Think Again: Inside the Modernisation of the New Middle East

Global Challenges

Think Again: Inside the Modernisation of the New Middle East

Posted on: 14th July 2022
By Multiple Authors
Matt Godwin
Programme Lead
Jemima Shelley
Researcher, Extremism Policy Unit
Tom Verelst-Way
Research Analyst, Extremism Policy Unit
Shayan Talabany
Emman El-Badawy
Director, Extremism Policy Unit
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    As this report from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change makes clear, 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, our understanding of who Arabs are, and what values and aspirations they have, too often misses the mark. 

    Our 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. 

    Thankfully, the Tony Blair Institute has taken a different approach. Recognising that the Arab world sits at the pivot point of three continents in which we have invested so much, and that this is still a region of enormous human potential, the Institute believes that correcting course is the better option. And the path forward, as it proposes, is to replace myths and misconceptions with genuine understanding. 

    For this reason, we at Zogby Research Services (ZRS) were pleased to accept the Institute’s offer to conduct polling across the Arab world to learn what Arabs, young and old, think about issues ranging from the role of religion in daily life to the advancement of women in the workplace – as well as the importance of prioritising opportunities for young people to learn the technological skills they need to be better equipped to participate in the 21st-century economy. 

    We have been polling on many of these issues for two decades now. For us, polling opens a window, allowing Arab voices to be heard. I call it “the respectful science” because we record the views of every respondent. When we analyse the results, a portrait emerges that can assist us in dispelling stereotypes and correcting misconceptions. And if we pay attention to what people are telling us, we can better shape our policies to respond, to meet their real needs, not the ones we have assumed they have. 

    In my 2010 book Arab Voices: What They Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters, I looked at what we learned from our polling about attitudes across the Arab world and compared them with the views that people in the West have of Arabs. At one point, I noted from our polling in the United States that there is a perception that Arabs hate us, despise our values, and spend too much time listening to preachers and television programmes that reinforce this hatred. Comparing those results with our polling from across the Arab world revealed a profound disconnect. We found that Arabs deeply respect the United States and its values of freedom, innovation and opportunity. What they don’t like are our policies towards them. Their political priorities are much like ours: secure employment, better educational opportunities and improving their health care. We also learned that mosque-attendance rates are comparable to church-attendance rates. And when Arabs watch television, their favorite programmes are films, soap operas, and reality and game shows – in other words, they watch it to be entertained. 

    Given that this has been our life’s work, we’re delighted the Institute has provided us with the opportunity to conduct new polling exploring the critical issues facing the Arab world today. It has undertaken to look deeply into Arab attitudes, to correct persistent stereotypes and to lay out a forward-looking agenda that responds to Arab aspirations. I recommend this report be read carefully and respectfully. 

    A final note to 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.

    James Zogby

    Managing Director, Zogby Research Services

    Executive Summary

    Executive Summary

    For the first time in his role as president of the United States, Joe Biden visits the Middle East this month. The global energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a regional security alliance against the threat of Iran – one that is currently being crystallised – will be uppermost on his agenda. However, strained relations of late between the West and traditional allies in the region are bringing a central question into sharp focus. Does the West really understand today’s Middle East?

    The challenges facing the Middle East are widely known: ongoing conflicts to resolve in Libya, Syria and Yemen, recurrent eruptions of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and escalating tensions over Iran’s destabilising activities in the region. In all the countries of the Middle East, there is a need to preserve and advance human rights and freedom of expression, to tackle corruption and to confront the drivers of extremism. The region struggles to keep pace with fast-growing populations and to generate meaningful employment for the young and educated. Countries are also facing economic woes magnified by the post-pandemic downturn, an imminent food-security crisis, an overreliance on subsidised commodities and the dominance of the resource-extraction industry, namely oil and gas. Women in the Middle East remain underrepresented in politics and business, and face barriers fortified by religious and socially conservative norms.

    In the face of and in response to these enduring challenges, however, the leadership of the Middle East and the majority of its people have remained resolute to make extraordinary progress on many fronts in recent years. But are these transformative changes being recognised in the West?

