In recent years, a significant juggling of relationships has occurred across the Arab world. After the debacle of the Iraq war and the dizzying, often incoherent shifts in American policy over the past 20 years, the US is no longer the dominant player it once was. Russia and China have entered the region’s calculus as global powers of influence. And Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged as local powers making their presence felt.
The region has faced a number of unsettling challenges. Of special concern: destabilisation resulting from internal conflicts plaguing several countries, threats posed by Iran’s meddling, and dangers created by Israel’s brutality and acquisitiveness in the occupied Palestinian lands.
With the US either doing little to calm these troubled waters or actually contributing to roil them, Arab countries have been compelled to establish their own paths forward to protect or project their interests.
In 2020, in part to forestall what many believed was an imminent Israeli formal annexation of a large portion of the Palestinian territories, the UAE launched the Abrahamic Accords. Other countries have since joined. Meanwhile, several regional Arab countries have met with and begun opening up to Iraq and restoring normal relations with Syria. And while Israel and some US hawks thought Arab ties with Israel was motivated by establishing a regional bloc against Iran, the UAE and now Saudi Arabia have taken steps to normalise ties with Iran.
With these regional shifts and independent Arab initiatives, the US has been caught unprepared. Its outmoded playbook posits Israel as the region’s centre of gravity, and Iran and Syria as pariahs to be shunned and confronted. Following Russia’s war against Ukraine, and China’s emergence as a threat to US global hegemony, the US has resurrected the Cold War’s battle cry of “democracy versus authoritarianism".
How are the new regional alignments playing out in Arab opinion? In an effort to assess Arab views of these developments, Zogby Research Services has, in recent years, conducted polls in more than a dozen Arab countries.
Here’s what we have found: having long felt alienated from the US and its policies and despite blaming Russia for the war in Ukraine, Arabs don’t want their governments to become involved or follow the US lead in supporting Ukraine. They view the conflict as a European/US matter.
And in most Arab countries, public opinion sees China as the emerging power. Acknowledging that the US is today more powerful than China, they see the gap closing in the next 10 years, and in 20 years, majorities in every country see China emerging as the world’s power.
What’s important, but too often overlooked by US policymakers, is that where Arabs see America’s strong suit in its competition with China is in its “soft power” – its cultural values and its education. What we have learnt from our polling is that Arabs like the US and its values but feel that the US doesn’t care about them.
When looking inwards, Arabs in most countries give the highest scores to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their favourability, their roles in the region, and the importance of having ties with them. At the same time, Iran and Israel are seen as regional threats – with Israel being seen as a greater threat than Iran in all countries except the UAE, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, where Iran is seen as slightly more threatening than Israel.
Also noteworthy is that of all five Arab countries that have peace agreements with Israel, only in the UAE has there been any warming of attitudes towards that state. In Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco, favourable attitudes towards Israel remain quite low. And despite the overwhelming majority of Saudis who report negative attitudes towards Israel, a significant minority of Saudis say that ties might still be beneficial.
Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel have consistently favourable views towards the major Arab countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt) that are playing a role in their region. And all have negative views towards Iran.
The Palestinian respondents also display mixed views toward the Abrahamic Accords and their impact on their lives, with the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians of East Jerusalem being more favourably inclined towards the Accords than the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza. Among Palestinian citizens of Israel, a substantial majority say that the Accords have either had a positive impact on their lives or could be positive in the future.
These findings from recent polling point to the clear reality that Arab opinion is mostly aligned with changes occurring across the region. They no longer see the US as “the only player in town”. They have no interest in following the US lead and have growing respect for China’s role in the region. While there are strong negatives associated with both Iran and Israel, there is recognition that a new regional dynamic is unfolding in which Arabs need to define their own paths forward.
Other findings suggest that both Iran and Israel should understand that current moves towards regional integration will only continue to grow if behaviours change – with Iran ending its meddlesome role in several countries and Israel advancing justice and rights for the Palestinian people.