Arab Opinion: Bush Bad, Obama Good

Arab Opinion: Bush Bad, Obama Good

Professor Shibley Telhami”s annual survey of Arab public opinion is out this week. It shows me that Barack Obama, who is due here in Cairo on June 4 to give an address to the Islamic world, has the chance to significantly reverse negative Arab attitudes toward the U.S. His mere election has already produced some welcome changes for the better.


 Nearly half of Arabs polled in the last two months in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates said they had a “very positive” (11%) or “somewhat positive” (34%) view of Obama. Contrast that with George Bush, who Arabs regularly cited as the world leader they disliked the most. In the current 2009 poll, Obama does not register among disliked leaders, but Bush even out of office remains the No. 1 most disliked at 61%.


 In my experience, that”s a sea-change in Arab attitudes. It”s even more interesting if you look at Obama”s ratings in individual countries. In Saudi Arabia, native land of Osama bin Laden, Obama is viewed very positively by 10% and somewhat positively by another 69% for a remarkable approval rating of 79%. If you throw in those who call themselves neutral, the figure goes up to 86%.


 Support for Obama is soft in Egypt and Jordan, which registered “very positive/somewhat positive” ratings of 32% and 28%, respectively. This was a bit of a surprise given conservative Saudi Arabia”s enthusiasm for the new American president. I defer to what Telhami and the experts would say,  but I have a few hunches. The Saudis tend to view things more through a Muslim prism and may be drawn to Obama”s Muslim background, his middle name of Hussein, etc.—indeed, many in the Middle East believe that Obama is a Muslim. In contrast, many Jordanians and Egyptians were upset that President-elect Obama did not speak out against Israel”s bombardment of Gaza last December and January. Jordan, whose majority population is of Palestinian origin, was the only one of the six countries surveyed where a majority, 57%, had negative views of Obama.


 Probably because of Obama, attitudes toward America in general have improved, but not dramatically. This indicates that while Obama is getting a honeymoon in the Arab world—probably due to his Muslim roots and his overt outreach to the Islamic world—Obama”s policies and actions will ultimately determine his popularity or lack thereof.


 Eighteen percent of Arabs surveyed said they had a positive view of the U.S., compared to 15% in 2008 and 12% in 2006. (There was no poll in calendar year 2007.) It”s probably the result of Obama that the hard negatives are going down. In 2006, 57% said they held “very unfavorable” views of the U.S., and this figure went up to 64% in 2008. But a 100 days or so into the Obama administration, only 46% now say they have a “very unfavorable view.


 As another reality check, Obama was not among not among the top 12 world leaders outside their own countries who Arabs said they “admire most.” Getting the top rank this year (respondents were asked to name their top two favorites) was none other than Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, at 36%, followed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and former French President Jacques Chirac with 18% each, Osama bin Laden with 16% and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi with 15%.


 In addition to Obama”s absence, it”s worth nothing a few other no-shows or under-shows. After surging, respectively, to ratings of 27% and 17% in the 2008 poll, Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Preisdent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fell to 11% and 10%–behind even current French President Nicolas Sarkozy. And no leader of Hamas figured in the top 12.


 Here”s what I read into the rankings. Arabs view Obama favorably, which is a remarkable achievement for an American president these days, but Obama has to do actually do something tangible to win genuine admiration. Let”s say it”s a good start.


 I think Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad declined and Hamas leaders failed to register because Arabs perceive that all their rhetoric and actions have done little to advance Arab interests. Only 9% felt that Hamas emerged as the “biggest winner” in the recent war in Gaza, while 66% identified Israel as the big winner.  Nearly three-quarters said that the “Palestinian people” were the big losers.


 It”s a sad day that Arabs have to go to South America to find their biggest hero. But it”s no coincidence that the list of “most admired” generally features leaders who are perceived as standing up to the U.S. and/or Israel and/or are perceived to have demonstrated their independence.  Maybe here, the choices tell us more about the choosers than the chosen. Half of Muslims say they sympathize with al-Qaeda for confronting the U.S. and standing up for Muslim causes rather than only 7% who cited al-Qaeda”s terrorist methods. When asked which two countries posed the biggest threat to them, the Arabs surveyed put Israel on top at 88% and the U.S. next at 77%. Iran moved up from 7% in 2008 to 13% in 2009.


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