Posted on January 08, 2001 in Washington Watch

Favorability ratings for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have reached their highest levels in a recent poll of U.S. voters. At the same time, while continuing to desire the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, Americans are split as to what course of action to take with regard to the continuing sanctions against Iraq.

These are the results of a recent public opinion poll commissioned by Abu Dhabi Television and the Washington-based Arab American Institute and conducted by Zogby International of New York. The poll interviewed 1012 randomly selected U.S. voters from December 18 to December 21, 2000. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.2 percent.

Attitudes toward Selected Arab Countries

Favorable Unfavorable Not Familiar
Egypt 61.5 15.5 14.5
Russia 60.5 26.5 6.5
Kuwait 57 27 10
Saudi Arabia 56 27.5 10.5
UAE 31.5 23.5 38
Iran 20 66 9
Iraq 16 71.5 6

These numbers reflect some of the highest ratings to date achieved by Arab countries since we began polling on these issues about seven years ago. The fact that Egypt has continued to retain its very high ranking despite recent policy differences with the United States over the Middle East peace process is significant. Also significant is the fact that both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have continued to improve their favorability ratings during the past decade. In 1996, for example, both countries favorable and unfavorable ratings were in the mid-30s. By 1999 they had increased their positive ratings to the low 40 percent range while their negatives remained in the 30 percent range. Today, with their favorable ratings doubling their unfavorable ratings, both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are in an excellent position in U.S. public opinion. (See Charts I and II).

I. Opinion of Saudi Arabia

Favorable Unfavorable
1995 32 39
1996 34 36
1999 44 33.5
2000 56 27.5

II. Opinion of Kuwait

Favorable Unfavorable
1993 37 41
1996 38 32
1999 41 23
2000 57 27

The UAE is still little known in the United States. It has a net positive rating, but a high 38 percent saying they are unfamiliar with the country.

Iran has improved slightly, but both Iran and Iraq have strong negative ratings that will be difficult to overcome.

Iraq Policy

Overall, 44.5 percent of American voters support continuing the sanctions policy and bombing of Iraq, while 37.5 percent of Americans support removing the economic sanctions and using diplomacy to get the Iraqi regime to comply with UN inspections. It is interesting to note that there is a clear partisan split on this issue. Among Democrats only 35.5 percent support the continuation of sanctions and bombing, while 47.5 percent call for removing the economic sanctions. Republicans favor the tougher course of action, with 54.5 percent supporting the continuation of sanctions and bombing and only 27.5 percent supporting the removal of economic sanctions.

However, when asked whether they agree that the United States should continue to increase pressure on Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power, there is strong bi-partisan support for that policy, with 80 percent agreeing and only 10.5 disagreeing.

In 1995, an AAI poll asked American voters whether they preferred to continue the policy of bombings and economic sanctions against Iraq or dropping both and using diplomacy to pressure the government of Iraq to accept UN inspections of its weapons facilities. At that point, the response was that only 11 percent favored diplomacy, while 73 percent supported a continuation of the policy of sanctions and bombings.

In the December 2000 Abu Dhabi Television / AAI poll, those numbers have dramatically changed.

Thus is appears that while Americans are less convinced than before about the wisdom of the current policy toward Iraq, they still share the goal of seeing the end of the Iraqi leader’s rule.

Conclusion

The results of this poll are intriguing since they point out a glaring disconnect. While Arab public opinion, inflamed by the Palestinian intifada, the U.S. support for Israel, and the “dead end” U.S. policy toward Iraq, is somewhat less favorably disposed today toward the U.S., American public opinion appears to be increasingly supportive of several Arab countries.

It is not clear from the data in the poll why U.S. opinion has continued to move in this positive direction. Although it may be the result of supportive Arab actions that helped to stabilize oil prices or the fact that there has been mostly positive news coming out of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Egypt in recent years. It is also unclear whether or not the U.S. public is aware of the degree of Arab public opinion’s frustration with current U.S. policy. What is clear, however, is that this positive movement is not an isolated one-year phenomenon, but is a consistent development over the past eight years.

The case of Iraq is also a difficult one to explain. There is a growing sense of “sanctions fatigue” and that is evidenced in a number of anti-sanctions initiatives taken by members of Congress during the past several years. But even with this, it is clear that, should the regime in Iraq behave in an aggressive or threatening manner, they cannot count on the support of U.S. opinion. Here there is no change.

What all this means is that at the beginning of a new Administration, Arabs have a more positive state set on which to bring their concerns to U.S. public opinion. It would be an opportune time for several Arab states to take the lead with a positive public relations effort designed to improve the U.S.-Arab relationship and impact U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It would be a mistake to miss this chance.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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