x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Obama gets a second chance in Arab public opinion

Attitudes in the Middle East towards America are changing again, presenting a challenge to the US president in his second term.

As President Barack Obama prepares to launch his second term in the White House, he can take some comfort in the fact that positive attitudes toward the United States have again risen sharply in several Arab countries.

After ratings plummeted to record lows during the Bush years, the 2008 election of Mr Obama and his early outreach effort to Arabs and Muslims increased favourable attitudes towards the United States across the Arab region. However, by mid-2011, with Guantanamo still open, US forces still in Iraq and the White House appearing to have capitulated to Israeli obstructionism, Arab attitudes towards the United States had dropped back to the levels seen during the Bush administration.

In a survey of Arab opinion last month, Zogby Research Services found that favourability ratings regarding the United States had spiked in most Arab countries. More significantly, there were strong majorities in several countries that responded that the United States was making a positive contribution to peace and stability in the Arab world.

Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Tunisia were surveyed, in addition to the those countries that Zogby polls usually target: Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

What the 2012 poll made clear was that the decline in US standing had been arrested. In Saudi Arabia, for example, favourability ratings were at an all-time high of 62 per cent, while in Jordan and the UAE, positive attitudes had climbed back to 2009 levels.

In Egypt, US ratings were still a low 10 per cent. That, however, was double the rating that Egyptians had given the United States in 2011, although nowhere near the 30 per cent level after Mr Obama delivered his "new beginnings" speech at the University of Cairo in 2009. In Lebanon and Morocco, attitudes held steady.

A more surprising finding was that more than 80 per cent of Jordanians and Emiratis said they believed that "the US is contributing to peace and stability in the Arab world" - a dramatic rise from the less than 10 per cent who held that view a year and a half ago. This is matched by three quarters of Saudis, one half of Egyptians, and the more than one third of Lebanese and Moroccans who agreed that the United States was playing a positive role in the region. In all cases, the rise since 2011 was substantial.

In countries for which we had no 2011 data, the 2012 survey found low favourability ratings (13 per cent in Iraq, 2 per cent in Palestine and 19 per cent in Tunisia). But Iraqis, Palestinians and Tunisians also gave high ratings to the US regional role: 65 per cent of Palestinians, 49 per cent of Tunisians and 40 per cent of Iraqis agreed that the United States had made a positive contribution to peace and stability in the Arab world.

In follow-up interviews with opinion makers in the region, we were told that there was an appreciation for the more low-key and cooperative approach shown by Mr Obama. The White House fulfilled its commitment to withdraw from Iraq; it helped to build coalitions in Libya; it worked diplomatically to support change in Syria; and it pursued a principled approach to democratic change in Egypt.

The one sore point, of course, was the administration's weakness on Palestinian issues. Many, however, maintained some hope that the United States would make a renewed push to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace in Mr Obama's second term.

This rise in confidence should be welcomed in Washington, but it also comes with a warning. This is the second spike in favourability ratings during Mr Obama's tenure in the White House. Clearly there is relief that Mr Obama has moved away from Bush-style unilateralism.

Mr Obama begins his second term with Arab public opinion giving him a second vote of confidence. The challenge is clear: he must act. A second disappointment could be irreversible.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

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