The Changing Face of the New Middle East

Scroll to discover the driving forces
in today's Middle East

What forces are driving change in the Middle East today? Nationalism and religion or political reform and economic prosperity?

Evaluating the region’s modernisation and evolving social values as well as its allies and partnerships further afield, the Tony Blair Institute reveals how the New Middle East is supportive of progressive change.

People in the Middle East are pragmatic, as interested in global economic powerhouses as they are in countries with which they have had traditional alliances. They are prioritising jobs creation and education that will equip young generations with the digital skills of the future. But they are equally progressive, with the majority supporting the rights of women to work and of religious minorities as well as the reform of religious education.

Recent polling by the Tony Blair Institute affirms that people in the region are modernisers who want to be at the heart of shaping their own future. Given the opportunity, they will support efforts to liberalise society, grow economies and move on from the negative influence of religious movements of the past.

Chapter one

The World and the
New Middle East

At the crossroads of East and West for centuries, the Middle East is once again a stage for global influences vying for prominence. What is certain is that the region’s role is changing as it embraces innovation and seeks to convene the world on issues such as climate change.

The Struggle for Influence in the New Middle East

In contrast to the misconception that Western countries are disliked by the people of the Middle East, clear majorities are favourable towards the US, UK and France. It is also true that China, which has been building up its economic interests in the region, is viewed more favourably than the US in many countries.

What is behind the interest in China and could Western countries do more to capitalise on the positive perceptions about them?

Pragmatism Drives Partnerships

Aligned with their priorities of securing economic growth and jobs, countries in the Middle East are turning to the world’s largest economies for partnerships, with ideology and religious affiliations less relevant.

So, is China’s approach paying off? Are Russian and Turkish adventurism a turn off? Why is Germany scoring well while countries with longer links to the region are proving less interesting for the New Middle East when it comes to forging partnerships?

Prioritising Great Powers: China & the US

Following a visit to the Middle East by President Joe Biden in summer 2022 and increasing economic cooperation with China, the people of the region are eyeing up the US and China as preferred countries with which to partner.

So how can the region get the most out of this competition between the great powers?

Strategic Power Plays: Russia & Turkey

Several countries in the Middle East still prioritise partnering with Russia, although it is viewed relatively unfavourably compared with the West. Its “return” over the past two decades has been driven by security and natural-resource interests. Where else could Russian influence emerge given the country's motivation to shore up support for its invasion of Ukraine? And how about Turkey, which has security and energy interests in Libya, the Mediterranean and Syria.

As it heads to the polls in 2023, how will Turkey’s regional policy shift and how will it handle touchy relations between the West and Russia? Can it balance both?

Economic Interests: Germany & Japan

Despite not having any deep connection to the region, including a strong security presence, Germany and Japan are powers that people in the Middle East are keenly interested in partnering with, but why? Economic prowess is the common denominator, underlining the key driving factor for potential partnerships.

A Call to Action for Europe

Although France and the UK have a historic presence in the region, deep economic ties and security interests, neither are ranked highly as preferred partners. Why? Are their colonial pasts reflecting poorly on them or are they actually failing to build their own distinct influence – beyond the US – in the minds of the people of the Middle East?

This should serve as a wake-up call to the UK and France.

Ending Instability in the Middle East

The Abraham Accords of 2020 paved the way for a more optimistic and peaceful Middle East. But this does not mean the region is free of tensions or interstate enmity. People are deeply concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so what steps can Arab leadership and their international partners take to restart negotiations between the two sides? Another worry is the role of Iran and its militias.

With destabilisation of the region by Iran unlikely to end, how can global cooperation against Iran’s influence be strengthened?

The Situation in Palestine

Palestinians, particularly in Gaza, want to see political unity between the Fatah and Hamas parties, so how can this be achieved, especially if this expedites the end of the Israeli blockade? While the normalisation of relations between Israel and selected Arab states was rejected by the Palestinian leadership, the views of Palestinians are more nuanced on the matter. Does this mean that efforts to regionally integrate Palestine’s economy would be welcomed and what role can other states play?

Turkey’s longstanding support for Palestinians seems to be bearing fruit among the people; Iran’s less so. And will President Biden’s commitment to reengaging on the question of peace soften the generally unfavourable opinion towards the West among Palestinians?

On balance, Palestinians are pragmatic about the Abraham Accords – a historic agreement signed between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Do the accords open a path to lasting peace?

Like their neighbours, Palestinians are progressive in their values, with the majority supporting rights for women to work and the protection of religious minorities.

But what does this mean for Islamist Hamas? With the Palestinian leadership facing criticism for corruption, Palestinians consider institutional reforms as a priority over other issues. Can this lead to change on the ground?

The Situation in Libya

Often seen as hopelessly disunited, Libyans identify first with their national identity, which could offer a way forward should a national government finally be formed.

National unity, the leading priority for people in Libya, is bound up in their desire to have a say in who leads the country. Jobs and better services should also be at the top of the agenda for leadership.

Rivalries, whether regional or tribal, continue to be the main source of concern for Libyans. Religious extremism also factors significantly as a potential cause of problems in the country.

Distrust towards the United States is running highly in Libya so which countries could be the best potential partners?

Regional neighbours remain in large part the most trusted partners for Libyans so can a unified regional approach help steer the country towards national unity?

