Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher

Former British Ambassador to Lebanon

Part of UK in Lebanon

27th February 2015 Beirut, Lebanon

What Lebanese Students Tell Me About Us

I spend a lot of time in universities, talking with students about their hopes for the region and their perceptions of the UK. Lebanon has always been a good place to listen to the currents surging through the Middle East. These sessions are always lively, surprising, challenging. It is foolish to try to generalise about such a complex and dynamic set of opinions, but here nevertheless is a foolish try to capture ten points I often hear about the West.

1. “The history seems to matter more to us than to you”. Every student here can tell us how Balfour, Sykes/Picot and Tony Blair fit into their story, though their version might not be the same as mine. They often wonder why our scope in the West is more parochial.

2. “We’re not all sectarian and we’re fed up with being put in pigeon holes”. The region is much more complex and sophisticated than we label it. We must be careful not to let generalisations creep in, especially sectarian labels that over-simplify a complicated reality.

3. “We missed out on the printing press. We won’t make the same mistake again”. Young people across the region are connecting via new technology in unprecedented and potentially transformative ways. We need to understand these trends.

4. “We may not agree with your policy, but we love your Royals, music, footballers and brands”. I’ve lost count of the number of students who have berated me about foreign policy while wearing a Union Jack t-shirt or Premiership football kit, or listening to Adele. Soft power matters, and can withstand ebbs and flows in hard power.

5. “You talk values, but you often pick sides”. The ability to cross check government statements in real time against events means people draw conclusions less from statements by Ambassadors, and more from the impact of our actions. Where our explanations fail, conspiracy oozes in.

6. “English has won”. Students want more of it. Yet access to the talismanic English texts on which we have built our political culture is still limited – more are still translated into Catalan than Arabic.  I would love to see more of the wealth of the British Library archives made accessible globally.

7. “We need security, justice and opportunity …”. The Arab uprisings were about many different things, often local. But running through all of them was rejection of authoritarianism and injustice. That hasn’t gone away as Winter has set in.

8. “… Failing that, we’ll settle for wifi and do the rest”. In Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, they told me that extremists regularly disable internet connections in the entrepreneurs club. We need those entrepreneurs connected. The smartphone has not yet been the superpower some of us claimed that it could be. Yet. We should help get citizens online, and keep the internet free.

9. “Britain spends much too much time talking to itself”. The Scottish referendum, EU debate, and round upon round of corrosive media campaigns against bankers, politicians, celebrities or other journalists makes some observers argue that we don’t want to be a world power anymore. We have to show them that we haven’t lost our pioneering, outward facing, creative, open minded spirit.

10. “Power is shifting fast and the old structures are broken”. I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of times that a student has told me that the current global governance structures are part of the solution. There is a growing deficit of trust and confidence, which we would be crazy to ignore.

I love this part of the world, but it has plenty of reasons to be cynical and realist. As countless Arab Development reports have argued, it is also not going to create enough jobs for the generation leaving university. Some of the brightest and best may head to the UK. So too could many of the hungriest and angriest.  We need to hear and understand their voices.

If everyone agreed, there would be no need for diplomats. And if we only spoke to people who agreed with us, diplomacy would be pretty boring.

1 comment on “What Lebanese Students Tell Me About Us

  1. I very much like your blog posts Tom.

    I was born Lebanese but have lived in Britian for more than 18 years now. I completed medical school there and have worked it the NHS since graduation.

    After living in a country for a substantial amount of time you do start to understand how a country thinks and a lot about its core beliefs and values. I do not believe that a year or even two areenough to develop a full understanding, they are merely a snapshot of reality. I have learned to embrace and even love British values. You start to think differently after a while. Every time I visit Lebanon these days it feels more and more alien to me. The thing that strikes me the most is the complete degradation of common courtesy and the unbelievable chaos everywhere you go. I honestly miss standing in a proper British que when I’m in Beirut for a few weeks

    I believe Lebanon main export is its graduates and as time goes by more and more Lebanese students are taking their talents to far away lands. These are the people Lebanon has to try to keep in. The country honestly has the potential to be great but lacks the will. A deflated, defeatist nation.

    I find myself more British than Lebanese these days and that’s a sad realisation for me. I’m an immigrant. I’m not fully British but then neither am I fully Lebanese anymore. A lost identity and a painful place to be.

    In a week time I’ll be back in Yorkshire and the crazy excitement of Beirut will and the dull daily commute to work will start, at least though, no one will cut the que in front of me

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About Tom Fletcher

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011. Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford…

Tom Fletcher was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011.

Tom was born in Kent, and studied at Harvey Grammar School (Folkestone) and Oxford University (Hertford College), graduating with a First class degree in Modern History. He has an MA in Modern History, and is a Senior Associate Member of St Anthony’s College for International Studies, Oxford.

He is married to Louise Fletcher and they have two sons, Charles (born 2006) and Theodor (born 2011). Tom enjoys political history, cricket (Strollers CC), and mountains, and is the co-founder of 2020 (a progressive think tank).

Tom was awarded the Companion of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the 2011 New Year’s Honours, for services to the Prime Minister.