Posted on March 17, 2003 in Washington Watch

Arab public opinion attitudes toward the United States have dropped to dangerously low levels, even before an anticipated U.S.-led attack on Iraq. These are the findings of a recent Arab American Institute/Zogby International poll (AAI/ZI) poll of 2,600 individuals from key Arab countries. The poll was conducted in early March of 2003 and had a margin of error of between +/-3.8 to +/-5.

The countries polled included some of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In an earlier AAI/ZI poll, done in March of 2002, we found that U.S. favorable ratings were already quite low and that the factor that drove these negative opinions was the unbalanced U.S. policy towards the Palestinians. It appears that this year’s poll results have been impacted as well by the U.S.’s unilateralist approach toward Iraq.

The most significant drops in U.S. ratings occurred in Morocco and Jordan. In 2002, for example, 34% of Jordanians had a positive view of the United States as compared with 61% who had a negative view. In 2003, only 10% of Jordanians now hold a positive view of the United States, while 81% see the country in a negative light. Similarly in Morocco the favorable/unfavorable rating towards the United States in 2002 was 38% to 61% percent. Today it is 9% favorable and 88% unfavorable.

The U.S.’s favorable/unfavorable rating was already quite low in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It has remained low. In 2002, the ratings in Egypt were 15% favorable to 76% unfavorable. In 2003 Egyptians’ ratings of the United States are 13% favorable and 80% unfavorable. In Saudi Arabia the rating toward the Untied States was 12% favorable to 87% unfavorable in 2002. Today it has dropped to 3% favorable and 97% unfavorable. In the UAE the ratio showed almost no change from an 11% favorable/87% unfavorable in 2002 to 11% favorable/85% unfavorable in 2003.

In all five countries, U.S. policy toward Iraq received only single digit favorable ratings, while nine respondents out of ten opposed current U.S. policy toward that country.

These numbers do not translate to support for the Iraqi regime, however, since majorities in three of the five countries indicated that they want to see the regime in Baghdad disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction. In answer to the question “Do you agree or disagree that the government of Iraq should fully comply with UN weapons inspectors?”–52% of all Arabs in the Emirates agreed while only 34% disagreed. In Egypt 51% agreed while 41% disagreed. A plurality of Moroccans agrees that Baghdad should cooperate. Only in Jordan and Saudi Arabia did slightly less than one in four agree with the demand while two-thirds disagreed.

What is important to note is that Arabs in all these countries do not support the United States acting unilaterally to disarm Iraq. When asked, “If Iraq does not comply with UN inspectors, or if the UN finds that Iraq has been hiding weapons of mass destruction, would you support or oppose United States unilateral military action to make Iraq comply?”–those responding positively were quite low: 14% (Egypt), 9% (UAE), 8% (Jordan), 3% (Saudi Arabia) 1% (Morocco). When asked, however, if they would approve of a UN endorsed effort to disarm Iraq, should the regime fail to comply, the percentages increased considerably: 32% (UAE), 29% (Egypt), 18% (Saudi Arabia), 16% (Morocco), 10% (Jordan).

What should be most disturbing to U.S. policymakers is the lack of confidence in and goodwill towards U.S. policy that this poll establishes. In the 2002 poll, for example, we asked a number of what are called “projective” questions. For example, “If the U.S. were to apply pressure to ensure the creation of an independent Palestinian State, would that make you more favorable, less favorable or make no difference in your attitude toward the United States?” In almost all cases, in 2002, about 80 percent of all Arab respondents indicated that this change in policy would make them more favorably inclined toward the United States. The current poll however, did not elicit such a response. Only in the UAE did a majority indicate that their attitude toward the United States would improve if “the U.S. were to apply pressure to ensure the creation of a Palestinian State.” In Jordan, only 31% said their attitude would improve and in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco those indicating that their attitudes toward the U.S. would improve were 27%, 26%, and 15% respectively. Almost 7 of 10 in those countries indicated that their attitude would not improve.

It is not clear from the poll why this hypothetical change in U.S. policy now fails to create a change in attitudes towards the United States. Several possibilities may be suggested. Arab public opinion may simply no longer believe that the U.S. will act in an evenhanded manner to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. After failing to act to end the crisis of last March and April, and siding with Israel’s Ariel Sharon, and then failing to issue the Quartet’s “Road Map” in a timely manner, Arab opinion may have concluded that the United States simply will not act to bring Palestinians justice. It may be that the conflict has gone on so long without any positive U.S. action, that even if there were to be a change in policy it may be too little too late to win Arab support. Finally, it may also be due to the fact that the U.S.’s unilateralist approach toward Iraq has done such damage to American standing in the region that even a hypothetical change in policy is not enough to replenish the reservoir of good will toward the United States that once existed.

In any case, what this 2003 AAI/ZI poll establishes is that the United States is treading on dangerous ground in the Arab world today. It is a fact that has been the subject of much discussion. But now we have hard numbers to support what is a widely held view.

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