For the past five years, I've had the opportunity to conduct public opinion polls across the Middle East in order to provide content for policy discussions at the UAE's annual Sir Bani Yas Forum. And so during the month of September, we surveyed over 7,400 adults in six Arab countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), Turkey, and Iran.
Polling is like opening a window. It allows us to hear the voices of people and to understand their beliefs, concerns, and priorities. I call it "the respectful science" because the views of every individual counts. When you listen, you learn. Sometimes assumptions are validated. Other times, there are surprises. This year's results had both.
Some of the key findings were:
As expected, Iraqis are divided on the level of confidence they have in important institutions and the roles of regional players in their country. Sunni Arabs, for example, have no confidence in the Iraqi military, Iran's involvement, or the Popular Mobilization Units that are fighting Daesh. Shia Arabs, on the other hand, are supportive of the roles being played by all of these.
There is, however, remarkable consensus on two important issues: that the cause of the conflict in Iraq is that "the government in Baghdad does not represent all Iraqis"; and that "the best way to ultimately resolve the conflict...is forming a more inclusive representative government"—and not partition. Even the Kurds agreed that such a representative central government is a better option than partition.
IRAN and P5+1:
Majorities in every country surveyed, except Lebanon and Turkey, were not supportive of the P5+1 Agreement largely because they lacked confidence that it would stop Iran's nuclear program. In addition, Egyptians and Saudis, in particular, believed that Iran would now use sanctions relief to support its "interference in the region".
For their part, Iranians were conflicted about the Agreement. Most were supportive, but two-thirds were upset that their country had to accept limits on their nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief—with a substantial percentage of Iranians still saying that their country should have a nuclear weapon "as long as other countries have" such weapons. When asked what they now wanted their government's priorities to be in the wake of the Agreement, far and away, the top choices were "improving the economy" and "advancing democracy and protecting personal and civil rights". In last place was increasing involvement in the region. Iranians still support their government's support for Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but at lower levels than in previous years.
The issue of Palestine may have been eclipsed in the news, but it remains a critically important concern for almost all Arabs surveyed. When asked to rank the region's many conflicts in order of importance, the situation in Palestine was at the top of the list (or one point shy of the top) in every Arab country. And overwhelming majorities in every country, except Iraq, wanted their governments to provide more aid to support the Palestinians and to assist Palestinian efforts to achieve national reconciliation.
In polls we conducted in 2005, 2007, and 2009, at least three-quarters of all Arabs said that they supported the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative, indicating that if Israel were to leave the occupied lands and solve the refugee issue, they were prepared to live in peace with Israel. The behavior of the Netanyahu government, however, has taken a toll on Arab opinion. It is still the case that two-thirds in Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are ready to make peace, but almost one-half in all these countries now believe that Israel doesn't want peace, and the percentage of those who say that they are no longer interested in peace with Israel has doubled since 2009. In Egypt and Iraq, a strong majority now reject peace with Israel.
Daesh is identified as the most serious extremist problem facing the region in every country except Jordan, where al Qaeda is ranked first. And when asked to identify the most important causes of religious extremism, at the top of the list in most countries are "corrupt, repressive, and unrepresentative governments" and "religious figures and groups promoting extremist ideas". Interestingly, "anger at the US" is now ranked at the very bottom of the list in every country, most likely due to the US's lighter regional footprint.
How best to defeat extremism? Respondents in every country say "changing the political and social realities that cause young people to be attracted to extremist ideas", followed by "countering the messages and ideas" of extremist groups.
JOINT ARAB ACTION:
Because the US role in combating the regional challenge of extremism receives extremely low scores in every country surveyed, Arabs have been discussing the formation of a Joint Arab Force (JAF). We found that in every Arab country surveyed substantial majorities supporting the development of such a JAF. And majorities favor their governments funding and providing troops to make up this force. In addition, there is strong support, across the board, for deploying a JAF in peace-keeping or, in some cases, in a combat role in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. There is less support for engagement in Libya or Yemen.
These are only a few of the findings from this year's Sir Bani Yas poll. The full results can be found at www.zogbyresearchservices.com.