Jonathan Rugman

Ed Bithell

On Wednesday, May 20, IR Soc hosted a talk from Jonathan Rugman on “My Middle East Journey”. Now Foreign Affairs Correspondent for Channel 4 News, Rugman has previously worked for the BBC covering Turkey, as well as serving several international roles for Channel 4 News before his current position, in which he has reported from events such as the famine in Somalia, the Eurozone crisis, and most recently the various uprisings and revolutions of the Arab world.

Rugman began his talk examining the broad issues pressing many of the states of the Middle East, particularly their varying attempts to create a feeling of national identity and statehood, looking to the example of Turkey as a country that has achieved this, but only through the “ruthless but brilliant” policies of Atatürk. Comparing the successes of Atatürk to the current crises sweeping the Middle East, Rugman claimed that he looks even more successful in hindsight than he did at the time, particularly with the recent “deal” reached between the Turkish government and the Kurds in the south-east. A further comparison was between the humanitarian interventions from the West in the early 1990s, and the more jaded and cautious policy of today.

Rugman also drew links between the Arab Spring and the rise of an educated middle class in countries like Tunisia, in which socially progressive dictators created the very group of people who would most want to bring them down. However, while social change effected by dictators had led to these events, he also said that the Middle East had in some cases rejected democracy, commenting that with the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt had decided that “it hated the Muslim Brotherhood more than it loved democracy”. Also speaking about the reactions of the Iraqi people to IS, Rugman expressed concern about the lack of national cohesion, with nobody uniting Iraq to deal with the threat and the possibility rising that the country will fall apart.

While acknowledging the problems created at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Rugman cautioned against a deterministic view of how the aftermath of the First World War had affected the Middle East. He emphasised that it now lay on the people of the respective countries to move forward and develop as nations, with a “knowledge revolution” necessary to empower a new generation of Middle Easterners to stand up for themselves.

Questioned on the future of foreign correspondents, and their role in conflicts, Rugman said that the role of the foreign correspondent as a gentleman amateur, arriving in new situations, is being eclipsed by the prominence of 24 hour news coverage, brought to the news agencies by local reporters, as has been done for the recent Nepal earthquake.