Posted on May 22, 2009 in Washington Watch

A majority of Arabs in the Emirates have a favorable view of the United States, and it is due, in large measure, to their appreciation of the Presidency of Barack Obama – both his election and his performance in office, to date. This is but one of the findings of a poll conducted in the UAE by ZI during the end of April and early May 2009. The poll, part of a six nation study of Arab attitudes toward the US and the Obama White House, interviewed 500 Emiratis and Arab residents in the UAE (350 Emiratis and 150 Arab residents). The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5%.

While the study found a slight uptick in favorable ratings toward the US in most other Arab countries, only in the UAE did a majority (52%) of those surveyed have a favorable rating of the US. This represented a dramatic increase from the mere 22% who were favorably inclined to America in 2008, and is the highest rating ever given to the US by any Arab country since Zogby International began polling across the Arab world in 2002.

A review of responses to the other questions in this poll establishes why the favorable ratings in the UAE have increased so sharply. For example, almost six in ten Arabs in the Emirates say their attitude toward America has improved since the election of Barack Obama with two-thirds expressing the belief that the Obama Administration will bring positive change to the US-Arab relationship. Attitudes are evenly divided in rating the President’s first few months in office, however, with 50% giving him an “excellent” or “good” rating and 48% assessing his performance as just “fair” or “poor.

Among the actions taken by the new President that are viewed most favorably, and seen as signaling an improvement in US-Arab relations, are the fact that he used his first televised interview to speak directly to the Arab and Muslim people, announced the closing of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and signed an order banning torture. Next in line, were Obama’s appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy to the Middle East, his announced withdrawal from Iraq, and the sending of diplomatic emissaries to Syria.

When asked what they identify as the greatest obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East, respondents overwhelmingly indicated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a view shared by 59%. Scant mention (about 10% each) is given to Iran, “economic inequality” and “US interference in the region.” Given the importance placed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by those surveyed in the Emirates it is significant that, by a margin of 3 to 1, respondents express their belief that the Obama Administration will be “evenhanded” in dealing with this critical issue.

From these results, it appears that in his first three months in office President Obama has lived up to early expectations that Emiratis and Arabs in the UAE had previously expressed for his candidacy. Back in May of 2008, in a survey ZI conducted in the Emirates for the Arab Broadcast Forum, there was strong support for then candidate Obama. When asked to choose which of the candidates running for President in the US (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain) “[had] the best chance for advancing peace in the ME,” and “[would] improve US-Arab relations,” Obama won decisively over his opponents.

A cautionary note: what goes up so quickly, can go down just as quickly.

Having polled across the Arab World for a decade now, we have observed that while there might be some occasional fluctuations in positive attitudes toward the US, this has been accompanied by a hardening of negative views. The fluctuations indicate a “softness” that can be reversed. For example, a closer look at this poll reveals that in every area where the US or President Obama receive positive ratings of over 50% (attitudes toward the US, Obama’s actions toward the Arab World during his first three months, whether the new Administration will be “even handed” when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc), those saying that they are “very favorable” or “strongly agree” are only about 10 to 15%, with the remaining positive responses being only “somewhat favorable” or “somewhat agree”. In short, in his first three months, President Obama has started to turn the corner, but reversals are still possible. To “close the deal” more must be done.

The next two weeks, therefore, will provide critical tests for the new President. With visits from the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the much anticipated speech that he will deliver in Cairo, Obama’s words and actions will be closely scrutinized across the Arab World. Some Arabs remain skeptical, but, at this point, at least in the UAE, Obama has a receptive audience, hopeful that he will deliver the change he has promised.

comments powered by Disqus