Taking the Pulse of Arab Opinion

A series of polls in six countries reveals a multilayered, ever-evolving Arab identity.


The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, by Shibley Telhami, Basic Books, New York, 227 pages, $27.99.

For a decade Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, has been conducting polls in six Arab countries: Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. His book The World Through Arab Eyes couples those surveys with an intensive analysis of events in the region from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait through the Arab Spring. In the process, Telhami argues that Arabs do not have a static, unchanging identity. Arab identity, he shows, is actually a multilayered, constantly shifting thing, with individuals sometimes seeing themselves as Arabs first, sometimes identifying most closely with their home country, and sometimes giving precedence to their religion. Whatever layer is in the forefront, Telhami suggests, is the layer that at the moment seems most likely to preserve or restore Arab dignity.

In all six countries, over the entire post-9/11 decade, the people polled consistently perceived Palestine as the most important political priority. The Arab/Israeli conflict trumps even the Sunni/Shia division, especially in times of crisis. The creation of Israel in 1948 and the Arab loss in the war of 1967 left deep marks on the Arab world; over generations, Arabs continued to see Israel as a major threat.

After the Arab Spring, interestingly, the Palestinian/Israeli conflict became a more important priority among the people Telhami polled. The uprisings of 2011, he explains, were about freeing the Arab people from domination by dictators and by the outside world. Since those dictators did little for the Palestinians, the issue was a consistent reminder of the division between the rulers and the ruled. And when the Arab Spring saw some of those rulers cast away, allowing Arabs to regain some dignity, it shouldn't be surprising that the next item on many Arabs' list should be Palestine, seen as the biggest stab to their dignity.

According to Telhami, Arab opinion has been pretty consistent recently about how the Palestinian conflict should be resolved. About two thirds support the so-called two-state solution: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side with Israel. Between a quarter and a third of the population, on the other hand, rejects peace with Israel even if it withdraws from the occupied territories.

The data also show that most Arabs believe that peace will never happen. The biggest change from 2010 to 2011 was the decline in the percentages who think a solution could be attained through negotiations, from 40 percent to 20 percent. In 2011, 39 percent expressed the view that a solution will come only if it is imposed by the United Nations or the United States.

Public opinion about the uprisings of 2011 has been generally positive, though there are some wrinkles. One is the effect of sectarian differences. While Arabs overwhelmingly supported the protesters in most countries, in Bahrain only 60 percent supported the rebels and 24 percent backed the government. That's still a clear majority, but it's quite a bit less than, say, the 86 percent who favored the rebels in Syria. This reflects the extent that Bahrain's revolution was seen through a Sunni/Shia prism. Lebanese Shia, for example, were far more inclined to support Bahrain's rebels than the rest of the population was; in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, there was more support for Bahrain's Sunni government.

Also notable: opposition to western intervention. While the people polled were overwhelmingly in favor of Syria's rebels in Syria, only 18 percent supported an international intervention on behalf of the rebels with United Nations support, and just 8 percent favored an intervention without UN backing. Fifteen percent thought a more narrow Turkish/Arab intervention would be acceptable; 14 percent wanted an intervention limited to arming the rebels; and a plurality, 43 percent, wanted no external military action at all.

What do Arabs think of the United States? The data showed remarkable openness to Barack Obama after his speech in Cairo in 2009. In 2010, though, his popularity declined considerably, with a majority viewing him unfavorably. "Arabs reject American policies," Telhami writes, "and therefore question American values and whether America stands for what it professes." Arabs don't believe that American policy in the region is driven by a desire to promote democracy and peace; the driving forces, they consistently believe, are Israel and oil. Asked what countries pose the biggest threat to them, the vast majority of Arabs, year after year, identified Israel first and the United States second.

Meanwhile, China's star is on the rise. In 2011, when the poll asked which of seven countries the surveyed would like to see as a superpower, a plurality—23 percent—answered China. Apparently, the region would like to see a counterweight to the United States. (The outside country seen as playing the most constructive role during the Arab Spring was Turkey.)

The "processes unleashed by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions," Telhami concludes, "are not episodic and are likely to endure." No government in the Arab world is fully immune to revolt, he continues; events in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular will shape Arabs' relations with the rest of the world. And in the meantime, Arab identity—and Arabs' sense of threat—"will continue to be defined in relation to Israel and the United States."