Chapter two

Liberalisation in the New Middle East

Modernisation is shaping the Middle East, underpinned by the liberalising reforms put in place by the region's future-facing leadership, from advancing social freedoms to limiting the power of religious institutions and funding climate-change initiatives. There is growing support for a revised role for religion in politics and society among both people and leaders. What change could that eventually result in?

Modernisation and Reform

There is widespread support for programmes such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which is advancing liberal reforms, increasing social freedoms and limiting the powers of the religious police. Several of the region’s leaders are orchestrating top-down initiatives to promote tolerance and encourage expertise and transparency.

Read more on Reform Programmes

Modernising reforms involves the restructuring of religion’s role but how do people view their faith today?

Religion and Society

Liberalisation is aligning with a secular trend among the region’s people. Fewer are describing themselves as very religious, with the requirements of modern life taking precedence over faith. This doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t have a role to play in the majority of people’s lives or that there is a rise in atheism, however.

While still an important part of their identity, most people believe that religion – as it is taught and practised – requires reform. Interestingly, this belief that the way religion is practised is out of date and ill-suited to modern life is held by secular and pious respondents alike in most countries, with the exception of Egypt where devout members of society do not agree with this view. But what do people think when religion and politics become intertwined?

Government and Religion

People in the Middle East show a strong preference for services delivered by governments rather than by religious or international organisations. Although many politicised religious movements, including Hizbullah, provide social welfare, an overwhelming majority of respondents still believe that government agencies are more responsive to their needs. This demonstrates a lack of confidence in the capabilities of politicised religious groups, but how can governments fill the services vacuum?

When politicised religious movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah have taken power, most people think they have had a negative impact, not least because such leadership has empowered the religious police – who are generally feared – created economic hardship and precipitated a decline in the rights of women and minorities. Rather than these conditions, populations want advances in freedoms, rights and opportunities to be granted to all members of society, regardless of religion or gender.

Religious Pluralism

Modernisation in the New Middle East has a focus on coexistence and inclusion. People are becoming more pluralistic in their views, showing support for governments that will protect the equal rights of citizens of all faiths. The sectarianism, often associated with the region beyond its borders, is no longer characteristic of the New Middle East. Instead, civil-society movements led by the youth are calling for inclusivity, prosperity and progress – for all.

Chapter three

Pragmatism & Progressiveness in the New Middle East

From the restructuring of religion’s role in public life to investment in tech sectors, the reforms taking place across the New Middle East are diverse in their scope. With regional leaders committed to diversifying economies and investing in tech startups, populations are likewise motivated by new opportunities, innovation and prosperity – but progress too. Whether improved basic services or the advancement of women’s rights, people are taking to the streets if they feel their governments are not responding to their demands.

Prioritising the Jobs of the Future

Modernisation programmes supporting new tech sectors align with the people's expectations for the jobs of the future. The majority of people in the Middle East recommend that young people prepare for the tech and innovation sector over any other, whereas the region’s more traditional sectors, such as the civil service, education and tourism, no longer have the gravitas they once had.

Read More on Innovative Startups

The professional prospects of the region’s people are changing, but what about their attitudes to education?

While people in the Middle East still believe it is important for young people to be grounded in tradition and faith, they consider it more important that they are equipped with the technological skills of the future.

The increasing focus on technology sectors and the jobs of the future are encouraging people in the region to support science, innovation and technology learning.

Read more on Tech Education

However, will the economy evolve to become more inclusive of women?

Women in the Top Jobs

Alongside jobs and reforms, people in the New Middle East see gender equality as a priority. They are broadly supportive of women taking top roles in business and government. For many in the West, the region has long been associated with a lack of women’s rights, even abuses. Today, dynamic women of the New Middle East are challenging stereotypes by gradually closing the gender gap across education, the workforce and government – with support from progressive leadership.

Read more on Female Leadership

While there is widespread support for women’s rights, practical and societal barriers to advancement do remain. While many consider religious beliefs and socially conservative attitudes as obstacles to empowerment, inequality in the home and within families also prevents women from progressing in business and government.

More and more, however, when the demands of the region’s women are not met, they actively protest.

Pragmatic Protests

There have been more protests in the Middle East than any other region in recent years. They are often led by women and young people, who are motivated by issues of corruption, nepotism and their government’s lack of responsiveness rather than by ideology. These factors have ongoing economic and social repercussions.

So, what do the region’s people really want their governments to prioritise?

Progressive Priorities

The top priority for all respondents in the New Middle East is more jobs creation for young people followed by better education and health-care systems. The priorities in this region mirror those in much of the rest of the world, with calls for governments to improve public services for future generations.

Chapter four

Optimism Follows Opportunity in the New Middle East

Despite the challenges facing the Middle East, there is widespread optimism for the future. However, optimism like opportunity is not evenly spread.

The Next Generation

With the exception of Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, most people in the Middle East feel there has been little progress in the region in recent years. 

On the other hand, there is real optimism for the future in most places. Even in challenging locations such as Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, there are pockets of hope.

Unsurprisingly, the picture in Palestine is unique, with deeply embedded pessimism likely to be the result of generations of conflict. 

This sense of pessimism extends to the next generation of Palestinians.

While opportunities and therefore optimism across the region are unevenly spread, could these twin factors mobilise greater regional integration and inequality?