WASHINGTON, Feb 8 (IPS) - U.S. and Israeli hopes of forging of a Sunni Arab alliance to contain Iran and its regional allies may be misplaced, at least at the popular level, according to a major survey of six Arab countries released here Thursday.
The face-to-face survey of a total of 3,850 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates found that close to 80 percent of Arabs consider Israel and the United States the two biggest external threats to their security. Only six percent cited Iran.
And less than one in four Arabs believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear programme, while 61 percent, including majorities in all six countries, said Tehran had the right to pursue it even if, as most believe, the programme is designed to develop nuclear weapons.
The poll, the fifth in an annual series conducted by Zogby International and designed by Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, was carried out in November and early December — after last summer’s war between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, but just before the controversial execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The latter event has widened the divide between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims throughout the region, according to some reports, and played into recent efforts by the U.S. to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and Sunni-led Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf sheikhdoms, to contain what they see growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
But Telhami, who will present his findings at a major Brookings-sponsored conference of Islamic leaders in Doha next week, told IPS he doubts these sectarian tensions are changing basic attitudes among the general public on key regional issues in the countries covered in the survey, with the exception of Lebanon.
“The public of the Arab world is not looking at the important issues through the Sunni-Shi’a divide,” he said. “They see them rather through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian issues and anger with U.S. policy (in the region). Most Sunni Arabs take the side of the Shi’as on the important issues.”
Indeed, the survey strongly suggests that the U.S., whose image in the Arab world has fallen to an all-time low over the past year according to this and other recent polling, faces a steep uphill battle in rallying Arab public opinion behind it on critical regional questions.
More than three out of four of all respondents described their attitudes towards Washington as either “somewhat” (21 percent) or “very” (57 percent) unfavourable. Negative feelings were strongest in the three monarchies: Jordan, where 90 percent of respondents described their views as unfavourable, Morocco (87 percent), and Saudi Arabia (82 percent).
After aggregating the poll results in each country and weighting them by national population, the survey found that nearly four out of 10 Arabs named President George W. Bush as the foreign leader they most disliked, far ahead of two Israeli leaders, Ariel Sharon (11 percent) and his successor, Ehud Olmert (seven percent).
That result was particularly remarkable, according to Telhami, because, in his 2005 survey, Sharon led Bush in the “most disliked” category by a 45-30 percent margin. Even in Lebanon, Bush was found to be more than twice as disliked as Olmert, despite the latter’s responsibility for destroying much of the country’s infrastructure during last summer’s war with Hizbollah.
The most effective way for Bush to improve Arab views of the U.S., according to the survey, would be by brokering a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians based on Israel’s return to its 1967 borders.
Asked to choose among six possible steps Washington could take to improve its image, substantial majorities or pluralities of respondents in every country except Saudi Arabia opted for a comprehensive peace settlement. The other choices included withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and from the Arabian Peninsula, stopping aid to Israel, promoting democracy and providing more economic aid to the region.
Ironically, only 16 percent of respondents in Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have pressed Bush hardest in recent months for a more vigorous U.S. effort to achieve a peace agreement, chose the Arab-Israeli option. That was their fourth choice, behind withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula and stopping aid to Israel.
Asked to rate the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict in developing their attitudes towards the U.S. on a five-point scale, 76 percent of Jordanians, 65 percent of Moroccans, 62 percent of Lebanese, and 54 percent of Saudis gave it a five, or “extremely important”.
Majorities in every country said they were prepared for peace with Israel based on its return to the 1967 borders, but, among those who said so, majorities also said they did “not believe the Israelis will give up the territories (it has occupied) peacefully.”
On the other hand, pluralities in both Saudi Arabia (42 percent) and Jordan (36 percent) said that “Arabs should continue to fight Israel” even if it returned to its 1967 borders.
Weighted by national population, the survey found that 61 percent of Arabs would accept such an agreement. “That is much more than I had expected,” noted Telhami. Twenty-nine percent said Arabs should keep fighting.
If Bush displaced Sharon as the most disliked leader in 2006, the Iranian-backed leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, has displaced French President Jacques Chirac as the most admired, according to survey.
Asked to volunteer their favourite for that category, the weighted aggregate of 14 percent named Nasrallah; eight percent, Chirac; four percent, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and three percent, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “These are people who are seen to have stood up to the U.S.,” Telhami said, adding, “Not a single one is a Sunni Arab.”
As in the past several years, large majorities of Arabs attribute less benign objectives to U.S. policy in the region, including “controlling oil” (75 percent, “protecting Israel”; 69 percent “weakening the Muslim World”; and 68 percent, “the desire to dominate the region.” Only nine percent of the weighted aggregates they believed one of Washington’s main objectives was promoting democracy.
Majorities, ranging from 51 percent in Lebanon to 68 percent in Jordan and 77 percent in Morocco, believe Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear programme.
“Even in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose governments are really frightened about Iranian power, their publics do not define Iran as the major threat,” noted Telhami, who added that tended to confirm that Arab leaders and their citizenries do not see key issues through the same prism.
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