by Derek Davison
A year and a half into his presidency, Donald Trump’s two biggest beneficiaries in the Middle East have been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. To Netanyahu, Trump has been a revelation—a U.S. president willing to dispense with even the slightest pretense of support for the Palestinian people. For MbS, Trump has been far more supportive of the destructive Saudi conflict in Yemen than Barack Obama had been. For both men, Trump has fulfilled their every wish when it comes to trying to isolate and weaken Iran.
Thus the narrative that Trump is resetting the U.S. position in the Middle East, returning it to a more traditional alliance structure after the aberration of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran and his less-than-friendly relationships with Netanyahu and the Saudis. But this narrative ignores the effect that Trump’s policies are having on the perception Arabs have of the United States. New polling from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar suggests that, instead of resetting the U.S. in the Middle East, Trump is hastening its loss of support among Arabs.
The Arab Center has conducted six Arab Opinion Index surveys since 2011. Its 2017-2018 survey consisted of face-to-face interviews with 18,830 respondents across 11 countries: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia. The Arab Center describes it as “the largest public opinion survey in the Arab world.”
Respondents were asked their opinion on the foreign policies of six non-Arab states: China, France, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Only Turkey’s foreign policy drew majority support, with 54 percent of respondents feeling either “positive” or “positive to some extent” about it. China, with 44 percent support, came in second, followed by France at 36 percent, Russia at 26 percent, and Iran at 21 percent. The United States came in dead last, with only 12 percent of respondents reporting any positive feeling toward its foreign policy.
That reflects a new low in a steady decline from 15 percent in 2016, 27 percent in 2015, and 36 percent in 2014. At an Arab Center event earlier this week to release the poll’s findings, Arab Center senior fellow Tamara Kharroub said that the decline is particularly noteworthy:
It’s no surprise that Arab attitudes toward the U.S. are overwhelmingly negative. What I find interesting is that it’s been getting worse. According to Arab Opinion Index data, in 2014 49 percent of Arabs viewed U.S. policy negatively. That went up to 65 percent in 2015, 77 percent in 2016, and 79 percent in this year… The United States cannot afford to ignore the views of the over 400 million people [in the Arab world]. Arab public opinion doesn’t only matter for the United States in the narrow sense of U.S. national security or counterterrorism perspective.
Arabs are opposed to U.S. foreign policy across a range of areas. Only six percent support U.S. policy toward Palestine and only eight percent support U.S. policy toward Israel. Nine percent of respondents supported U.S. policy toward Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that an overwhelming 84 percent of respondents see the United States either “certainly” or “to an extent” as a threat, rather than an ally.
That figure, however, is only high enough to rank the U.S. second on the list of perceived threats. The top spot belongs to Israel, which 91 percent of respondents see as a threat. Although an alliance has emerged between Israel and Saudi Arabia and there’s plenty of evidence that MbS is working with the Israelis and Trump to hard-sell a lopsided U.S. peace plan to a skeptical Palestinian leadership, 87 percent of respondents said that they would oppose their country diplomatically recognizing Israel.
Although it’s become increasingly clear that the Palestinian cause no longer resonates with Arab leaders, it is clearly still compelling to the Arab people—77 percent of respondents say that “the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs and not the Palestinian people alone.” Ironically, the country with the lowest proportion of respondents agreeing with that statement (64 percent) was Palestine itself, whose people may feel that regional leaders like MbS have abandoned them. Three quarters of those who said they would oppose their country diplomatically recognizing Israel “cited Israel’s colonial and expansionist policies as well as its racism toward the Palestinians” as the reason. Half of those who said they would support such diplomatic recognition would only do so contingent on the creation of a Palestinian state.
Kharroub warned that the Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine peace deal may be in for a chilly reception whenever it’s finally unveiled:
Over the last weeks, we’ve seen the Trump administration’s Middle East peace team shop around the “Deal of the Century” to Arab leaders, and there has been a lot of speculation whether Arab leaders are going to pressure the Palestinians and whether they will go along with the administration’s plan as it’s been leaked to the press. What is remarkable about this deal is the profound lack of understanding of what the Palestinian people want. But not only that, it largely underestimates how the Arab people feel about Palestine.
Here again, with the issue of Palestine, we see that the Palestinians are being completely ignored. The Trump administration would benefit from understanding the real concerns of the Palestinian people, which are not economic as Trump’s peace team might think. When we look at the Arab public, since polling started in the Arab world the data has been telling us the same thing, and we see it here in the Arab Opinion Index today. The question of Palestine is and remains a central issue for the Arab people. It’s an issue of justice, or the lack thereof, in the U.S. approach to the region. That’s why it remains an important factor driving developments in the region, from recruitment by violent extremist groups to regional instability to Arab attitudes toward the United States, and even U.S. national security.