Posted on January 02, 2006 in Washington Watch

Significant changes are taking place in public opinion in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Despite regional and domestic concerns specific to their countries, Saudis and Lebanese are more optimistic about their futures, more satisfied with their present circumstances, more focused on specific problems that must be solved, and more strongly identified with their countries than when we last polled in 2002.

These are some of the findings of a Zogby International poll, conducted during the last half of October 2005. It was sponsored, in part, by the Young Arab Leaders organization, and the Arab American Institute. In an earlier column, I reported the poll’s general findings which covered six Arab countries, but the changes observed in Saudi and Lebanese opinion are so dramatic, they warrant special attention.

First, Saudi Arabia:

In all of our polling we ask what we call the “Reagan question”—“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Since Reagan’s time, politicians have understood that the answer to that question provides a useful barometer of the public’s level of satisfaction. We have expanded this line of inquiry to include: “Are you better off than your parents were?” And to determine their level of optimism we asked, “Do you feel you’ll be better off in the next four years?” And “Do you think your children will be better of than you are right now?”

Answers to all four questions in Saudi Arabia indicate a significant increase in the level of satisfaction and optimism. In 2002, for example, Saudi’s were only slightly more satisfied with their current situation. By a margin of 34 to 28 percent they said they were better off then they had been four years ago and by a 27 to 26 percent edge they said they were better off than their parents.
Today, the mood is dramatically different. By a margin of 49 to 12 percent, Saudis now say they are better off than they were four years ago, and by 45 to 12 percent they say they are better off than their parents.

Expectations for the future have also improved. In 2002, 40 percent of Saudis said they expected to be better off in the next four years, only 18 percent said they would not be, and 56 percent had hopes that their children would be better off than they were. In 2005, 71 percent now say they are optimistic about being better off in four years and 81 percent expect that their children will be better off.

Changes are also evident with regard to the domestic concerns of Saudis. Just last year, Saudis ranked “defeating extremism and terrorism” 7th in overall importance. Today, it is in 2nd place. Other top issues in 2005 (employment, health care and education) are much the same as they were in 2004’s poll, however, it is worth noting that while “advocating democracy and reform was in fourth place in 2004, it is now down to 8th place in 2005.

Saudis agree that expanding employment is the most significant issue facing their country, but indicate that they are optimistic about the likelihood of finding a job in their country. In addition, of all the countries polled, Saudis are the least likely a leave their country to accept employment elsewhere.

One final area where a dramatic change occurred in Saudi opinion was in how Saudis identified themselves. In 2002 Saudis indicated a preference to self-identify as “being Arab”. Today, they prefer describing themselves as “Saudi”.

All of this points to a growing sense of self-confidence, satisfaction and commitment to their country.

The same is true in Lebanon, where despite continuing divisions and tensions, a sense of optimism and self-confidence is apparent. Lebanese responses to the “Reagan questions” are not as high as they are in Saudi Arabia, but are significantly higher than they were in 2002. Back then only nine percent of Lebanese said that they were better off than they had been four years ago, against 65 percent who said they were worse off. Today the margin is 25 to 39 percent. And while in 2002 by a margin of 26 to 49 percent of Lebanese said they were better off than their parents, today the margin is 52 to 24 percent.

Lebanese optimism is also up. In 2002 only 16 percent said that they expected their children would be better off than they were and 31 percent said their children would be worse off. Now in 2005, by a margin of 55 to 14 percent, Lebanese said they expect their children to be better off in the future.

Like Saudis, Lebanese are focused on domestic concerns. The issue Lebanese identified as their number one concern was “ending corruption and nepotism”. Employment and health care tied for second place, while the next highest rated issue was political and governmental reform—up from 7th place in 2004.

Of all of the Arab countries covered in our polling, the Lebanese are the most troubled by employment prospects, with 71 percent saying that job prospects are not promising and a disturbingly high 88 percent of Lebanese, indicating that they would leave their country if offered employment elsewhere.

The best news for Lebanon however, is the degree to which Lebanese, from all groups, self-identify with the country – higher than in any other Arab country. When asked to describe their principle identifier, more than 70 percent say “being Lebanese” –double what it was in 2002.

While they remain divided over several political issues, our poll found strong points of consensus among Lebanese of all background: a strong identity with the country, a growing optimism about the future; a consensus to fight against corruption and expand employment; and the need to reform the political system, while protecting Lebanon’s pluralism.

This is good news, and could provide Lebanon’s leadership with an agenda that could unite the country.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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