Middle East Perceptions of the Roles Played by Global and Regional Powers

by James J. Zogby

The tumult that has rocked the Arab World, has contributed to dramatic changes in the Arab public’s attitudes toward important global and regional powers. This is one of the findings of a recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) poll of over 7,000 adults in six Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iraq), Turkey, and Iran. The wide-ranging study, prepared for the annual Sir Bani Yas Forum, covered a number of topics asking respondents to identify: obstacles to stability and sources of the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen; the causes of extremism; and how best to deal with the threat of extremism. While all warrant examination, the shake up in the region’s positive and negative perceptions of the roles played by global and local powers is both fascinating and consequential.

In face to face interviews, conducted in late September-early October, ZRS found that Saudi Arabia is in an exceptionally strong position in the Arab World, while favorable attitudes toward Iran and Turkey continue to decline. These ratings and the mixed reviews given to the US and Russia define the turn-about that has occurred in recent years.

In 2006, just one decade ago, the attention of most Arabs was focused on the continuing US war in Iraq and the US support for Israel’s destructive assault on Lebanon and its occupation policies in the West Bank and Gaza. In that context, not surprisingly, attitudes toward the U.S. were at their lowest point. With then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leading a war of words not only against the U.S. and Israel, but also the weak Arab response to both, favorable attitudes toward Iran were on the rise region-wide reaching over 70% in most Arab countries—including over 85% in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In 2009, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Erdogan created a sensation with his televised public rebuke of Israeli President Shimon Peres. This behavior brought about a spike in the Arab World’s favorable assessment of Erdogan and Turkey. After the Turks broke relations with Israel and continued to publicly challenge its policies, their favorable ratings rose even higher. Contributing to the Arab World’s positive assessment of Turkey were that country’s economic progress and what appeared to be its successful democratic experience.

Much has changed in the past decade. Iran’s meddlesome regional role has angered many Arabs causing a steep and steady decline in its ratings. The “nail in the coffin” of Iran’s regional standing has been its support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad. Just how precipitous this decline has been can be seen by looking at the changes that have occurred in Egypt and Saudi Arabia–dropping from almost nine in ten who had a favorable rating of Iran in 2006 to less than one in ten in 2016. Even Lebanon, which continued to rate Iran favorably throughout the last decade, has now joined the rest of the Arab World is giving that country a net negative rating. It is also worth noting that in no Arab country does a majority see Iran as playing a positive role in the region or view it as important to have good relations with the government in Tehran.

The Arabs’ assessment of Turkey has also taken a hit largely owing to that country’s bungling efforts to claim a regional leadership role and its troubling drift toward authoritarianism. Once held in high esteem in every Arab country, now only Jordan and Lebanon give Turkey a net favorable rating and only Jordan and Saudi Arabia see Turkey playing a constructive regional role.

While attitudes toward Turkey and Iran are in decline across the region, Saudi Arabia continues to receive the highest favorable ratings in all Arab countries and Turkey. Majorities in all the Arab countries also see the Kingdom contributing to peace and stability and view having good relations with Saudi Arabia as important—with a majority of Iranians also favoring good relations with the Kingdom.

Both of the major global powers covered in this survey, the United States and Russia, fare quite poorly. They each receive a net positive rating in only one country—the U.S. in Lebanon and Russia in Iran. Neither the US or Russia are seen as promoting peace and stability, and both receive mixed reviews in response to the question about the importance of having good relations with them—the U.S. scores high in just Lebanon, Jordan, and the UAE, while only Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran want good ties with Russia. Iraq is the one country where the U.S. scores lowest in all areas. Only 6% of Iraqis view the U.S. favorably and see it contributing to peace and stability in the Middle East, and only 16% of Iraqis say that it is important for their country to even have good relations with the U.S.

It is interesting to note the countries where attitudes toward the US actually improved (Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan). The cause of both appears to be the Administration’s lighter regional footprint. Despite frequently heard complaints about the lack of U.S. leadership, this concern is barely mentioned when respondents were asked about the sources of conflict and instability in hot spots, like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. That’s the positive take-away for U.S. policymakers.

On the negative side, it is very clear that Arab attitudes toward the U.S. are still deeply affected by the long, bloody, and largely failed war in Iraq and the lack of trust in the U.S. as an “honest broker”. As a result, far from wanting more U.S. leadership and involvement in regional conflicts, respondents in all eight countries see the U.S. role, more often than not, as a source of problems to be avoided.

James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute.

Reprinted from the Arab American Institute.

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  1. Saudi Arabia is seen positively? That’s totally wrong! With war in Yemen and the obvious support of Salafists, Saudi Arabia is increasingly perceived as an irresponsible country, weak and totally at the mercy of the USA.
    Even Egypt is turning its back on Saudi Arabia. In 2017 Saudi Arabia will be hardly hit by the new US administration and may collapse.
    That article is nothing by a piece of shameful propaganda in favor of Saudi Arabia

  2. Sunnies being the majority in the Islamic world whom many of them are poor financially and educationally of course they would consider Saudi a rising power in the ME because they need Saudi’s financial support and they also need financial help from the other Persian Gulf sheikdom like Qatar, Kwait and so on. However, the world view outside of the Arab world, including the west, of Saudi is on the decline because of its stupid policy and criminal war in Yemen as well as providing money and arms to the terrorist groups in Syria to bring down its legitimate government. In conclusion, this is a propaganda report financed by the Saudis!

  3. James are you serious? Arab street’ opinion of KSA on the rise. In this survey you also need to include who and how Zogby got paid for this survey. this is a “surveymatial”

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