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What Arab Public Opinion Thinks of U.S. Policy

The Saban Center for Middle East Policy hosted a policy luncheon discussion with Shibley Telhami, Saban Center Nonresident Senior Fellow and Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland. Telhami discussed findings of his latest public opinion poll, which was conducted in October 2005 with Zogby International, in six countries: Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates. Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor and Columnist for The Washington Post was the event’s respondent.

The poll was Telhami’s third annual survey of public opinion in the Arab world. He presented preliminary findings, focusing on patterns of media consumption, opinions towards the United States, and opinions towards Al-Qa’ida. Among the notable findings presented were respondents’ general disagreement with U.S. policies in the Middle East. In addition, the data indicate that among Western countries, France has the strongest support for its policies within the Arab world.

Telhami began by raising the issue of whether there is a connection between identity and media. Identity in the Middle East is changing, Telhami argued. The way in which people identify themselves—as Arabs, Muslims, or nationals of a specific country—may be associated with the media they consume. Forthcoming analysis by Telhami will address this issue more in depth.

The first series of data gave an indication of what satellite television stations are being watched in the six countries covered by the survey. To determine this, Telhami argued that it is important to not limit the respondent’s answers to one choice. Telhami explained that because viewers tend to gather information from multiple media sources, it is important to ask which networks are their first choice and which is the second choice when watching international news. Al-Jazeera comfortably topped the poll, while Al- Arabiya was the second choice.

Telhami then discussed the effect of the war in Iraq on public opinion in the Arab world. According to Telhami, the war in Iraq has replaced the Arab-Israeli conflict as the prism through which Arabs view international events. Therefore, because the Arab world largely views the war in a negative light, many view U.S foreign policy with considerable suspicion.

In a series of questions, Telhami found a largely negative view of the conflict in Iraq. A strong majority of respondents answered that the war in Iraq has brought less peace (81 percent), more terrorism (78 percent), and less democracy (58 per cent) to the region. In addition, 77 percent of respondents said that Iraqis were worse off as a result of the war. Only a small number of respondents believed that the United States’ objective in Iraq was to spread democracy. Rather, a plurality of respondents believed that the United States’ primary motivation for the war is its interest in oil, and an important number believed that the war was motivated by a desire to protect Israel and to seek regional dominance.

As a result, Telhami argued, it should be no surprise that the Arab world is uneasy with the United States as the world’s only superpower. In an open ended question, respondents were asked, “Name the two countries that you think pose the biggest threat to you.” By large margins, respondents offered the United States and Israel. In addition, when asked which country they would prefer as the world’s only superpower (with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and Pakistan as the choices), 21 percent of respondents preferred France and 13 percent preferred China, whereas only 7 percent preferred Britain and 6 percent preferred the United States. Telhami argued that Britain’s participation in the war in Iraq has had a direct effect on its negative standing in the Arab world.

However, one question in particular indicated that, despite a general dislike of U.S. policies, there is a vacuum of leadership in the Arab world. When asked to “please tell me which leader (outside of your own country) you admire most,” there was no Arab leader that won much support.

Therefore, Telhami argued, the data indicate that despite a disagreement with U.S. policies, people admire the values of the United States. In other words, people dislike what the United States is doing, but not what the United States is. For instance, when asked where they would like to live or where they would like a relative to study, respondents chose Western European countries and the United States over Pakistan, Russia, or China. In addition, when asked the open ended question, “Name two countries where you think there is most freedom and democracy for their own people,” France, Germany, the United States, Britain, and Sweden were named most. Therefore, although the respondents might prefer China and Pakistan as the world’s superpower, most people would rather live in Western Europe or the United States.

Telhami noted that in the past he had been reluctant to ask questions relating to Al-Qa’ida, fearing that he would be unable to obtain honest answers. In this survey, respondents were asked, “When you think about Al-Qaeda, what aspects of the organization, if any, do you sympathize with most?” Thirty six percent chose the answer “Confronts the United States” and 20 percent chose “Stands up for Muslim causes such as the Palestinian issue,” whereas only 7 percent chose the answer “Its methods of operation.” Telhami argued that this is consistent with an overall trend in Arab public opinion: respondents are uncomfortable with the lack of any perceived check on U.S. policies in the Middle East. Telhami said that while people feel frustrated with U.S. policies, there was no evidence in his poll to indicate that people are punishing the United States in the marketplace. Data indicate that people are not boycotting U.S. products for political reasons, rather they make their consumer decisions on the basis of price rather than country of origin.

Following Professor Telhami’s presentation, Diehl responded by questioning both the methodology and the responses. He asked whether respondents in the Middle Eastern countries surveyed are honest with their answers. Diehl argued that there is a phenomenon in the Middle East of people telling you what they think you want to hear. For example, Diehl pointed to one of Telhami’s questions about Iran, which indicates that only 21 percent of respondents think that “Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program.” Diehl asked if the data are accurate, because he said that it is difficult to believe that citizens of Iran’s neighboring states, notably Saudi Arabia, would want Iran to have nuclear weapons. Therefore, Diehl argued, the wording of the question makes it hard to determine what people think about a nuclear Iran. Diehl also observed that the data indicated that respondents admire France and would like a relative to study in France. If this is the case, Diehl asked, why are more students from the Arab world applying for visas to study in the United States than France?

In response, Telhami stressed that the polling did not delve into the precise Arab public opinion view of whether Iran should have nuclear weapons. Rather, the questions were designed to discover how respondents feel about the international community’s stance towards the question of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Telhami also said there is no clear answer as to whether people are honest in polls. This is a challenge that all pollsters face. He argued that any bias that dishonesty might introduce into the polls would be corrected for by analyzing the data in relation to long-term trends.

Diehl expressed his concern about mentioning Iraq in the survey because he felt that doing so might taint subsequent answers due to the sensitivity of the topic. In addition, he argued that while the polling gives light to what people think are the motivations of the Unties States, it is difficult to tell from the data whether people support the overall U.S. backed concept of democratization. Telhami said that most people probably support the notion of democracy and freedom. Yet, it was important to remember that his polling was meant to get information on the perceptions that people have towards the United States rather on their views of the broad concept of democratization.

Diehl pointed to a question that asked about sympathy for Al-Qa’ida. He said he was troubled that while the data indicate that most people do not support Al-Qa’ida’s methods, in practice many people seem to tolerate its methods. In effect, there was no way to tell the magnitude of disagreement that respondents in Arab countries may have with the group.

During the question and answer period, one participant pointed to a poll result that many respondents believed that President Bush was acting way to further U.S. national interests in the Middle East rather than to further democracy. The participant was troubled by the fact that this might mean citizens in the Middle East perceive U.S. national interests to be incompatible with their own interests. Telhami noted that one positive element in his polling was that the data did not indicate people believed U.S. foreign policy was dictated by U.S. domestic politics—namely, the belief that a strong Jewish lobby in the U.S. controls foreign policy. Telhami also said that although it is safe to say most people in the Middle East would like more freedoms, they do not want it at the expense of their national or security. Telhami also made the point that most people in the Middle East, especially élites, differentiate between their views of President Bush and their opinions about the United States as a whole.

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