    New polling for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change conducted by YouGov suggests they are not. Our data reveal widely held misconceptions, outdated thinking and deep-seated pessimism about the Middle East among the public in Western countries.1 Sample size: 1,418 adults in the US (fieldwork: 22 to 23 March 2022); sample size: 1,780 adults in the UK (fieldwork: 18 to 20th March 2022); sample size: 1,065 adults in France (fieldwork: 25 to 28 March 2022); sample size: 2,005 adults in Germany (fieldwork: 22 to 24 March 2022). Among those polled in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, people tend to view the Middle East as backward looking and conflict ridden, a region where progress is doubtful, and a place more likely to be a source of problems than solutions. While recent approaches in Western policymaking and supporting public statements convey a similar fatalism, these views do not reflect the reality of the Middle East today – or those of its people or leaders.

    To understand this reality, the Tony Blair Institute commissioned polling by Zogby Research Services in April 2022 in countries across the Middle East – including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.2 Between 17 March and 7 April 2022, Zogby Research Services surveyed 4,856 adults in five Arab countries (Tunisia: 869; Egypt: 1,043; Lebanon: 857; Iraq: 1,044; and Saudi Arabia: 1,043). The responses reveal very different perspectives about the region and its future. Bold reform agendas, such as Saudi Arabia’s modernisation programme, designed to liberalise its social institutions and drive economic diversification, are widely supported by people across the region. An overwhelming majority are rejecting the ideology of politicised religious movements, instead favouring pragmatic governments that can create more jobs for young people, reform religious institutions and enhance public services such as health and education.

    Support for such initiatives is not surprising in the context of the region’s changing values, with the vast majority of people wanting governments to protect rather than repress religious minorities, and to support equal opportunities for women, while acknowledging that most people’s lives are no longer dominated by religion. With an eye on the future, many people in the Middle East want to see their youthful populations educated in the science, technology and innovation sectors, with a view to preparing them for the jobs of tomorrow.

    Despite ongoing conflict and regressive forces opposed to progress, the Middle East – from Egypt to Morocco to Turkey – is nevertheless reforming through bold modernisation efforts in response to the demands of its pragmatic people and leaders. There do, however, need to be strong and committed international partners to back these transformative changes. In contrast to the reservation seen among Western publics and leaders about increased involvement in the Middle East, people in the region tend to view the West very favourably, as highlighted by our polling. To confront the widespread misconceptions about the region held by many in the West, the Tony Blair Institute tours today’s Middle East to highlight 21st-century dynamism at its best – and to understand the region from the perspective of those who live and work there.

    The New Middle East’s Shared Vision for Change

    On average, less than a quarter of those polled in Western countries believe that people in the Middle East share all or most of the same values as them, such as support for secular politics, and respect for difference and freedom of expression. Even fewer think it is a forward-looking region characterised by hope, instead associating the Middle East with intractable conflict and violent extremism. However, from the perspective of people who live there, the New Middle East is an altogether different place. An overwhelming majority support the Saudi modernisation programme and others like it that are reforming institutions, liberalising society and diversifying the economy. Equally, the majority are opposed to regressive religious movements and their role in politics. Other indications of this vision for change are:

    • Reforming zeal: A new generation in the Middle East is demanding reform to religious institutions. More than two-thirds of youth want their religious institutions to modernise while people increasingly believe that religious leaders should not interfere in politics. Between 2011 and 2020, those in favour of the latter statement grew from 62 per cent to 78 per cent in Egypt and from 75 per cent to 80 per cent in Turkey. Even prior to this period, an increase in support for the separation of religion and politics had been recorded among Iraqis, from 54 per cent in 2004 to 69 per cent in 2011, and from 75 per cent in 2008 to 80 per cent in 2011 among the Lebanese.3 Tony Blair Institute, Changing Values in the Middle East, Secular Swings and Liberal Leanings, September 2021_0.pdf
    • Mobilising for change: Rather than waiting for politics to change, youth in the Middle East are demanding progressive change, with the region home to ten times more civil-society mass movements and protests than the rest of the world over the past 20 years. From the Arab uprisings in 2011 to the more recent “Tishreen” (“October”) movement in Iraq, these mass social movements have called for more inclusive and representative politics.
    • Optimistic outlook: Changing values and the freedom to express them through popular politics are paving the way for a more optimistic and hopeful Middle East. According to the Arab Youth Survey, optimism is at its highest point in five years, with six-in-ten people aged between 18 and 24 believing their best days are ahead of them.4 AYS-2021-WP_English-14-Oct-21-ABS-FINAL.pdf (
    • Cultural creativity and expression: A new generation is revitalising the Middle East’s rich artistic and cultural heritage, bolstered by a recognition from political leaders that economic growth is tied to creative expression. Rather than being a region devoid of creativity, the Middle East has long been home to busy literary and cultural events – Cairo International Book Fair, the largest of its kind in the world, was attended by 3.5 million visitors in 2020.

