MYTHS about the Arab world and the broader Islamic world flourish in the “West” with a seemingly never-ending shelf-life but this is also a two-way street. Even as the British pound crashes, its future exit from the European Union creates seismic jitters, and the United Kingdom looks more disunited than ever, it is still astonishing that the myth persists in too many quarters that Britain pulls all the strings not just in the Middle East but in Washington as well. Occasionally, London even controls Moscow.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would splutter over their breakfast at this thought but these views are very much out there. Flattering at one level that Britain is seen as powerful, damning that the notion of Perfidious Albion flourishes.
In an interview on Egyptian television, I was assailed as to why Britain was installing Muslim Brotherhood governments all across the region. Everywhere.
Another Arab journalist asked me recently why Britain tried to bring about a coup in Turkey arguing that it was not to topple Erdogan but just to make him weaker. Another claimed the opposition that it was a clever, devious plan to make the Turkish president stronger and more powerful. For sure Britain manipulating Washington is not a novel view even if flawed, but it is hard not to laugh when you are told that Putin’s Russia also acts solely on the say-so of Britain.
In Egypt these views seem particularly strong. The British travel advice for Egypt is seen as Exhibit A of Britain’s Machiavellian intentions. “Sharm El Sheikh is so safe.” Gently pointing out that a flight was blown up coming out of the airport less than a year ago makes little impression nor that the travel advice only warns against flying to the Sinai resort capital not against being there. It becomes clear that many critical Egyptians have not even read the advice. Quite what the political and economic advantage to Britain is to maintain this advice is not answered and the argument that the priority is the safety of British citizens similarly carries no weight. As ever, there must be an agenda.
Having influence is not control and does not mean that Britain is still capable of pulling all the strings as it did 100 years ago
Palestinians can have a tendency to believe that it is almost as if Arthur Balfour and Mark Sykes are still running the British Foreign Office. For sure the colonial mentality in some British quarters is far from dead but thankfully Britain has moved on.
The other line is that Britain is pro-Shiite. The assumption here is that as we gifted Iraq on an open platter to Iran, this must be the case. All this is based on the startling assumption that the Anglo-American project for Iraq succeeded, not failed, that deliberately this alliance wanted to just wreck the country and invite Tehran in. Once again the reality is that most British MPs, as one survey, found could not even tell the difference between Sunni and Shiite.
Some years back one British diplomat remarked to me that these views can sometimes work in his favor. He was asked which month Assad would fall as if London was determining the exact date on a pre-planned calendar. The belief that Britain was all-powerful meant that that local politicians listened and studied his every word.
The secondary myth is the Britain knows the Middle East better than anyone else and therefore is able to collapse governments at will, install its chosen proxies and decide the future of an entire region. The reality is that expertise is fading. The quality of Arabic speaking the Foreign Office has declined. Fifty years ago there were British diplomats who had run areas of the Arab World like Aden for example, and knew nearly all the tribal chiefs personally. A bygone era. Most British MPs are honest enough to admit their knowledge of the region is scant.
The sad thing is that Britain has suffered from a whole raft of major policy failures not least because of false policy assumptions and ill-informed notions of the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Palestine are all exhibits of British decline, not supremacy. Equally the tendency to blame the outside for the ills of the region remains powerful, dangerously glossing over what
Another remarkable feature of this enduring mythology is that well-educated, well-travelled worldly wise commentators indulge in this. It would be a mistake to see this is as just ill-informed group-think hypnotized by official media outlets.
Britain does have influence, with major historic and present interests in the region. But having influence is not control and does not mean that Britain is still capable of pulling all the strings as it did 100 years ago. Most British people have zero desire to see their country craving any colonial style powers and want their government to sort the country’s own issues. The Britain of the 21st century is a different world where, increasingly instead of gazing out across the world and the Middle East through an imperial lens, it can barely see across the White Cliffs of Dover.
[Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.]