London, The Arab Weekly – At a time when the Middle East is more important and complex than ever, the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) is working to ensure that British conservative members of parliament and peers can make informed decisions.
CMEC’s mission statement says the group “promotes the discussion of UK foreign policy in the Middle East and seeks to ensure that this policy is grounded in a deep understanding of the complexities of the region”. In practical terms, that means arranging parliamentary visits to the Middle East so MPs can experience the region first-hand.
“It’s only by first-hand experience that you can really understand all the complexities of the region,” CMEC Director Leo Docherty said. “It’s also by having that intensity of exposure that MPs gain a proper understanding.
“Reading gets you a certain way there but until you’ve actually met people face-to-face and had proper discussions and seen what is happening there with your own eyes, that’s when you get a proper understanding.”
This is a sentiment shared by the CMEC vice-chairman, Phillip Lee, an MP who represents Bracknell and who has participated in a number of visits to the Middle East. He recently travelled to Jordan where he visited the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp. He is chairman of All-Party Parliament Groups on Kuwait and Qatar.
“You can read about things as much as you like but until you go there, see it, smell it, touch it — that’s how you get to know a place and you get a sense of how people are and what their perspective on the world is,” Lee said. “We have quite an Anglocentric view of the world… but the way we view the world is not necessarily the same view on the street in Amman.
“I think it is important to try and understand different perspectives and what better way to do it than first-hand?”
Lee joined CMEC in 2010, not long after entering parliament. His interest in the Middle East dates to his youth and a trip backpacking across Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel as a medical student in 1998.
His first trip to the Middle East with CMEC was to Syria in 2011 when many of the places he visited as a student — Hama, Palmyra, Deraa, Damascus — would not have changed much following his return as a parliamentarian. However, after five years of war and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), the same cannot be said today.
“We were in Syria in February 2011, three weeks before the civil war started,” Lee said. “Being entertained by the Assad regime is like being entertained by the mafia, being driven around in black cars and so on.
“The lack of regard for the [Assad] government was really etched on the faces of the Syrian people. You could detect that anti-establishment mood that was sweeping across North Africa at the time and was about to arrive in Syria, although I wouldn’t have predicted it would have erupted so quickly.”
The West’s response to the “Arab spring” protests that swept the Middle East from 2011 was premature, he said.
“History teaches us that changes to society like this take time and I think that there was a hope, and perhaps a naive expectation, that these countries would then go on to be broadly democratic and secular overnight and everybody would live happily ever after. I think that was rather naive,” Lee said.
It is this kind of naivety that CMEC is trying to eradicate, seeking to inform and educate MPs and peers about the realities of the region, in all its complexities.
“The biggest misconception that people have is that the Middle East is similar to the UK or the West in political terms,” Docherty said. “People have a real difficulty understanding the importance of religious and sectarian factors. There is a lack of awareness about the fact that the Middle East is profoundly different.
“When we consider the Middle East in terms of policy, we’ve got to recognise the reality. We have to deal with the Middle East as it is, rather than how we want it to be.”
Lee said that the Middle East has an image problem and one that CMEC — with its policy papers and visits to the region — is trying to correct.
“The problem with the Middle East is that any time it’s in the news it usually involves violence. When did you last hear a story from the Middle East about a scientific discovery or an artistic display?” Lee asked.
“The problem is that in the eyes of the average man on the street, ‘Brand Middle East’ is violence. That’s clearly not an accurate reflection of the Middle East and so for those of us who have an interest, and like the Middle East, it’s an uphill battle to persuade people about how things really are and why we should have an interest in helping and making things better there. That’s the problem with the Middle East; the news is always bad news.”