Polling and Politics in Riyadh

When three weeks ago, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia suggested that he might offer a peace plan for the Middle East, some foreign policy experts saw only a public relations gesture intended to help repair relations with the United States. These had been badly frayed since Sept. 11, in part because 15 out of the 19 airplane hijackers were Saudi.

But the main impetus behind the prince’s remarks may well have come from another source, one Americans are intimately familiar with: poll-driven domestic politics. Polls have helped demonstrate to the Saudi rulers that the Arab- Israeli conflict, by its effects on ordinary Saudis, could undermine the kingdom’s relationship with the United States and, ultimately, the stability of the kingdom itself.

The Saudi people, polling shows, are angry and frustrated with the United States over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their rulers, however, want to support the war on terrorism and to rein in radical Islamists, while maintaining the kingdom’s close economic and strategic ties with the United States.

In a survey last month of Saudi elites—defined as media professionals, academics and chamber of commerce members—43 percent said that their frustrations with the United States would be completely removed, and 23 percent said they would be significantly reduced, if America brokered a just and lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This result also jibes with a general public opinion survey conducted last summer, in which 63 percent of Saudis said that the Palestinian issue was “the single most important issue” to them personally. Other surveys, too, have confirmed the importance of the Arab-Israeli issue among the Saudi people.

When asked if their attitudes toward the United States were mostly based on its policies or on its values, 86 percent answered politics. Only 6 percent said values.

The crown prince indicated in interviews last week that he now understands the dangers to the regime of religious extremism and anti-American sentiment. But so long as there is no peace between Israel and its neighbors, particularly the Palestinians, the Saudi leaders fear the most radical (and most anti- American ) elements of their society will continue to have popular support—which will continue to be reflected in polls. And that popularity could make it difficult to shut down or restrict the radicals’ activities.