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Americans don't know much about Emiratis, survey suggests

A survey among Emiratis and Americans shows a real gap in perception and understanding of each other.

As part of their work examining the East-West divide, my students at New York University's Abu Dhabi campus designed a survey, to help show how the people of the US and an Arab country understand themselves and each other. Last year we examined the perceptions of Americans and Egyptians. This year we focused our study on the US and the UAE.

The online survey, by the polling firm jzanalytics, of which my nephew Jonathan is CEO, found a striking gap in understanding between the two peoples.

A few factors must be borne in mind in doing these paired surveys, and in evaluating the findings.

Both countries have near universal internet penetration and there is evidence that online polling can provide an accurate measure of US public opinion. But because we have not yet tested the reliability of online methodology in the UAE, we cannot be as certain about the accuracy of those results.

Also, the results for the UAE represent all residents, not only citizens.

Despite this, the findings offer a useful measure of perceptions:

UAE residents give the US a strong 64 per cent positive rating, but only 19 per cent of Americans have a positive view of the UAE. And 38 per cent of Americans give the UAE a negative rating, while 43 per cent say they are "not sure" and "do not know enough" about the UAE.

Throughout the findings, African Americans have significantly more favourable attitudes (almost 3 to 1 favourable) and a majority of US women are "not sure". It is also important to note that many Americans who say they are "not sure" or "do not have enough information" about the UAE nonetheless make negative assessments about the culture and values of the UAE.

Among UAE respondents, 51 per cent say the US is an ally or friend of the UAE, but only 14 per cent of Americans feel that the same can be said of the UAE. One-third of Americans describe the UAE as a "country with whom we do business, but not a friend" and another 38 per cent are "not sure" about this.

Asked to say which society is "more respectful of the rights of others" and in which it is "more possible to enjoy life", 60 per cent of Americans choose the US and a plurality in the UAE choose the UAE. Also 64 per cent of Americans say the US is "more generous" while 57 per cent in the UAE name the UAE.

Asked which country is "more violent", 67 per cent in the Emirates name the US; only 39 per cent of Americans choose the UAE. And while 75 per cent in the UAE say UAE is "more respectful of families and traditions", only 38 per cent of Americans name their country.

The bottom line is that Americans appear supremely confident in their cultural superiority as more generous and more respectful of rights, but are less sure if their society is less violent and more respectful of tradition, religion and values.

Other differences appear in responses about "the most important aspect of living in your country" and what is expected from the government". In the US, 55 per cent cite "the freedom to live life as I choose" as most important, with 13 per cent naming "economic opportunity" and 11 per cent "freedom of religion". But in the UAE, a plurality, 40 per cent, point to "economic opportunity" as important, followed by 21 per cent who identify "freedom to live life as I choose" and 14 per cent "respect for diversity".

In all, 41 per cent of Americans say "protecting my rights and freedoms" is what they most expect from government; in the UAE the most-cited expectation was "keeping me safe".

We can conclude that there appears to be a real gap in perception and understanding between people in the two countries.

Americans do not fully appreciate or reciprocate the favourable feelings UAE residents have towards the US. Nor do Americans fully understand how positively people in the UAE feel about the culture and quality of life the UAE offers them.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa

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