Keeping track of rapidly changing events in the Middle East is a tough task for anyone. But for an agency working to encourage enhanced British-Arab relations, it’s a “herculean” endeavor.
That’s what Chris Doyle, the director of The Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), believes.
Doyle has worked with the council since 1993 and travels widely in the Middle East and North Africa in his role as a spokesperson for CAABU and as an acknowledged expert on the region.
Speaking extensively on the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arab community in Britain, Doyle has fine-tuned CAABU’s approach towards encouraging British politicians to support Arab causes.
In January 2013, Chris appeared as an expert witness in front of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in Parliament discussing UK relations with the Gulf, while in 2003, he observed the elections to the Kuwait National Assembly.
Doyle took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in 2008 and 2010 and in 2005 addressed the United Nations on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinians.
But such achievements have not been without obstacles. We caught up with Doyle ahead of his participation in the Al Arabiya News Global Discussion on 30 Nov., which will be discussing the topic: “Bridging the Communication Gap Between East and West.”
Q&A with Chris Doyle, the director of The Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU)
Q. Tell us a bit about CAABU. Who is it funded by and what are its aims?
CAABU was founded in the late 1967 by a group of members of parliament, politicians, members of the British Arab community and others who really believed that they should have their voice heard in British politics. This voice would be pushing for improving relations with the Arab world and particularly on the whole Arab-Israeli issue; the question of Palestine was at the forefront of their minds.
This all came after a 1967 opinion poll in the Sunday Times which showed that 98 percent of the British public claimed to know little or nothing about the Arab World. That was extraordinary, given that Britain at the time was still in the Gulf, still in countries like Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt, there was still this level of ignorance among the British public.
We are a non-profit organization; we are cross-party, which means that we have members of parliaments and politicians from all the three major British parties involved in CAABU. We get our funding from membership, high net worth individuals, people who donate to support our work and from other institutions and foundations that have funded various projects.
Of course we can’t take funding with strings attached and it is very important that we maintain our independence.
Funding has been our biggest challenge; there is no question about that. We cost about £150,000 to run at this moment but that’s on a shoe-string operation, we were running at about £250,000 a year and we certainly want to scale back up our operations to meet the challenges of defining Britain’s relationship with the Arab world, particularly after the events of the last three years.
Q: What are the most notable successes of the Council? Has it had any impact on British legislation or government policies?
Our primary target is the political system and people who are decision makers. I think there’s been a monumental change here. I like to think that CAABU is an institution that can take some credit for that. In 1967, there was an MP at the time who said that in order to bring up the Palestinian issue, you’d have to don a suit of armor; not too dissimilar to what you see in the U.S. Congress today. Now when you look at Britain today, it’s clear that by pushing the Palestinian issue, defending Palestinian rights, calling for Palestinian statehood will not be end to your political career. Roughly around 70 percent of the British population is broadly sympathetic with Palestinian rights. There has been a huge change, particularly at the grassroots level, but also on the backbenches of parliament.
The issue of laws really comes up in foreign affairs; there are not many occasions in the course of a parliament that there is a vote specifically on a piece of legislation. What you are really looking at is the poor direction of government policy, so for example, you know the fact that we have certainly played a role in pushing the Labour Party to support Palestinian settlements; we have worked incredibly hard also with successive governments to take a stronger line on illegal Israeli settlements.
We’ve also done a lot of work on Palestinian child detainees. We’ve now taken ten parliamentary delegations to the Israeli military court and I think really as part of that, we have seen much international pressure on the Israelis on this issue.
We had a UNICEF report, there was a Foreign Office-funded report into this issue and I think that the Israelis quite rightly are feeling under pressure about the way they treat Palestinian children.
But we were also the first organization that got a parliamentary delegation into Gaza, immediately after Operation Cast Lead, the 2008 Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip]. It was the first parliamentary delegation there. Gaza remains one of our core issues because of the blockade and because we are seeing dangerous and horrific levels of destitution.
