meeting with King Abdullah II.

The monarch and Queen Rania were received by Mattarella at Quirinale Palace during their visit to Rome.

A source in the Italian presidency told Arab News that Mattarella stressed to the king “the importance for his country of the longstanding friendship between Italy and Jordan.” 

Italy is one of Jordan’s main commercial partners. In the first five months of 2021, bilateral trade grew by 26.7 percent compared to the same period the previous year. During the same period, Jordanian exports to Italy grew by 82.7 percent.

During an official lunch at Chigi Palace, Meloni told the king: “We always can do more together in so many fields.”

A source in the prime minister’s office said trade, cultural and defense cooperation were the core issues discussed.

“The situation in Syria was also covered. Many common points were found during the talks,” the source told Arab News.

Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and Defense Minister Guido Crosetto also attended the lunch.

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum
Updated 05 December 2022

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum

UNRWA, Arab League urge protection of Palestinian education curriculum
  • Israeli censorship a concern, says ALECSO representative

CAIRO: The Palestinian education system should be protected from attempts to censor material being taught at schools.

This was the concern raised by some officials at the 32nd joint meeting of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the Council of Educational Affairs of the Arab League in Cairo, the Saudi Press Agency reported. The gathering took place at the Arab League’s headquarters in Egypt’s capital.

Dr. Tamer Anis, a representative of the Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organization, drew attention to Israel’s attempts to censor the Palestinian curriculum. He urged support for the Palestinian Ministry of Education.

Arab News had reported this year about attempts by Israel to impose a “sanitized” curriculum on East Jerusalem’s schools that includes the deletion of all photos of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the word Palestine and the Palestinian flag. Holy Qur’anic verses were also deleted on claims that they help strengthen Palestinian, Arab and Islamic identities.

At Sunday’s meeting in Cairo, Saeed Abu Ali, the Arab League’s assistant secretary-general for Palestine and the occupied Arab territories, said the gathering comes in the wake of the UNRWA’s ongoing financial crisis, which has had a direct impact on the services provided to Palestinian refugees.

Abu Ali stressed the need for the next UNRWA budget to reflect the growing needs of Palestinian refugees. He added that the Arab League would continue to keep communication channels open between the two organizations

Rawda Al-Hajj, the representative of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said that ISESCO continues to support several education projects in Palestine.

The UNRWA’s Deputy Director of Education Moritz Bilagher reiterated that the Palestinian refugee crisis was not solely the responsibility of Arab countries, but rather a global issue for which the international community must take responsibility.


Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate
Updated 05 December 2022

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate
  • Israeli president among 300 high-ranking personalities attending the event

DUBAI: Israeli president Isaac Herzog has arrived in the UAE Monday to attend the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, state news agency (WAM) reported.

Herzog was welcomed by the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli president will be among 300 high-ranking personalities and decision makers attending the first edition of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, which opened on Monday.

The two-day event will discuss the space industry’s most pressing challenges and factors to drive the new space economy.