Poll: Lack of Internal Reforms – Not External Interference – Biggest Obstacle to Mideast Peace

by Jim Lobe

The failure by regional governments to implement political and economic reforms is seen by most publics in predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries as a greater obstacle to peace and stability than foreign interference, whether from the U.S. or other powers, according to the latest in a series of annual polls conducted by Zogby Research Services (ZRS) and released here Thursday at a forum co-sponsored by the Middle East Institute.

The survey, entitled “Middle East 2016: Current Conditions and the Road Ahead,” also found that–contrary to neoconservative and other hawkish critics who have complained about Washington’s alleged retreat in the region–respondents in all but two of the eight countries that were polled ranked “too little U.S. leadership” as the least important obstacle to peace and stability in the region.

With the exception of Lebanon, strong majorities in all of the countries surveyed said they held an unfavorable opinion of the U.S., although James Zogby, who released the poll, said there had been an improvement in Washington’s standing compared to last year’s results. Overall, the percentage of respondents who held a favorable opinion of the U.S. was “still significantly higher than when George W. Bush left office,” he noted.

Washington’s standing was least favorable in the country with the greatest recent exposure to U.S. intervention, Iraq. Ninety-four percent of respondents there said they had a negative opinion of the U.S.

A total of 7,173 respondents took part in face-to-face interviews in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iraq, Turkey, and Iran between September 17 and October 10.

Despite recent reports of an anti-Iranian entente between Israel and the Gulf state, the survey found that public opinion remains solidly hostile toward Tel Aviv. One hundred percent of all respondents said they disagreed with the notion that Israel “contributes to peace and stability in the Arab world.” The only exception was in Iran, where 98% of respondents disagreed.

“It would be a risky move [by Arab leaders] at this point to fail to understand how unfavorably Israel is seen [by their publics],” Zogby said.

While the executive summary is reproduced below, the report itself is rich with data and commentary and well worth closer examination. The bolded sentences exist in the original summary, and I have added some commentary in brackets.

I. Attitudes Toward Other Countries

1) Saudi Arabia has the highest favorable ratings across the region—everywhere but Iran. Saudi Arabia is also seen in all the Arab countries as making a positive contribution to “peace and stability.” And majorities in every country covered in the poll view good relations with Saudi Arabia as important—including Iran.

2) Attitudes toward Iran continue to plummet in every country—including, for the first time, in Lebanon and Iraq, where majorities now give Iran a net negative score. In no country does a majority of respondents see Iran playing a positive role in the region or view it as important to have good relations with that country. [In the UAE, however, Iran is seen slightly more favorably than a year ago. Anti-Iranian sentiment is strongest in Egypt, where favorability ratings have fallen from a high of 75% in eight years ago to less than 10% today.]

3) Once held in high esteem in every Arab country, Turkey has suffered declines in favorable attitudes in all countries covered in our survey, with only Jordan and Lebanon now giving Turkey a net favorable rating and only Jordan and Saudi Arabia seeing Turkey as making a contribution to peace and stability in the Arab World. [Zogby suggested this was due in part to unhappiness over Turkey’s Syria policy, while Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations also attributed it to the authoritarian trajectory of President Erdogan and his AKP party.]

4) Despite being viewed by majorities everywhere as “not contributing to peace and stability,” favorable attitudes toward the United States have risen in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan. At the same time, they have declined in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Iraqis continue to hold extremely negative views of the United States and its role in the region. Nevertheless, the percentage of respondents who say that relations with the United States are important far exceeds the US’s favorable ratings—including between two-thirds and three-quarters of Lebanese, Emiratis, and Jordanians.

5) Russia only scores a positive rating in Iran. Across the Arab World and Turkey, strong majorities see Russia’s role as negative.

6) Across the eight countries covered in the survey, only a handful of respondents have “somewhat favorable” views of Israel. None see Israel contributing to “peace and stability” and virtually none see any importance in having relations with Israel.

II. Obstacles to Stability and Sources of Conflict

7) When asked to identify the greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East pluralities in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey identify the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands.” Surprisingly, in the other countries covered in the survey, that issue receives only scant mention. [Where the issue is given a lower priority, such as in Lebanon, a third intifada is likely to result in a dramatic spike in interest and concern, according to Zogby, who cited the results of more than a decade of previous polling in the same countries.]

8) It is important to note that the obstacles that rank highest in most countries and second in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are internal problems—the “lack of representative government in some Arab countries” and “tribal, ethnic, regional or other domestic rivalries.” These are followed by “the threat posed by groups like Daesh and al Qaeda” and “economic inequality and the lack of employment opportunities in some Arab countries.”

9) Although mentioned by about one in five respondents, Iranian and/or American interference in the Arab World still rank near the bottom of the list of obstacles. Interestingly, negative assessments of the US and Iran’s roles are only ranked in the top tier in Iraq.

10) Despite frequently heard complaints about the lack of US leadership in the region, that issue places last in the list of obstacles cited by respondents.

11) When turning to the way respondents assess the main factors behind instability and conflict in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, once again it appears that internal factors are viewed as holding the greatest importance. In Syria, the lack of representative government is seen as the main source of conflict, followed by Daesh/al Qaeda. In Libya, it’s tribal or regional rivalries followed by Daesh/al Qaeda. In Yemen, the main factors are seen to be tribal, regional, or sectarian rivalries, followed closely by the lack of representative government. And in Iraq, it’s Daesh followed by internal regional, sect, and ethnic rivalries.