But, we’ve also been very active on the issue of Syria: We started a Syria Program ever since the start of this uprising. We’ve been pushing on the issue of rights within Syria to impose targeted sanctions on the regime, but also I took a delegation into Lebanon in January 2012 when there were only 15,000 registered refugees in Lebanon and pushed hard with the British authorities to be much more supportive of the refugees, on the basis that it was quite clear that what was then a small refugee crises was going to become huge. If we couldn’t support Syrians inside the country - if we couldn’t do much for those who are fleeing from Homs and Hama - the least we could do is help them when they cross borders to other countries and we continue to press on that.
But above all, I think we have a trusted voice within the British political system. We have over 110 parliamentary members of CAABU; we give briefings pretty much every week in parliament and we’ve taken 51 delegations since 1997 to the region. So I think we’ve played a huge and positive role in trying to build up the level of expertize amongst British politicians. So hopefully we won’t get into a situation as we did in 2003, whereby decisions were taken on pretty uninformed bases. Obviously the decisions were the ones on Iraq.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of Iraq war, I think the quality and the base at that time about Iraq was very poor and that is certainly one reason why postwar, the occupation period, was such a disaster because simply there wasn’t any forensic examination of what the plans were for that period.
Q. What have been the main obstacles faced by CAABU throughout the years?
I think the main obstacle is the lack of resources. We’ve had to almost suspend our education work with any organization in the country going around schools, talking about the Arab world, talking about Islamophobia and some of these very important issues like Iraq, Palestine and issues that arise from Sept. 11. We’ve had to suspend most of that program due to funding constraints.
Our challenge is that final hurdle, whereby we push the leaderships of these parties to take some difficult decisions. They are difficult because they may go against the positions of the United States, whereby we do genuinely support Palestinian rights, such as supporting Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and take real action against illegal Israeli settlements. I don’t think we’re that far away; we worked very hard to persuade the Labour Party – the main opposition in Britain – to support Palestinian statehood. We’re delighted that they did, and we hope the conservative party will do likewise.
Q: What do you plan to focus on at the Al Arabiya News panel: “Political Lobbying: How can Arabs be more effective?”
I was asked to speak about political lobbying and the context of how Arabs can actually be more effective.
I think it is absolutely fair to say that, as yet, the various Arab constituencies from different countries have not made a huge impact in countries where lobbying takes place and I think we should be very careful and not too critical about it. For example, we have a large British Arab community in Britain but they do come from countries like Iraq, where democracy was not practiced.
And so, there is no culture of lobbying and advocacy and campaigning; which all takes time to develop.
I think the other obstacle has always been this misleading notion that somehow everything is held against Arabs and Muslims and that there is an all-powerful Israeli lobby that controls everything and no matter what you do, you can’t change the system.
That is precisely the sort of view that people who are part of some Israel lobby would like Arabs and Muslims to believe, they don’t want to be challenged. So they do want people to take a defeatist position.
I think the real challenge in the U.S., but also in Europe, is actually to start realizing the benefits of advocacy and lobbying beyond just public relations and to realize that you can actually make a difference and that you have to believe that things can happen and change.
So we need to see more British citizens of Arab origins getting involved in politics, joining the political parties of their preferences. We have never had a British member of parliament of Arab origin, even in the House of Commons or the House of Lords or even in the European parliament.
That is something I look forward to changing. By participating in British politics, the British Arab community would have more clout and would have a greater ability to get over their messages, their points to be able to persuade the leaderships of the political parties, and the powers that be, of their case. But mostly, they are not there.
We’ve seen in Britain, the British Pakistani community getting more involved in British politics, we’ve seen them getting into the British Cabinet, senior positions within political parties.
I hope that this will be the case also in the next decade for the British Arab community as well. When this day comes, it will certainly be a game changer.
The Al Arabiya News Global Discussion panel will take place in Dubai on Nov. 30, 2013. It will feature top panelists from around the world to discuss the topic ‘Bridging the Communication Gap Between East and West’. Follow coverage at www.alarabiya.net/English and find out more about the event here.