Arab opinion survey shows negative views of US foreign policy, scepticism about local governments

From Mauritania to Iraq, people told pollsters that their governments were ineffective and increasingly uninterested in political affairs.
Sunday 15/07/2018

WASHINGTON - The “Arab Opinion Index,” a poll of nearly 19,000 respondents across the Arab world, indicates increasingly negative views of US foreign policy.

They seem to be driven in part by US President Donald Trump’s support of Israel, criticism of Palestinian leaders and the decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. An unprecedented 79% of respondents stated negative views of US foreign policy, up from 49% in 2014.

“We had in the past said over the years, it can’t get any worse and it does get worse. It’s really quite stunning,” said Shibley Telhami, a former US State Department adviser and an expert on US foreign policy in the Middle East.

The survey, released by the Arab Centre Washington, was conducted in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia.

Opinions of US foreign policy have declined each year since 2014, a consequence of the Arab world’s growing disenchantment with former US President Barack Obama as he “lost interest in the Middle East,” said Tamara Kharroub, the assistant executive director of the Arab Centre Washington. Arabs also lost hope for the Obama administration after his “new beginning” speech in Cairo in 2009 in which he vowed to improve US relations with the Arab world.

“Under the Trump administration, the opinion is becoming even more negative,” Kharroub said.

The United States and Israel are overwhelmingly viewed as the leading foreign threats, a view that has held steady over the years. There has been little change in public opposition to recognising Israel. Only 8% of those asked expressed support for such recognition in 2017-18, virtually unchanged since 2011.

The survey showed wide variations of opinion in the 11 countries on issues ranging from freedom of speech to support for the Palestinians.

While 81% of respondents in Tunisia said they felt free to criticise their government without fear of retribution, only 26% of those asked in Sudan said the same. Respondents in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq also stated they could criticise their leaders but Palestinians and Saudis expressed constraint.

“Palestinians are feeling a lot more repressed than they ever have,” Dana el-Kurd, a researcher at the Arab Centre in Doha, said. “People may think because they protest, they have more freedom of expression but people can’t criticise the government freely.”

Arabs expressed broad support for the Palestinian cause and said it concerns all Arabs, not just Palestinians. In Jordan, home to approximately 370,000 Palestinian refugees, 90% of respondents said they believed the Palestinian cause is important to all Arabs. The place in which the fewest people said that was the case was the Palestinian territories, where 64% of those asked said they felt their cause is an overall Arab concern.

“I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that Palestine remains a part of Arab identity. The real question is, is it a priority enough to matter? Will people act on it? We don’t have an answer,” Telhami said.

Domestically, Arabs have an overwhelmingly low opinion of their governments and say they do not represent popular interests. From Mauritania to Iraq, people told pollsters that their governments were ineffective and increasingly uninterested in political affairs.

“There is a clear consensus among the Arab public that corruption is widespread across their countries,” the Arab Opinion Index stated. The survey indicated that 76% of Arab people asked said corruption was prevalent in their home country.

“Political apathy increasingly has become the norm,” the report’s executive summary added, noting that 69% of the people surveyed said they were not concerned with politics and only 12% participated in a political party.

“Part of the reason so many people in the Arab world are not interested in public affairs is they don’t feel their participation will make a difference,” said Kharroub. “That explains the astonishingly low turnout levels in recent elections.”

The study touted itself as the largest public opinion survey in the Arab world and aimed to reveal attitudes of ordinary Arabs, which were often overshadowed by the views and policies of political leaders. The Arab Centre has conducted the survey annually since 2011.