12) The US role is seen as a major contributing factor to instability mainly in Iraq. In no country is the lack of US leadership viewed as an issue creating instability. Where “other countries” are seen to be a source of conflict, in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, respondents point mainly to the United States and Iran as the problems. In all countries, Russia is identified as a negative factor in Syria. And Saudi Arabia is also mentioned as a source of conflict in Yemen by Turks, Iraqis, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Iranians.

III. Causes of Extremism and How to Deal With the Threat

13) When looked at separately, the Arab countries and Turkey give very different responses than Iran does when asked to identify the main reasons why Muslims would join Daesh or Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. The former overwhelmingly see “outrage at the Assad regime” as the principal factor. This is followed by “anger at the sectarian policies pursued by Iran and its surrogates” and the concern that “these [extremist] groups are attractive because of their fighting skills and the victories they have won.” Iranians, on the other hand, identify the concern that young Muslims are “being inspired by extremist preachers or websites” or are “frustrated with the life they are living in their own country and the desire for adventure.”

14) How best to stop the flow of young recruits who seek to join extremist groups in Syria? Far and away the top two steps endorsed by Arab and Turkish respondents to dry up support for Daesh are to defeat them militarily and to “negotiate a solution leading to a national unity government without Bashar al Assad.” The least favored option is a negotiated solution that would include Assad. Iranians agree with defeating Daesh, but also favor a solution that includes Assad in the government.

15) In the case of Iraq, Arab and Turkish respondents identify the reasons why Daesh could win recruits as anger at “the sectarian policies of the government in Baghdad,” “the sectarian policies pursued by Iran and its surrogates,” and “the failure of other governments to be more … effective in changing the policies of the government in Baghdad.” Once again, Iranians see the role of extremist preachers and websites as a principal factor motivating young Muslims to fight with Daesh. The only area in which Iranians find agreement with the respondents from the Arab countries and Turkey is with respect to the negative role played by the sectarian policies pursued by the government in Baghdad.

16) For their part, Iraqi respondents display some slight differences along sectarian lines—but these are mainly matters of emphasis. Iraqis who are Shi’a list the “failure of other governments [to press for changes in] the policies of the government in Baghdad” and “outrage at the sectarian policies of the government” as the top two factors contributing to Daesh recruitment efforts, while Sunni Iraqis list “outrage at the sectarian policies of the government” and “anger at the sectarian policies pursued by Iran and its surrogate militias.” Interestingly, there are only slight differences in the responses provided by Arab and Kurdish respondents.

17) Turning to the steps that should be taken to stop recruits from joining Daesh in Iraq, Arabs and Turks favor “reforming the government in Iraq, making it representative of all the groups in the country” as their first choice. This option is followed by militarily defeating Daesh and confronting Iran and its surrogates. Iranians agree with defeating Daesh and reforming the government in Baghdad but do not want to have their role in Iraq confronted. Instead they favor “more diplomacy to bring all parties together to defeat Daesh” as the way forward.

18) For their part, Iraqis overwhelmingly choose reforming their government and defeating Daesh—with Sunni and Shi’a respondents largely agreeing. The only major difference between the two sects is over the need to confront Iran and its surrogates, with Sunnis seeing this step as significantly more important than their Shi’a compatriots.

19) In assessing how best to stop extremist recruiting, there is near consensus in all the countries surveyed that the two most important steps to be taken are “changing the political and social circumstances … that lead some young people to become attracted to extremist ideas” and then “countering the messages and ideas promoted by extremist groups.”

20) Iraq is the only country covered in the survey where a plurality of respondents are very concerned that they or their families “may be at risk from the threat of attacks from violent extremist groups.”

21) When asked to assess the confidence they have in the work being done by various entities in combating extremist groups, respondents in every country covered in the survey give local police and intelligence agencies the highest grades. Religious leaders receive high confidence scores in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and UAE, while only Emiratis demonstrate a high degree of confidence in the work being done by their country’s political leadership.

IV. Iran

22) It appears that Iranians remain restless and dissatisfied with the direction taken by their government. When asked whether they believe they are better off or worse off than they were three years ago, only one-third of Iranians feel they are better off today.

23) In 2015, 81% of Iranians rated “investing in the economy and creating employment” as the most important priority for their government, followed by 75% who said the top priority should be “advancing democracy and protecting personal and civil rights.” While 51% are at least somewhat satisfied with the government’s economic performance, they are much less pleased with its performance in the second area. Only 30% are satisfied that democracy has been advanced. And while 59% hoped for improved relations with the United States, only 15% are satisfied with their government’s efforts in this area. [“There is room for an Iranian Bernie,” Zogby noted.]

24) Part of their dissatisfaction can be attributed to a weariness with their government’s involvement in regional conflicts. In 2015, “giving support to allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen” was rated the lowest priority receiving the support of only 48% of Iranians. Support for these foreign involvements has steadily declined since 2014, dropping precipitously in each area: Syria from 90% to 24%; Lebanon from 88% to 43%; Iraq from 87% to 47%; and Yemen from 62% to 39%.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.