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Survey: Arabs Lose Faith in Obama

Arab opinion of the United States and its president Barack Obama has dimmed in the past year, while the popularity of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has skyrocketed, according to an annual survey released by the US-based Brookings Institution on Thursday.

The survey found that a majority of Arabs continue to believe that peace between Israel and the Palestinians will never happen and that - unlike in past years - a larger number are identifying as Muslims, rather than as Arabs or citizens of a particular country.

The poll of nearly 4,000 people, done in conjunction with Zogby International,was conducted between June 29 and July 20 in six Middle Eastern countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Lost opportunity

Of those surveyed, 62 per cent said they had a negative view of Obama, compared with 23 per cent a year ago.

READ THE POLL
  The 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll

Only 20 per cent said they had a positive view of him, a drop from the 45 per cent who said they felt positively about Obama in 2009.

The precipitous decline in Obama's popularity, though expected by many Middle East analysts and already documented in a Pew survey of global opinion,has naturally captured the headlines,given the president's promise to pursue rapprochement with Arabs and Muslims during his campaign and the early months of his presidency.

Arabs' attitudes toward US foreign policy have turned negative even more rapidly than their opinion of Obama himself.

This year, 63 per cent of those surveyed said they were "discouraged" by the administration's Middle East policy, a massive increase from the 15 per cent who said so in 2009.

The number of Arabs who said they felt "hopeful" shrunk from 51 per cent to 16 per cent.

Obama's June 2009 speech to the Muslim world was meant to mark a definitive break from the antipathy generated by the preceding Bush administration's "war on terror". 

In his address, Obama identified America's post-September 11 campaign against "violent extremists" and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the primary source of tension between the US and the Muslim world.

But the large majority of Arabs in the Brookings survey - 61 per cent - said they were most disappointed with Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The continued US presence in Iraq came in second, rating as the most disappointing US policy for 27 per cent of those surveyed, while Afghanistan came in fourth, ranking as the most disappointing for only 4 per cent.

Warming to peace?

Though the survey work began just one month after a highly controversial and deadly Israeli raid on a civilian ship attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip, Arab attitudes about forging a peace agreement with Israel actually seem to have warmed over the past two years.

Obama raised hopes in his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo [REUTERS]

While 54 per cent of those surveyed said they do not believe a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will ever happen - a number that has basically remained unchanged since 2008 - the vast majority of Arabs surveyed, 86 per cent, said they were prepared for peace if Israel was willing to return all the territory it has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War, including East Jerusalem.

In past years, only 73 per cent of those surveyed said they were prepared for peace.

The number of Arabs prone to continued belligerence with Israel has also declined: only 12 per cent said they "should continue to fight" even if Israel returns all post-1967 territory, compared with 25 per cent in 2009.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has put the pre-condition of a return to the 1967 borders as necessary for any negotiations with Israel to begin.

He was also rated the second-most popular Palestinian leader among those surveyed, after Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas leader-in-exile.

Turkey rising

Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, shot into the lead spot as the most popular world leader among the Arab population, with 20 per cent of those surveyed saying they admired him most.

Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and Brookings fellow, told Asia Times that Erdogan's rise in Arab esteem - he was not mentioned in 2008 and was barely noticed last year - comes as a result of the Turkish role in supporting the flotilla that attempted to break the Gaza siege.

Erdogan's outspoken criticism of the Israeli raid on the flotilla also raised his popularity.

Arab opinion on Iran also remained divided.

Though the number of Arabs who believe Iran wants peaceful nuclear power has shrunk, an increasing majority still believe Tehran has the right to pursue a nuclear programme, even if the country is seeking weapons.

Turkey slammed Israel for its commando raid on a Gaza-bound ship [AFP]

Egyptians and Moroccans who believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons were the most inclined to also say that Iran has the right to do so.

Saudis were evenly split on the issue, while the majority of Jordanians, Lebanese and citizens of the UAE said Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear program if weapons are its goal.

For the first time in the past two years, more Arabs surveyed said they identified as Muslim rather than as citizens of their country.

The feeling was strongest in Morocco, where 61 per cent identified primarily as Muslim, and in Saudi Arabia, where 47 per cent did.

Egyptians were more inclined to identify as Muslims than people living in the UAE, even though the Gulf has usually been thought of as the home of the most conservative schools of Islam.

Islamic identification was weakest in Lebanon, where only eight per cent of those surveyed said they identified primarily as Muslim, and Jordan, where 16 per cent said so.

No empathy for Israel

After Erdogan, those who topped the Arab popularity chart included Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president and Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader, who came in seventh.

Despite warming views of peace with the Israel, those surveyed displayed extreme lack of empathy towards its citizens.

Fifty-nine per cent said they "resent" watching movies or programs about the Holocaust because they "feel it brings sympathy toward Israel and Jews at the expense of Palestinians and Arabs".

Only three per cent said they "empathize with the Jews who suffered under the Nazis" when watching such media.

This feeling was particularly strong in the UAE, where 99 per cent of those surveyed felt only resentment when viewing the material.

In Morocco, 85 per cent felt resentment, 15 per cent had mixed feelings, and none felt empathy.

Asked to rate two feelings that best described their reaction to seeing Israeli civilian casualties, the most widely experienced emotions among Arabs by a large margin were that the "Israelis brought it upon themselves" and that such deaths were "revenge for the Palestinians".

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