Posted on October 29, 2001 in Washington Watch

There has been an unprecedented spate of news articles and media commentary critical of the U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Egyptian relationship. While some might seek to lay some blame for this state of affairs at the doorstep of the Administration which has, on occasion, expressed some concern with the level of cooperation it was receiving from its two closest Arab allies, it would be wrong to see an “official” hand behind this effort.

In fact, the sources and motives behind this veritable campaign are far more complex. Some criticisms emanate from pro-Likud commentators who have long sought to disrupt the relationships, others from the neo-conservative right and religious fundamentalist right who appear to be hell-bent on provoking a “clash of civilizations”. And then there are those of the “liberal elite” whose sudden and selective concern for human rights and democracy is, at best, puzzling. Whatever the sources of the motives, however, the net effect has been a torrent of bad press.

The situation is somewhat perverse, with Osama bin Laden appearing to have won a strange set of allies in his effort to undermine critical partnerships in the U.S. and the Arab world.

Even with all of this, it is intriguing to note that this campaign has not yet had a significant impact on U.S. public attitudes toward either Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Recent polling done by Zogby International (October 22, 2001) shows that Americans continue to feel very strongly about Egypt, and at least as good about Saudi Arabia, as they did two years ago.

At present, Americans retain a 60% favorable, 15% unfavorable attitude toward Egypt. This compares favorably with the 62% favorable, 16% unfavorable margin that existed in our January 2001 poll.

Saudi Arabia, which still retains a net positive rating of 49% to 33%, slipped from its 56% to 28% margin in January 2001. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s current favorable-unfavorable ratings are back to where they were in 1999, when our polling had them at 44%-33%, the first year we recorded a net positive rating for the Kingdom.

In both cases, we asked those who had unfavorable views to give a reason for their negative feelings. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the most important reasons given, in rank order, were: “their relations to terrorists”; “can’t trust them”; “don’t know where they stand”; and “their government”. Even though Egypt’s negatives were only one-half those of Saudi Arabia’s, the reasons given were the same: “support for terrorism”; “don’t trust them”; “not enough support for the U.S.”; and “their government.”

In another set of questions we asked which relationship was more important to the U.S.: the U.S.-Israel relationship or the U.S.-Arab relationship. Not surprisingly, the U.S.-Israel relationship won by a 37% to 28% margin. Twenty-three percent insisted that both were equally important.

It is noteworthy that the poll was conducted in the third week of October, one month into the anti-Saudi and anti-Egypt press barrage, but before the Bush Administration delivered its rebuke against the Sharon government’s reoccupation and assault on Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

Even with these results, it would be a mistake for any Arab leader to take the current situation for granted, since the polling data establishes that there is softness in U.S. public support and in U.S. attitudes. If unanswered, the continuing negative attacks could eat away at public support. And should the Administration take a negative stance toward either Arab ally, opinion could shift dramatically.

The time, therefore, is ripe for a major information campaign in the U.S. Our polling shows that an extremely high percentage of Americans know that they do not understand either the Arab world or Islam. For example, while expressing an overall 52% positive-19% negative view toward Islam-no doubt due, in part, to President Bush’s efforts to reach out and send supportive messages, a significant 72% of Americans admit not knowing enough about the religion and indicate that they need to know more.

The crisis brought on by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has created a new awareness of, and new questions about the world. The questions will be answered, and what Arabs ought to ensure is that they are answered by them and not by those who seek to poison the public discourse with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim diatribes.

A full information campaign can make a critical difference. It can tell Americans

  • about the extent of the U.S.-Arab partnerships in trade, investment, cultural exchange and mutual defense;

  • about Arab civilization and about progress and changes currently taking place in Arab countries;

  • about Arabs as “real people” who share values and hopes for the future with their American friends;

  • about Islam as a religion and a way of life that creates value and inspires hundreds of millions to lead lives of virtue; and

  • about the common threads of religion, history and culture that have shaped and continue to shape common destiny.

For too long, Americans have had a one-dimensional view of Arabs. Even while giving positive ratings to Arab countries, most Americans do not know Arabs as real people and do not know, in detail, the nature and benefits derived from the U.S.-Arab partnership. After September 11, with all of that under attack by those who see an opportunity to weaken U.S.-Arab ties, it is the right time to change this state of affairs.

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