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‘I’m a very interested observer’: how Jeremy Bowen sees the Middle East

As a new book about the Middle East by the BBC correspondent hits the shelves, he talks about the geopolitics of the region

Jeremy Bowen with rebels from the Free Syria Army in Saqba. Picture courtesy of the author

Few people are as well placed to authoritatively depict the making of the modern Middle East than Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s long-serving correspondent in the region.

Bowen began covering the region in 1989, arguably a pivotal period when, as he writes in his new book, “it became clear that the old planet we had grown up on, with the constant background hum of the cold war, was turning into something else, fast”. He has been there since, more on than off, as the collapse of the bipolar world opened the gates of the Middle East to a new period of foreign intervention and a revival of radical Islamism.

“There’s a lot of things operating at the same time, separate yet related,” he says of the complexity of the region as we sit in a busy south London cafe.

“You know, different areas have their own characteristics. While there are a lot of relationships, there are a lot of differences as well, and not just in nuance, quite different differences.

“And it’s actually a really small area geographically. If it wasn’t for the ridiculousness of, well, the reality of borders, you really could wake up in Jerusalem, have a late lunch in Beirut and dinner in Damascus, if you could drive straight. You really could.”

The book, handily titled The Making of the Modern Middle East and partly based on an acclaimed podcast series, is a popular history with a bit of memoir. It makes for an excellent guide to a region with which I wonder how Bowen views his relationship.

“I’m a reporter!” the 62-year-old responds immediately. “I like it, and I would hate it if I never went there again, but I’m an outsider. I feel it’s very important for journalists to be outsiders. I’ve never felt like an insider. Of course I’ve got my own strong views, but I’m not one of the tribes in the Middle East. There are many tribes in the Middle East, and I’m not just talking about in the conventional sense, and I’m not one of those. So my relationship with it is that I’m a very interested observer.”

One theme that runs through the book and the many areas it covers is the almost total lack of agency in normal people’s lives. Bowen meets ordinary men and women right across the region, all pawns in the hands of strongmen leaders. The Arab spring seems a long time ago.

“I think this is a function and a result of a number of things,” he says. “Authoritarian governments in the main – different degrees, different levels, but authoritarian. Or in places – say, Lebanon is an example – where there is a very weak central government, there are authoritarian forces within the country. Israel is not an authoritarian state, except as far as the Palestinians are concerned, and it’s a democracy although, like all democracies, it’s got plenty of flaws in it.

“But in general I think it’s safe to say the lack of agency comes from its authoritarianism. Corruption robs people of agency, official corruption. Corruption’s like a cancer in the region. And also the impact of the fact that foreigners take a strong interest. Foreign powers over many years, centuries, have taken a strong interest in the region for all kinds of reasons of their own, and the reasons of their own do not tend to benefit the people who live there. They tend to get the rough end of that.”

It is remarkable, I say, how many ordinary people open up to Bowen right across the region, allowing him into their lives and homes.

“There are loads of people who haven’t been open with me, clearly, but it’s very hard to quote them,” he says.

“But generally I find, even in authoritarian countries, when you get to know people a little bit they open up privately if they trust you. The one exception… it was really hard to get people to open up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That was a very tight police state. And people have to know you pretty well. In some authoritarian countries, the minute you get a moment someone says ‘well, you know, what I really think is this…’. Other people are genuinely scared.

“And I’d say in Syria, particularly under the first President Assad, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, I think now in Egypt under Sisi, people are really nervy about getting in the western media especially. My god, in many ways we’re enemy number one, we’re blamed for a lot of things.” He briefly checks himself. “Not enemy number one. We’re in the top five.”

Bowen, who talks like he does on TV, with a confident authority, clearly has a deep understanding of the political, cultural and religious nuances of the Middle East. Do the Foreign Office or the US State Department these days, I ask? Because it seems very difficult to see it from outside.

“Yeah, I think it is there,” he says. “I think there’s some very smart diplomats around in Washington DC, where over the years in different guises, even back to when I was a student studying international affairs there… there are some exceedingly smart people who understand every nuance, and the same in the Foreign Office.

“Problem is, they don’t take the decisions, politicians take the decisions. And I think, with politicians – with notable exceptions: David Miliband was a very bright foreign secretary, Rory Stewart was very impressive when he was the DFID [Department for International Development] secretary, I felt they really knew their stuff – but there are many others for whom decisions are, as they always are, I suppose, in a way, based on their own political needs and not based on any deep understanding of what’s happening.”

