Barack Obama is the overwhelming better choice among Middle East residents to become the next US president. Mr Obama was favoured by 51.1 per cent, while only 8.8 per cent of the respondents chose John McCain, his Republican opponent, in an online survey conducted for The National by Real Opinions, an online research company, this month.
A significant number, 40 per cent, of the 1,022 people surveyed in the Gulf Cooperation Council, non-GCC countries and the Palestinian territories said they did not know or were not sure which candidate was better. However, this is a significant improvement from previous surveys on US and Middle Eastern issues, in which the "don't know" or "no opinion" answers tended to hover around 70 per cent, according to Brendon Ogilvy of Real Opinions. He said in most polls the US level of influence had been perceived as so highly negative that such a large percentage of respondents simply did not think offering an opinion mattered or were "sitting on the fence".
"I am surprised at the lower level of don't knows," Mr Ogilvy said. "Mr Obama has shifted perceptions considerably. McCain has the baggage of the previous administration. We are seeing a fresh face with a different point of view. "Obama is seen as a departure There is enthusiasm for Obama. The level of optimism surrounding Barack Obama is significant." That was especially true among GCC college students, ages 18 to 25, where Mr Obama scored his highest marks, with 60 per cent favourability. Only 3.78 per cent of those students backed Mr McCain.
The survey, which polled 692 males and 330 females, found that in every participating country, both GCC and non-GCC, Mr Obama was the top choice of those who had an opinion. The countries surveyed were the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Algeria and Syria as well as the Palestinian territories. Among males, 54.3 per cent chose Mr Obama while 44.3 per cent of females picked the Illinois senator as the best person to lead the United States.
Egyptians offered the most support for Mr Obama with 56.4 per cent backing him. Only in Jordan (45) and Algeria (47.5) did Mr Obama garner less than 50 per cent of the total number of people surveyed. In Jordan, 50 per cent said they did not know or had no opinion, while in Algeria the number was 45.9 per cent. Among GCC countries overall, 53.1 per cent chose Mr Obama to 7.49 per cent for Mr McCain. However, 50.7 per cent of females did not know or did not offer an opinion. Mr Ogilvy calls this a cultural trait in Arab countries where so many women are hesitant to speak out.
In the UAE, 53.85 per cent chose Mr Obama, with only 5.77 per cent of the respondents supporting Mr McCain. He scored abysmally among residents of the Palestinian territories with 1.54 per cent of them choosing him. "Distrust of the Republican Party is felt most acutely" in the territories, Mr Ogilvy said. "It seems McCain is tarred with the same brush." On four questions - the US economy, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear issue and Middle East stability - respondents who had an opinion also thought Mr Obama would be by far the best candidate to handle them if he became US president.
Mr Obama "offers hope to people of this region", Mr Ogilvy said. His higher numbers "are evenly distributed across the board". Mr Obama was considered the better choice (47.4 per cent) to pull the United States out of its financial crisis and handle other economic issues. Mr McCain was chosen by 12 per cent of those surveyed. But as with the overall pick for president, a large number, 40.5 per cent, said they did not know or were unsure. Here, Mr McCain scored one of his highest figures with 15.9 per cent of Egyptians favouring him.
"The economy of Egypt has benefited from the US administration," Mr Ogilvy said, adding that a portion of the people see that and thus think Mr McCain would continue helpful policies. Fifty per cent of UAE residents thought Mr Obama would do a better job on the US economy to 11.5 per cent favouring the Arizona senator. On the Palestinian-Israeli issue, more people, 50.3 per cent, said they did not know or had no opinion than picked either candidate, with 39.3 per cent saying Mr Obama would do a better job and 10.2 per cent choosing Mr McCain. Only 7.69 per cent of the respondents in the Palestinian territories thought Mr McCain would handle the volatile situation better.
In the UAE, 51.9 per cent said they did not know and 38.46 per cent picked Mr Obama. The Iran-nuclear issue also found more people not knowing or not sure than picking one of the US presidential candidates; 37.8 per cent did favour Mr Obama, while 10.99 per cent chose Mr McCain. The survey was completed online by members of a preselected Real Opinions panel. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus four per cent.