    Sowing the Seeds of Growth in the New Middle East

    Few people polled in the West regard the Middle East as the next Silicon Valley or East London, with only 12 per cent on average believing it is a major source of innovation. However, governments and an emerging generation of entrepreneurs in the Middle East think differently. Our polling shows that the science and innovation sectors are by far the most popular career trajectories for Middle Eastern youth and there is overwhelming support for young populations to learn new technological skills. Additional signs of this growth environment are:

    Women Taking the Helm in the New Middle East

    Only 12 per cent on average of those polled in Western countries think there has been an improvement in women’s rights in the Middle East over recent years. This view contrasts starkly with people based in the region, with the vast majority of both women and men supporting women’s rights. Despite the ongoing social and economic challenges faced by women, there is cause for optimism not least because some of the region’s most dynamic and emerging popular and political leaders are women. Indications for this optimism are:

    Partnerships for Prosperity and Peace in the New Middle East

    Nearly half the people polled in Western countries believe the Middle East is hostile or generally unfriendly towards their own country, which contrasts sharply with the sentiment among the public in the region itself. For example, 72 per cent polled in the Middle East view the United States favourably, with 67 per cent feeling the same about the United Kingdom. Most people in the West are deeply pessimistic about the possibility of peace in the Middle East, with 73 per cent of respondents in France, Germany, the UK and the US believing it is likely there will always be conflict in the region. In contrast, the vast majority of people in the Middle East support peaceful coexistence and want their governments to protect the rights of religious minorities.

    Despite Western pessimism, the 2020s are proving to be a period of peaceful transformation in the Middle East. Countries without any history of diplomatic relations are partnering in agreements of unprecedented cooperation to achieve positive change, and to advance peace between states and peoples, while regional leadership is convening global actors to address the climate-change crisis. Examples of these partnerships include:

    • Pioneering peace: In August 2020, the world witnessed the century’s most promising peace agreement when the Abraham Accords were signed. For the first time in its history, Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain followed by Morocco and Sudan. Prosperity follows peace, with the accords set to create up to 4 million jobs and generate as much as $1 trillion in economic activity.14 Impact | Abraham Accords Peace Institute ( Knowledge-based collaboration is flourishing through agreements between universities while joint research on energy production and cooperation between major libraries are also thriving.
    • Removing blocks to prosperity: The region is working towards greater economic collaboration to accelerate prosperity for all, for example by reducing outdated barriers to trade. Indeed, average uniform tariff rates (ad valorem and specific) fell from close to 15 per cent in 2002 to 5 per cent in 2011. Earlier this year, and on the back of the Abraham Accords, Israel and the UAE signed a historic free-trade agreement removing or reducing 96 per cent of goods tariffs.15
    • A global stage: Cooperation is resulting in regional leadership tackling the world’s greatest challenge as two back-to-back Conference of the Parties (COP) climate-change summits are held in Egypt (2022) and the UAE (2023). Resource-rich economies are looking to switch course on energy production, with Saudi Arabia aiming to generate 50 per cent of its electricity from clean sources by 2030, while the UAE is pursuing a 50 per cent renewable-energy target by 2050.16 Strong momentum in Saudi Arabia’s drive toward renewables and infrastructure | Middle East Institute (; UAE sets net zero by 2050 target, promises renewable investments (

    Wide-ranging institutional, social and economic transformations, as considered in this report, are resulting in the most significant changes to the Middle East since the end of the post-colonial era. Our polling reveals widespread support for change across all countries, genders and age groups. In the past, regional leadership has been cautious about moving too quickly, concerned that regressive forces would attempt to turn back the clock. While radical Islamism continues to be a very real threat, the vast majority of the population are aligned with their leadership’s reform initiatives. From women’s rights to protecting religious minorities, modernisation is popular and leaders have the backing of their people.

    For too long, people desiring change in the region have been trapped between two unappealing options: the status quo or the real possibility instead of Islamist government. Progressive-minded populations who led the Arab Spring protests and young leaders of mass movements in the region today are demanding a third way. More than a decade on from the Arab Spring, a consensus is forming that is underpinning change in the New Middle East. This is a coalition between more pluralistic and progressive populations and modernising and reforming leaders.

