Day: November 2, 2017
In a refreshing change to most conversations about the Middle East where narratives originating at the government level are given the most importance, the opening panel of the Arab Center Washington DC’s Second Annual Conference on Thursday, October 26, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy” focused foremost on the societal level. Panelists Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland-College Park and the Brookings Institution as well as moderator Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center discussed a survey of Arab public opinion conducted by the Center over the past two months, analyzing the implications of its findings for US policy and making recommendations on how these findings could be better communicated to an American public.
Kharroub presented the survey, which tested attitudes towards the US, Arab perspectives on US president Trump and his policies, opinions on Middle East policy priorities, and thoughts on what the US president should be doing. This involved 400 respondents in eight Arab countries. Overwhelmingly, Arabs hold positive views of the United States and its people, but negative views on its foreign policy, President Trump, and Trump’s policies.
When asked about specific actions, the majority of respondents said that the US should not intervene in the region, followed closely by those who believed that the US has prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by those who think the US is focused on crises and conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria and Yemen.
Kharroub pointed out the limitations of the survey, highlighting the fact that around 40% of those approached declined to participate, which she attributed to the political environment in the region, especially since the majority of refusals took place in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Another limitation was the popularity of “I don’t know” as an option to the specific, policy-oriented questions at the end of the survey, making the majority findings partly due to the lack of participation.
Mogahed emphasized the importance of understanding that the Arab public has a nuanced perspective towards the US. Arabs distinguish between the American people and their government. This is important, particularly considering the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Referencing a different but poll, the American public, Mogahed underlined, is more likely to support discriminatory government policies when they believe that those affected by the policies have a negative, hateful view towards Americans. When made to believe that Muslims have a favorable view towards Americans, they are less likely to support such policies. Similarly, if Americans believe that the conflict that they are engaged in with others is due to cultural differences, they are more likely to support violence, but if they believe that it is due to politics, then they are more likely to call for peace.
Telhami focused his analysis on what he called the “Trump factor,” looking into opinions on President Trump and the reasons behind them. The survey revealed negative attitudes towards almost every one of the Trump administration’s policies, except for the improvement of relations with Arab allies. Telhami argued that the reason for this is the frequent visits made by government officials to the region (particularly to GCC countries) and the positive language that Arab regimes have been using to talk about the Trump administration. Trump’s hostility towards Iran is also welcomed by certain groups.
A policy issue that was negatively assessed was the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is unsurprising considering Trump’s asserted support for Israel and the commotion caused by his proposition of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but Telhami also noted that the Palestinian issue was not prioritized as it has been in previous years. This is primarily due to age differences, as older age groups tended to prioritize the issue more, while younger groups still deemed it important but not as urgent. Telhami suggested this may be due to the perceived urgency of more recent events, like the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.
The most pertinent finding was the distinction Arab opinion makes between the American public and the American government. Mogahed urged that information be presented in more accessible formats, such as short videos that can be posted and circulated on social media. She stressed the importance of being “louder in our criticism of media bias,” especially its portrayal of marginalized groups, and asserted that the public has a responsibility to demand better.