27th February 2015 Beirut, Lebanon
What Lebanese Students Tell Me About Us
I spend a lot of time in universities, talking with students about their hopes for the region and their perceptions of the UK. Lebanon has always been a good place to listen to the currents surging through the Middle East. These sessions are always lively, surprising, challenging. It is foolish to try to generalise about such a complex and dynamic set of opinions, but here nevertheless is a foolish try to capture ten points I often hear about the West.
1. “The history seems to matter more to us than to you”. Every student here can tell us how Balfour, Sykes/Picot and Tony Blair fit into their story, though their version might not be the same as mine. They often wonder why our scope in the West is more parochial.
2. “We’re not all sectarian and we’re fed up with being put in pigeon holes”. The region is much more complex and sophisticated than we label it. We must be careful not to let generalisations creep in, especially sectarian labels that over-simplify a complicated reality.
3. “We missed out on the printing press. We won’t make the same mistake again”. Young people across the region are connecting via new technology in unprecedented and potentially transformative ways. We need to understand these trends.
4. “We may not agree with your policy, but we love your Royals, music, footballers and brands”. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have berated me about foreign policy while wearing a Union Jack t-shirt or Premiership football kit, or listening to Adele. Soft power matters, and can withstand ebbs and flows in hard power.
5. “You talk values, but you often pick sides”. The ability to cross check government statements in real time against events means people draw conclusions less from statements by Ambassadors, and more from the impact of our actions. Where our explanations fail, conspiracy oozes in.
6. “English has won”. Students want more of it. Yet access to the talismanic English texts on which we have built our political culture is still limited – more are still translated into Catalan than Arabic. I would love to see more of the wealth of the British Library archives made accessible globally.
7. “We need security, justice and opportunity …”. The Arab uprisings were about many different things, often local. But running through all of them was rejection of authoritarianism and injustice. That hasn’t gone away as Winter has set in.
8. “… Failing that, we’ll settle for wifi and do the rest”. In Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, they told me that extremists regularly disable internet connections in the entrepreneurs club. We need those entrepreneurs connected. The smartphone has not yet been the superpower some of us claimed that it could be. Yet. We should help get citizens online, and keep the internet free.
9. “Britain spends much too much time talking to itself”. The Scottish referendum, EU debate, and round upon round of corrosive media campaigns against bankers, politicians, celebrities or other journalists makes some observers argue that we don’t want to be a world power anymore. We have to show them that we haven’t lost our pioneering, outward facing, creative, open minded spirit.
10. “Power is shifting fast and the old structures are broken”. I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of times that a student has told me that the current global governance structures are part of the solution. There is a growing deficit of trust and confidence, which we would be crazy to ignore.
I love this part of the world, but it has plenty of reasons to be cynical and realist. As countless Arab Development reports have argued, it is also not going to create enough jobs for the generation leaving university. Some of the brightest and best may head to the UK. So too could many of the hungriest and angriest. We need to hear and understand their voices.
If everyone agreed, there would be no need for diplomats. And if we only spoke to people who agreed with us, diplomacy would be pretty boring.