    The time has come for the West to recognise the enormous institutional, social and economic transformations underway in the region. Many of these changes reflect the very same values the West espouses and has attempted to disseminate around the world. Yet the progress achieved to date is also fragile and the region has witnessed how quickly opportunistic and regressive forces can undermine change. President Biden is right to visit the Middle East this month, but is the West prepared to support a third way for progressive change in the region?

    The View From the Street in the New Middle East

    The View From the Street

    Today’s Middle East is a tale of two regions. On the one hand, it remains afflicted by decades of war and conflict that left nearly 35,000 dead between 2016 and 2020 alone.17 The region continues to grapple with the toxic, destabilising influence of Islamist extremism, which has spread throughout the world, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths globally over the past decade. It is more vulnerable to the climate crisis than many other regions while socioeconomic challenges continue to threaten social cohesion. However, there is another story unfolding that is often missed by conventional narratives fixated on these challenges. New polling demonstrates that people in the Middle East are moving on from old prejudices and perspectives while governments are taking transformative steps to respond to progressive values and demands for pragmatic change. Despite continuing instability in many parts of the region, governments are modernising with the widespread support of their people. But have views in the West caught up with this New Middle East?

    As President Biden visits the Middle East, we also tour the region to canvass the views of its people and to reveal the transformational changes characterising a different Middle East from the one currently understood by many people in the West. Our research demonstrates that the dynamic institutional, social and economic transformations underway in the region are widely supported by the people there, yet these increasingly progressive steps are going largely unnoticed in the West. What is also often unrecognised outside the Middle East is the modernising approach that has been adopted by many of the region’s leaders and its people in line with their changing values and priorities. This report argues that the reform agendas undertaken by many governments are fundamentally changing the Middle East, backed by widespread support of the people.

    Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been considerable interest in polling people in the Middle East. Much emphasis has been placed on the changing values and demands of young people – who comprise increasingly large shares of national populations in the region – and whose priorities involve jobs and government reform rather than religion. Yet our polling suggests it is not just young people who are generally in line with these perspectives – across age groups, there is broad consensus on these priorities. Since the Arab Spring, much attention has been paid to the political and economic dissatisfaction felt by the youth demographic. Our polling suggests the wider public similarly identify corruption and the need for economic reforms as the principal grievances behind popular movements, including more recent demonstrations. While other surveys have focused on dissatisfaction with government, our polling suggests people in the region are still much more supportive of services provided by governments than religious institutions.

    Polling in recent decades has revealed consistent support for democracy, but our most recent surveys indicate a need to disaggregate what the region is calling for when it comes to political reforms and types of government representation. What has been captured less is how the region’s people are responding to transformational modernising agendas aimed at addressing the structural challenges driving dissatisfaction.

    Saudi Arabia’s modernisation programme (see Figure 1) is the most comprehensive, regionally driven transformation agenda since the post-colonial period. From liberalising the country’s laws and policies to diversifying the economy, 73 per cent of people polled across the region support these transformative steps, including 89 per cent of Saudis themselves. Beyond Saudi Arabia, other government-led initiatives aimed at fundamentally reforming states and societies are underway. These agendas are making substantial progress towards reducing the influence of religious authorities, advancing the role of women and investing in innovation to align with changing values and priorities.

    These reforms are popular. Our polling indicates people in the Middle East support these far-reaching institutional transformations. The majority of people do not want to rely on religious or international organisations to be responsible for providing services; instead 78 per cent of Tunisians, 68 per cent of Iraqis, 67 per cent of Lebanese and Saudis, and 55 per cent of Egyptians feel government is the most responsive on the delivery of fundamental services. Their priorities reflect a desire for improved government delivery, with health care and education among the top three issues of concern. Educational reform and the role of religion are important among almost everyone polled, with 77 per cent of Iraqis, 73 per cent of Saudis, 71 per cent of Tunisians and 65 per cent of Lebanese all agreeing their country’s religious education and practices require reform.

    What is clear is that people want secular and pragmatic government, not leadership bound to outdated and destructive Islamist ideologies. Today, an overwhelming 75 per cent agree that politicised religious movements are damaging for the region, with this figure higher in Saudi Arabia, standing at 80 per cent. Any “return” to mythological and so-called periods of Islamic purity is far from the main grievance occupying the people of the region. Instead, the most popular grievances in the Middle East are similar to those in the rest of the world, including corruption, nepotism and weak responses to people’s economic and social needs.

    Figure 1 – Understanding Saudi’s National Transformation Programme