Posted on May 12, 2008 in Washington Watch

In 2008, Arab attitudes toward the U.S. remain at alarmingly low levels. Concern with U.S. policy is the reason. And because the U.S. role in the region is so critical, interest in the American elections is high across the Arab world. These are some of the findings of polling that Zogby International conducted separately for the Arab Broadcast Forum and the U.S. Arab Economic Forum.

In mid-March, 2008, we surveyed over 4,000 Arabs in six countries (Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Lebanon and Jordan). Here’s what we found:

Public opinion remains sour on the U.S., with unfavorable ratings ranging from a high in the 80% range in Egypt and Jordan, to a low (though still high) 71% in the UAE and Morocco. Since we have been tracking this question since 2002, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. have only increased slightly in two countries, UAE and Morocco; while in every other country, they have dropped.

When asked to account for the main factors determining their negative attitudes toward the U.S., the principle reasons given are the war in Iraq, developments in the Arab-Israeli front, and “American treatment of Arabs and Muslims.” While the order of importance given to these three differs from country to country, U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli front has grown in importance, in all six countries, contributing to negative attitudes.

It is significant to note that the war in Iraq and America’s behavior toward the Arab-Israeli conflict are not abstract issues for most Arabs. In all six countries, these were identified as having the greatest negative impact on their economic development (only in the UAE was this not the case. In that country, only the war in Iraq was found to play a negative role in their economic life.) Other issues, such as lack of political reform or the threat of a nuclear Iran, factored much lower in importance.

All of this has contributed to a growing insecurity and lack of certainty about the future in most Arab countries. The trend in declining optimism and satisfaction we have seen developing since we first began polling six years ago continues. In Egypt and Morocco, for example, where once almost half the population said that they were better off than they were four years ago, now only 20% feel that way. Even in Saudi Arabia, where, in 2002, 49% felt they were better off than they had been four years ago, by 2008 that number had dropped to 34%.

So given the concern with instability and growing insecurity, largely due to conflicts raging in Iraq and Palestine, and with U.S. policy being seen as central to both, is it any wonder that Arab public opinion would be concerned about the U.S. presidential election?

What we found in our poll is that almost half of Lebanese, Moroccans and Saudis are, in fact, watching the election closely, while a third of our respondents in UAE and Jordan, and quarter of Egyptians are, as well.

They are following the contest because it matters to the Arab world. This is the opinion of almost 60% of Jordanians and Moroccans, almost one half of Egyptians, Saudis and Lebanese, and four in ten Arabs in the Emirates.

This keen interest doesn’t necessarily translate into preference for one or another of the candidates, since in four of the six countries polled, when asked which candidate would be best to improve U.S.-Arab relations, about a half of the respondents said “it didn’t matter.” But, among those who said that they were closely watching the election, well over one-half identified either of the two Democrats as more likely to improve U.S.-Arab relations.

We have known that Arab elites and opinion-makers track developments in the U.S., but now we know that the Arab public at large is also following U.S. politics. What our polling also shows is that the Arab media plays a key role here. Well over four in ten respondents in all six countries give high grades to the amount of information they receive from Arab media on U.S. elections.

There is, in all of this, an important lesson for Americans and U.S. political leaders: our elections are unfolding on a world stage, and because our policies matter in the lives of people in the Middle East, they are watching.

Washington Watch is a weekly column written by AAI President James Zogby. The views expressed within this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Arab American Institute.

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