On 25 September Caabu hosted a press launch to mark the findings of the new YouGov poll on UK attitudes to the Arab World, conducted in conjunction with Caabu and Arab News.
The event featured a panel discussion with Caabu Director, Chris Doyle, Arab News Editor-in-Chief, Faisal Abbas and Director of YouGov's political and social opinion, Anthony Wells. The discussion was moderated by Arab News London Bureau Chief, Ben Flanagan.
The panel pointed out the notable disparities in the findings. While a clear majority of the British public recognise the problem of rising Islamophobia and believe that anti-refugee statements by politicians and others risk sparking hate crimes, the majority of Britons also agree with racial profiling of Arabs and Muslims, and 69 percent think the UK should take in fewer refugees from Syria and Iraq.
The poll also revealed that there is a clear lack of knowledge about the Arab world, with 81 percent admitting to knowing little or nothing about the Arab world. The panel were not surprised by this, particularly given, as Anthony Wells pointed out, the definition of such terms is ambiguous. While this figure is indeed high, Chris Doyle pointed out that it reflects a slight improvement since one of the last polls of this kind was conducted in 1967, which revealed that 98% of the British public knew little or nothing about the Arab world.
With such a lack of knowledge, stereotypes unsurprisingly persist. For instance, despite the Arab world being home to some of the poorest countries in the world, nearly a third of Brits associate it with being wealthy, a stereotype that Chris Doyle pointed out developed in the 1970s following the oil boom/crisis. Faisal Abbas also highlighted the alarming shift in the UK in the years following the 7/7 attacks, and the growing racist attitudes across the West towards Arabs and Muslims, with the two terms often used interchangeably.
On UK foreign policy in the region 57% of Brits believe it to be ineffective. 83% oppose the 2003 Iraq war itself, which appears to be the highest level detected in polls so far, and little over 50% support UK airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq today, pointing to a rising sentiment against military interventions.
The results also reflected certain trends, based on party affiliation, geography and attitudes towards Brexit. For instance, Labour voters are more likely to support the recognition of a Palestinian state, those living in London and more multi-cultural areas are more likely to want to travel to the region and, most starkly, those who voted for Brexit are more likely to believe that the UK should take in fewer refugees.
Looking forward what can be done so that the image of Arabs is improved? Faisal Abbas pointed to the vital role that the media can play in conveying the full scope of Arab news and transformations in the region to the British public, the good as well as the bad. He also said that while he believes these findings only reflect a phase, we must actively challenge them rather than wait passively. Chris Doyle called for joint efforts in this fight, to move away from identity politics and blaming of the ‘other’, and on matters of foreign policy for the UK to press the ‘reset button’ and develop more coherent strategies to end conflicts in the region.
Caabu would like to thank YouGov and Arab News for their role in conducting this poll. We believe that its findings are telling and more importantly will serve as a platform for all us all to challenge the negative stereotypes and racist attitudes which evidently still persist, and to enhance efforts work to improve UK foreign policy towards the region.
This year also marks Caabu’s 50th anniversary, after it was founded on the terrace of the House of Commons back in 1967 after the Six-Day War. Since then it has grown to become one of the most active NGOs working on the Middle East in British Parliament and working to build an understanding of the Arab World in Britain. If you wish to support our important work, you can join as a member or make a donation.
Several MPs made comments about the poll. Paula Sherriff MP, who has been on a Caabu delegation to the region, said:
“Having travelled to the Arab world on several occasions with Caabu, I know first-hand the importance of politicians increasing their understanding of the region through such vital parliamentary delegations. It is disappointing that 81% of people in the UK have little or no knowledge of the Arab world and even more so that 41% of people would not wish to travel to an Arab country.
This survey shows that organisations such as Caabu have a long way to go in improving awareness about this region, both among the British public and in a UK political context. It is vital that they exist, and continue to challenge and improve our views of the Arab world. Huge benefits come with greater understanding, and we should be developing this, rather than heading in a direction that is more divisive.”
Alistair Carmichael MP, who went on a Caabu and Medical Aid for Palestinians delegation to the West Bank just a few weeks ago, said:
“Regardless of party-political inclination, the majority of British people feel that UK foreign policy in the Arab world has failed to uphold human rights and promote global security, and that UK influence is not a stabilising one – 57 and 58 % respectively. This should give cause for great concern for past, present and future governments, that criticism of UK foreign policy and the need for a serious rethink of it, does not just come from the region itself, but from at home too.
The need for a far more coherent UK foreign policy in the Arab world that genuinely focuses on human rights and global security has never been greater. These two agendas need to be at the forefront of our foreign policy and be given far more significance than is presently the case. Sadly, incoherent foreign policy and a lack of understanding about the Arab world go hand in hand. As politicians we need to do all we can to reverse this.”
Chris Doyle also wrote an article in Arab News, titled 50 years on, stereotypes of Arab world still linger.