We talk – as the increasingly busy nature of the cafe sees two strangers join us at the table, oblivious to the man explaining decades of geopolitics to me – of Israel and Palestine, and the apparent decreasing salience of it as a news story. It only briefly raised its head in the Conservative leadership contest when Liz Truss bafflingly raised the idea of moving the British embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Why’s that a good idea? It’s against UN resolutions,” says Bowen.

“I don’t see the votes in that… I was surprised by that because… you know, I can see how it’s a vote-winner in America. And it was always [US] policy that sooner or later they’d do it. And Trump delivered on that for his base. And it’s not the Jewish vote, it’s the Evangelical vote in America. Most American Jews vote for the Democrats. Yeah, I don’t know why she said that. I don’t get it. Maybe she’s trying to curry favour with the Americans? But not with Joe Biden. It’s a very, very different set-up in this country in that sense. I think attitudes to Israel are different in this country to those in the US as well. There’s more sympathy generally in Europe and also here to the Palestinian arguments.”

On the lack of international coverage of the situation, he says, “in the news business people like something new. And making peace was something new”.

“There aren’t the outrageous attacks, in the main, that there were, because Palestinians are weaker and the Israelis are stronger. And also, I think, many Palestinians have realised that it doesn’t benefit them, doing the so-called armed struggle.

“[Benjamin] Netanyahu [has] boasted that Israel’s real challenge was Iran and the Palestinian issue was one that could be managed. It was a management issue. In other words, yeah, they cause trouble, we can deal with it. Certainly on the military level of course they can, they are a million times stronger than the Palestinians. But what that flare-up showed [the eruption of fighting between Israel and the hardline Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in Gaza last month] was that it’s not manageable, actually. It’s not a management issue, because the 20% of Israel’s population that is Arab demonstrated against what the government was doing, there was communal violence on the streets of so-called mixed cities of Israel… and this kind of thing was really shocking to the Israelis.

“My personal view is that while it drops out of the news it has incredible capacity to explode back into it. And you see that, when a Gaza war happens, it goes from nothing to the lead story for weeks. Because it is important, and I don’t think – and I’m not being impartial by saying this, with my BBC hat on – it is not tenable to keep, what is it, three million people under military occupation for decade after decade after decade without trouble happening of some sort. It is not tenable. Because people don’t accept it.”

Bowen has recently had a change of role, from the BBC’s Middle East editor to international editor, only in part because it “sounded weird on air” when he was referred to as the former when reporting increasingly from Ukraine. Although it remains a journalistic role – he has no management or commissioning responsibilities – he is thinking about the nature of what makes something international news.

“I always find it extraordinary the way that sometimes we cover large but not disastrous weather events in the US,” he says. “You know, a big hurricane coming in that ends up with nobody dead. Large hurricane, not many people dead. I mean, is that international news? I don’t think so, really, because in any year there are cyclones in the Philippines and in India and Bangladesh that are way more devastating to countries that are much less resilient than the US. Sometimes that’s a function of where we have resources, sometimes it’s a function of the availability of pictures, sometimes it’s a result of what editors think is interesting.”

Finally, we are talking a couple of days after Bowen’s former colleague Emily Maitlis gave a speech about the BBC’s approach to impartiality in an appearance at the Edinburgh TV Festival criticising the impartiality rules she had to follow at the corporation. Maitlis was famously rebuked for a Newsnight monologue attacking Dominic Cummings for his lockdown-breaking drive to the north-east.

Impartiality, says Bowen, “doesn’t mean ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’. It absolutely does not”. Rather, he says, it is “just a way of getting at the truth”.

“Impartiality is really important at the BBC, and I disagree with Emily’s judgment that it was OK to have that sort of monologue which she had on Newsnight, which clearly rankles with her still. I don’t agree with her on that. I think impartiality is really important and you have to leave your own views at the door however significant a journalist you think you are, this is not about your views. It may well be about your analysis. If she’d said, ‘well, it’s quite clear from polls that the whole country agrees that the rules were broken’ in that famous drive to test his eyesight or whatever it was up in Northumberland, if she’d said that, ie this is why I think this, then it was just a statement.

“That was the weakness of it. If people think ‘this isn’t an analysis of what’s going on, this is just what he thinks’, then you’re no longer a journalist or a reporter, you’re much more of a commentator. And what we don’t do, in the main, is commentary. Emily and I would have to disagree on this subject.”

The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History, is published by Picador, £20 hardback and £16.99 ebook

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