Posted on February 17, 2003 in Washington Watch

With war looming in the Middle East, the U.S. public continues to hold mixed attitudes toward many Arab countries. But attitudes have improved somewhat in the past year, and substantial majorities now want the Bush Administration to work harder to improve U.S. ties with important Arab states.

These are a few of the findings from the most recent Arab American Institute (AAI) poll. Conducted by Zogby International (ZI) of New York, the poll surveyed the attitudes of 1017 American voters, and had a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent.

Of the five countries covered in the 2003 AAI/ZI poll, only Egypt and Jordan have positive ratings. Forty-seven percent of Americans view Egypt favorably, while 24 percent have unfavorable attitudes toward that country. Jordan has a favorable/unfavorable rating of 45%/22%. This year’s poll also shows Saudi Arabia with a 35 percent positive and 46 percent negative rating, while Lebanon and Syria had net negative ratings of 18%/45% and 15%/43% respectively.

Some Good News
There is some good news in this year’s AAI/ZI poll for Saudi Arabia and Egypt both of which showed signs of reversing the downward slide in U.S. opinion they experienced following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Because AAI and ZI have been surveying American attitudes toward Arab countries for more than a decade, comparing this year’s numbers with past results can be instructive.

In 1993, for example, Egypt received its highest net positive rating of 64 percent favorable to 13 percent unfavorable. With the exception of a few difficult years in the late 1990s–with strains in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, emanating from the Netanyahu government in Israel–Egypt’s ratings held steady. In January of 2001, for example, Egypt’s favorable/unfavorable ratings were 62 percent to 16 percent.

Anti-Arab sentiments generated by 9/11 dramatically affected Egypt so that by late 2001, that country’s favorable/unfavorable rating had dipped to 38%/34%.

The 2003 poll indicates that attitudes toward Egypt may have begun to rebound.

This positive trend is also in evidence in the case of Saudi Arabia. From a low 36%/41% ratings in 1993, U.S. attitudes toward the Kingdom steadily increased during the 1990s to a high of 56% favorable, 28% unfavorable in January 2001.

By December 2001, Saudi Arabia’s positive rating had dropped to a low 24 percent while its negative rating shot up to 58 percent. In the months that followed other polls appeared to indicate that U.S. attitudes toward the Kingdom had dropped even lower.

Thus, this year’s 35 percent to 46 percent rating appears to indicate that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to improve the American public’s understanding of the Kingdom may be succeeding in reversing the negative slide.

For its part, Jordan nearly doubled its positive rating during the 1990s from a low of 25 percent favorable to a 48 percent favorable rating in 1999, the year of King Hussein’s death. The surge in negative anti-Arab perceptions that followed 9/11 did not affect Jordan, and this year’s favorable/unfavorable rating makes it clear that the U.S. public’s attitudes toward that country have remained steady.

In the case of Lebanon and Syria the most important shifts that have occurred are not improvements in their positive ratings, but rather a 20 percent decline in both countries negative ratings. It is also important to note that almost 40 percent (or two in five) of all Americans indicate that they have “ no opinion” or are “unsure” how to rate Syria or Lebanon. This indicates a substantial group whose attitudes can be shaped or changed by an information effort.

Allies in the War on Terror
When asked to evaluate whether or not they view these Arab countries as allies to the United States in the war on terror, most Americans indicate that they do not view any of these Arab states as strong allies. Only one in four Americans viewed Egypt and Jordan as allies and only one in five Americans saw Saudi Arabia as an ally. Syria and Lebanon received identical low ratings with only six percent seeing either as an ally and almost two-thirds viewing Syria and Lebanon as not being allies.

When asked, however, whether the Bush Administration ought to work to improve relations with these same Arab countries, Americans overwhelmingly support such an effort. More than 80 percent want the Administration to work to improve ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while more than 70 percent want the United States to make an effort to improve relations with Syria and Lebanon.

African Americans and Hispanics
One of the more intriguing findings in the 2003 AAI/ZI poll is the dramatic shift in African American and Hispanic attitudes toward Arab countries. It should be noted that these two groups are significant to consider since they represent slightly more than one quarter of all Americans.

Despite close ties between Arab Americans and influential African American and Hispanic political leaders, earlier polls showed that these two groups were less favorably inclined toward Arab countries than many other sub-groupings of Americans. In the 2003 poll, this has changed. Strong pluralities of both African Americans and Hispanics show favorable attitudes towards Egypt and Jordan–much higher then their overall U.S. ratings. Even Saudi Arabia has net a positive rating amongst these two groups. While Syria and Lebanon still show a net negative score, between 50 to 60 percent in both of these U.S. minority communities indicate that, at this point, they have no opinion either way. This shift may be due to the heightened awareness African Americans and Hispanics have about a Middle East war, it may be due to their frustration with the Administration’s overall approach to foreign policy, or it may be due to an increased awareness about Arab peoples and Islam. In any case, this shift is worth noting and should be the subject of closer study in the future.

At the beginning of 2003, even with Americans facing a push toward a war with Iraq, the AAI/ZI poll establishes that the attitude of the U.S. public toward the Arab world’s showing some signs of improvement.

Despite a continuing, orchestrated, hostile anti-Arab campaign directed primarily against Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria, attitudes have changed and show areas where more positive change can occur. Saudi Arabia has launched an effort to respond to this negative campaign and to some degree Egypt has as well. These efforts may be bearing fruit. More can and should be done.

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