WASHINGTON - Although the image of the United States appears to have improved in Saudi Arabia over the past year, the Saudi public's view of Washington remains largely negative, according to major new poll released here this week by Terror Free Tomorrow (TFT), a Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan group.Indeed, less than 40 percent of some 1,000 Saudi respondents interviewed by telephone during the first week of December, said they have either a "very" or "somewhat favourable" opinion of the U.S., while nearly 52 percent said their view was either very or somewhat unfavourable, according to the survey results.
By contrast, Iran -- which Saudi leaders reportedly consider a dangerous rival for influence in the oil-rich Gulf region -- is seen more positively by the Saudi public in general, the poll found.
A plurality of 47 percent said they regarded Tehran either very or somewhat favourably, compared to 44 percent who expressed unfavourable views.
Strong majorities of Saudi respondents, on the other hand, said they held favourable views of Turkey (71 percent) -- whose secular traditions would appear to be at odds with Saudi Arabia's staunchly Islamist orientation -- and China (61 percent). Somewhat weaker majorities said they had positive views of France and Britain.
The TFT survey, the latest in a series by the organisation of key countries in the Islamic world -- including Iran and Pakistan -- suggests that Saudi public opinion, especially toward the outside world, is considerably more complex than depicted by the western mass media which has portrayed it as a stronghold of "Wahabi" fanaticism.
Fewer than one in ten Saudis said they had a favourable opinion of al Qaeda. Eighty-eight percent said they approved of their government's crackdown against the group and 15 percent said they had a positive impression of the group's chief and fellow-Saudi, Osama bin Laden.
But strong majorities of those who expressed a favourable opinion of bin Laden and al Qaeda also said they favoured closer ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and insisted that their views of the U.S. would change for the better if Washington changed a number of its policies in the region.
More than two thirds (69 percent) of respondents said they favoured better relations with the U.S.
Asked what policy changes would improve their opinion of the U.S., 85 percent cited the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq. Seventy-four percent cited increasing student and work visas for Saudis in the U.S. and 71 percent suggested striking a free trade deal between the two countries.
Fifty-two percent of respondents said their view of Washington would improve if it brokered a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, while only 36 percent cited Washington's efforts at promoting democracy in the Middle East.
Nearly two thirds (63 percent) said their view would improve if Washington provided more military assistance to Saudi Arabia, although only 49 percent said they favoured the pending sale of billions of dollars in advanced U.S. weaponry to the kingdom, while 32 percent said they opposed it.
While 52 percent of Saudi respondents said they retained a negative opinion of the U.S., that marked a considerable improvement over the results of a smaller TFT poll taken in May 2006 when 89 percent of Saudi respondents said they held an unfavourable view.
Still, TFT's director, Ken Ballen, said the 40 percent favourable view suggested that the Saudi public was one of the most pro-U.S. countries in the region. He noted that only around 20 percent of respondents in surveys taken over the past year in Pakistan and Egypt said they had favourable views, while only nine percent of Turks shared that opinion in a May 2007 poll sponsored by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.
"From our surveys and others," he wrote in a summary analysis of the Saudi poll, "there are only two major Muslim majority countries with a higher favourable opinion of the United States: Bangladesh and Iran."
As heartening as that conclusion appeared to be, the U.S. and Americans ranked were still seen least favourably among seven nations and their citizens on whom respondents were asked to give their opinions.
Only four in ten Saudis said they felt positively about Americans. Favourable opinions of the British were voiced by 48 percent of respondents. Fifty-two percent said they had favourable views of Iranians, while the French, at 57 percent, were viewed somewhat more favourably. Nearly three out of four respondents said they had a positive view of Turks.
"It's not like they're locked into an anti-western framework," noted Steve Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), citing the statistics for Britain and France.
Kull, whose organisation has done extensive polling in the Middle East, also noted that the relatively favourable views towards Iran suggested that the Saudi public does not share the same fears about Tehran as the royal family.
Nearly one third of Saudi respondents said they had a favourable opinion of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- nearly three times the percentage of those who had positive views of Bush.
Still, 57 percent of respondents said they opposed the development by Iran of nuclear weapons. Thirty-eight percent said they would favour the U.S. and other countries taking military action to prevent the Iranians from obtaining such a weapon, compared to 27 percent who said the U.S. should accept a nuclear-armed Iran.
Saudis were particularly sympathetic toward Iraqis for whom more than four in five respondents expressed favourable views. Iraq also appeared to be the dominant source of unhappiness with the U.S.
Despite their strong antipathy toward al Qaeda, 36 percent of respondents said they supported Saudi citizens going to Iraq to fight U.S. forces there. Only 17 percent said they supported Saudis fighting Shia militias in Iraq.
Saudi respondents expressed an almost uniform antipathy toward Jews. Only six percent said they held favourable views of Jews. Nearly nine of ten said their views were unfavourable (81 percent "very unfavourable").
A slight majority of 51 percent said they would oppose any peace treaty recognising Israel, while 30 percent said they would favour such a treaty on the condition that Palestinians establish a state of their own.
Attitudes towards Christians were more divided. Forty-four percent expressed favourable views, while 54 percent said they had unfavourable opinions (40 percent "very unfavourable").
© 2007 Inter Press Service