Survey: Obama Has Real Chance to Change Arab Opinion

President Barack Obama has a major opportunity to improve the mostly negative views about the United States in the Arab world but is likely to have only a short period of time to do so, according to a major new survey of public opinion [.pdf] in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The survey, released by the Brookings Institution and Zogby International Tuesday, found that 45 percent of the more than 4,000 Arabs polled in the five countries overall hold favorable views of Obama compared to 24 percent with negative views.

More than half of respondents – and nearly 60 percent of non-Egyptians – said they were more hopeful about U.S. Middle East policy under Obama, compared to only 14 percent who expressed discouragement with his first 100 days in office.

But those views have not yet translated into a major reassessment of the United States itself, according to the survey, the seventh in an annual series designed by Brookings Senior Fellow and University of Maryland Prof. Shibley Telhami, and conducted by the Zogby firm.

Thus, on key questions about attitudes toward the U.S. and its policies in the region that have been asked in previous surveys, there have only been marginal improvements in Arab public opinion since one year ago, when regional views of the U.S., and toward then-president George W. Bush in particular, were overwhelmingly negative.

"There is hopefulness; people are prepared to listen," said Telhami about the latest survey, which was conducted in the five countries between April 21 and May 11. "But it would be a mistake to interpret it as love for the president of the United States. … It’s more, ‘We think we like this guy.’"

Besides the findings on attitudes toward the Obama and the U.S., the new survey found overwhelming Arab support (74 percent) for the creation of a unified Palestinian national unity government (NUG), as well as more sympathy for Hamas than for Fatah.

Three out of four Arabs also support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a return to Israel’s 1967 borders, but half of the respondents said they did not believe a peace deal will ever be possible.

In addition, the survey found growing concern among respondents about the role of Iran and its nuclear program and a decline in the popularity of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, especially in Egypt and Morocco, suggesting that the two governments’ recent public attacks on Tehran and its regional allies had borne fruit.

The new survey comes amid an intense period of Mideast diplomacy by the Obama administration, which, as one of its very first acts, appointed former Sen. George Mitchell as its chief negotiator on Arab-Israeli peace. Mitchell has already made three visits to the region since his appointment and is setting up an office in Jerusalem.

Obama hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah at the White House last week and met with Israel’s new right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, there Monday. Next week, he is scheduled to meet separately with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On June 4, Obama will deliver a major speech addressed to the Muslim world from Cairo in what is expected to mark a decisive break with his predecessor’s "global war on terror," which many Muslims perceived as a war against Islam. The speech is also expected to stress the importance the new administration attaches to achieving a just settlement to the Israeli-Arab conflict as a crucial element to building a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic world.

The latest survey suggests strongly that, while skepticism about Washington’s intentions in the Middle East remains widespread in the Arab world, Obama’s election and his first months in office have opened a window of opportunity to change perceptions.

More than half of all respondents said they were either "very hopeful" (6 percent) or "somewhat hopeful" (45 percent) about Obama’s policies in the Middle East based on his first months in office.

As in most questions, there was considerable variation between countries, with the most hopeful being Saudi Arabia (79 percent) and UAE (59 percent), and the least hopeful, Jordan (31 percent) and Egypt (44 percent). The latter two countries were generally the most skeptical of both Obama and the United States, according to Telhami.

Asked what issue would be most central to their assessment of Obama’s policy in the region, 42 percent of the entire sample cited the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq; 26 percent cited the Arab-Israeli conflict; and 16 percent, Obama’s attitudes toward the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Remarkably, according to Telhami, U.S. actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan – to which Obama has given unprecedented attention – are given little importance to Arab respondents, only three percent of whom said it was central to their concerns.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, most Arabs believed that Israel emerged as the biggest winner of the December-January Gaza war and that the Palestinian people were the biggest losers. At the same time, however, only 11 percent consider that Israel is stronger now than before, while 44 percent said they believed it was weaker.

As to the division among Palestinians, 49 percent of Arab respondents said they sympathize with both Fatah and Hamas to some extent, while 22 percent said they sided more with Hamas, compared to 12 percent who said they sided more with Fatah. But a full third of respondents outside of Egypt, whose government has been very critical of Hamas, said they sympathized more with the Islamist group.

Attitudes toward Iran have become markedly more negative over the past year, according to the survey. Overall, 13 percent of respondents identified Iran as one of their two biggest threats, an increase of 6 percentage points since 2008; and outside Egypt, 20 percent see Iran as one of their two biggest threats, compared with 11 percent last year.

The perceived threat posed by Iran, however, was negligible compared to those posed by Israel and the U.S., according to the survey. Overall, nearly 90 percent of respondents said they considered Israel to be one of the two biggest threats, and 77 percent named the United States. That 77 percent, however, was down from 88 percent one year ago, adding weight to the notion that Obama’s election has made a difference in how Washington is perceived.

Asked which two foreign leaders they admired most in the world, however, no respondent cited Obama. Instead, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose suspension of diplomatic ties with Israel gained wide notice in the Arab world, emerged as the most frequently named (36 percent), followed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and former French president Jacques Chirac (18 percent).

Last year, Nasrallah was the top vote-getter (27 percent), followed by Chirac (20 percent), Assad (18 percent), and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the latest poll, Nasrallah fell to 11 percent, and Ahmadinejad to 10 percent.

Asked which two leaders they disliked the most, Bush was most frequently mentioned, followed by Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, in that order.

Overall, it appears that Arab views of the United States over the past seven years have generally rebounded – particularly in the last year – to 2002 levels before the 2003 invasion, which brought Washington’s image in the region to an all-time low.

"There’s no question there is a bounce back," said James Zogby, the brother of Zogby International CEO John Zogby, who heads the Arab American Institute. "But it is tentative."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.