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Arab Public Opinion Shifts in Positive Direction

A recent public opinion poll of the Arab world, taken before President Obama’s outreach efforts in Cairo, shows that the perception of the United States is beginning to improve, while public views on Iran and al Qaeda are becoming less positive. About 45 percent reported a positive view of President Obama.

Just over half of the Arabs surveyed, or 51 percent, said that they were hopeful with regard to the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East, according to the University of Maryland/Zogby International poll, which was conducted in April and May in the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Morocco. Only 14 percent of the approximately 4,000 surveyed responded that they were “somewhat discouraged” or “very discouraged” about the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. 

These shifts in attitude represent tentative steps in the right direction, but whether that translates into long term change will depend on how the administration deals with issues like Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said experts at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“There is an openness,” said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the survey’s principal investigator. “There’s hopefulness. People are prepared to listen. They don’t have a lot of negatives toward the president. But it’s a mistake, I think, to conclude from that that this translates into love of the President of the United States.”

Asked to name two countries that posed the greatest threat to them, a majority of those surveyed still chose the United States as one of the two, with the other top choice being Israel.

“The only good news here is that that has declined from 2008,” Telhami said. Last year 88 percent said one of the biggest threats was the United States, compared to only 77 percent this year. For Israel, the numbers were 95 percent last year and 88 percent this year.

The number who identified Iran as a threat nearly doubled from last year, up to 13 percent from 7 percent. Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University, attributed the change to “media framing and the role of governments…trying to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment,” rather than to a well-reasoned change in the population’s political views.

A majority of Arabs surveyed, or 58 percent, said they believed Iran was trying to develop nuclear weapons, compared with 39 percent last year. The number that thought this would be bad for the Middle East increased to 46 percent from 29 percent. While a majority still believes Iran has a right to its nuclear program, the number that thought the country should be pressured to stop its program nearly doubled to 40 percent.

The survey results also show sympathy for al Qaeda decreasing, with 32 percent saying they do not sympathize, compared to 21 percent last year. But 50 percent of respondents still indicated that they had sympathy for the fact that the group confronts the United States and that it says it stands for Muslim causes.

The strategic terrain of the Arab world is shifting to issues, such as how to engage Iran and deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lynch said. “I think al Qaeda is really decreasing as a central focus, both of American strategy and of politics in the region,” said Lynch. “We’re now dealing with a situation in which mass attitudes and political attitudes matter more than the jihadist narratives of a small group of radical extremists.”

@Read more of the survey’s results