Mideast per­cep­tions of the roles played by re­gional pow­ers

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - Dr 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 Libya; 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 US were at their low­est point.

With then-Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad lead­ing a war of words not only against the US 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 im­por­tantwith 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 US 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 US 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 US scores low­est in all ar­eas. Only 6% of Iraqis view the US 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 US. 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.

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