Posted on December 12, 2005 in Washington Watch

Arabs are looking more inward today, focusing on issues close to home and self-identifying more with their countries. And despite concerns with employment, most Arabs are quite optimistic about their future. These are some of the results of a new Zogby International poll conducted in the last half of October 2005. Commissioned by Young Arab Leaders, a Dubai-based group, but supported, as well, by the Arab American Institute, the poll surveyed 3,900 Arabs from Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Jordan.

The results demonstrate some real changes taking place in Arab opinion. For example, when asked what were the most important issues facing the region, the responses in rank order of importance were: expanding employment opportunities, improving health care, combating corruption and nepotism, improving the educational system and fighting extremism and terrorism. The most notable change here was with regard to the importance given to “resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” In our 2002 poll, given the brutal repression of Palestinians that was gripping Arab public opinion, this issue ranked second in importance. Today, it is number seven.

Concerns about employment are far and away the number one concern in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, with substantial majorities saying prospects of finding a job are dim. As a result, majorities in those countries indicate that they would leave their homes and countries and move to another country to find employment. Only in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were citizens optimistic about finding work and are, therefore, less inclined to want to leave to find work elsewhere.

Despite this concern, by a margin of more than two to one, most Arabs in all six countries now say that they are better off than their parents were and say they are quite positive about their future prospects. What this somewhat contradictory finding appears to indicate is that Arab opinion, despite current difficulties, remains hopeful that solutions can be found to remedy the present economic distress.

Maybe the most dramatic changes occurred with regard to how Arabs prefer to self-identify. In 2002 in most countries the preferred self-identification was either “being Arab” or one’s religion. Today, most Arabs indicate that they identify primarily with their country. This significant change, most likely the result of developments within each country, is important. Identification with one’s country rather than the larger transnational identities offered, for example, of “Arab” and “Islam,” does not mean a rejection of either “Arabness” or religion, but a realism and a self-confident pride that should allow governments and civil society institutions within each country the opportunity to mobilize citizens in solution-oriented efforts at improvement.

Another area where answers surprised some experts came in response to the question “How acceptable is it for women to work outside the home?” In every country substantial majorities agreed that it was acceptable for women to work for any of the reasons given: “to provide financial support for the family,” “to find a fulfilling career,” or simply “because she wants to work.”

What the results show is an Arab world in which citizens are taking a look at what needs to be done to improve their lives. It is important to note that this looking inwards coexists with the sense of satisfaction (most saying they are better off) and a sense of optimism (most saying they believe things will continue to improve). Arab opinion, in other words, is saying that it sees the problems that exists, wants them solved, and is hopeful that change will come.

What our poll also shows is that these views coexist in an environment where there is a diminishing belief in the “likelihood of peace” and a hardening of negative attitudes toward American policies–especially toward Iraq and “US treatment of Arabs and Muslims.”

The poll, therefore, helps to define an agenda both for countries in the region and US policymakers as well. As in our earlier polling, this survey establishes that as long as American policies are viewed negatively, it is difficult for the US to be an agent for change. The poll also helps focus on what are the real priorities that must be pursued: employment, health care, corruption, education, and combating extremism.

This is what most Arabs want, and this is what they are looking to their governments to deliver, with or without the US, and regardless of whether or not peace is established soon in the broader region.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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