By Hussein Ibish
It would be difficult to find a better measure of Arab opinion about regional and international powers than the Arab Youth Survey.
The 2019 Survey results provide a solid summary of regional perspectives on other countries, with the UAE being most readily identified as an ally by respondents (93 per cent) and Iran as an enemy (67 per cent). Unfortunately, for Washington, the United States appears as the runner-up “enemy” at 59 per cent, with a mere 41 per cent considering Washington an ally, continuing a striking downward trend in recent years.
However, perceptions of the US appear complex, and perhaps not fully consistent.
By a large margin the US is viewed as the non-Arab country that has most increased its influence in the Arab world – selected by 48 per cent of respondents – with Turkey a distant runner-up at 23 per cent. Yet conventional wisdom often holds that Washington is reducing, not increasing, its engagement with, and therefore influence in, the Arab world.
Obviously, there is more to that than first meets the eye.
US refusal to get drawn into the Syrian war, its relatively hands-off attitude towards the conflicts in Yemen and Libya, and complaints about “free riders” and demands for greater “burden-sharing” by both Barack Obama and Donald Trump are often cited as evidence of a US retreat.
However, Arab youth seem convinced that the US is not only the most important non-Arab influence in the Arab world, but that this influence is increasing. This may reflect an emphasis on cultural, educational and economic influences, which may indeed be increasing, and the American role as the sole superpower in a globalizing international community into which the Arab world is being increasingly drawn.
However, it may also suggest that Arab youth simply do not share the perceptions of many Arab elites and, instead of any extraction, see a US that, even if sometimes reticent, remains the most potent player in the region. Some argue the US retreat from the Arab world is a mirage, and it’s certainly difficult to demonstrate any such withdrawal in trade, cultural interaction, military deployments or almost any other quantifiable metric. So, Arab youth may be more accurately seeing a “big picture” than politicians and intellectuals fixated on specific frustrations.
But the news for the US is hardly all good.
In 2017 and 2018, the first two years of the Trump administration, the US went from being considered a “strong ally” (63 per cent in 2016) to 46 per cent and then 35 per cent, close to a 50 per cent collapse in just two years.
In 2019, there is a slight US resurgence to 41 per cent, but that’s still well short of the 2016, Obama-era mark. Russia, by contrast, continues to get high marks, down slightly from 69 per cent in 2018 to 65 per cent in 2019.
Since the US is not perceived as being less influential, the emphasis in this opinion is probably on the “ally” portion of the phrase rather than “strong.”
That’s reinforced by the regional perception breakdown, with 45 per cent of GCC respondents seeing the US as a “stronger ally” than Russia - although Russia does surprisingly well with 38 per cent - contrasted with the Levant, where 45 per cent view Russia is a stronger ally, with only 29 per cent for the US. Given strong US ties to Gulf Arab countries, the solid performance of Russia is more surprising than the slightly stronger American one.
It’s no surprise that Levantine Arab youth, including Lebanese, Palestinians and Iraqis, take a decidedly dimmer view of Washington. Indeed, given some policies of the Trump administration – including recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, endorsing the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, placing a travel ban on citizens of a range of mostly Muslim-majority countries, and, at times, indulging in rhetoric critical of Islam and Muslims – it’s arguably not surprising that the US reputation in much of the Arab world is suffering.
However, it is noteworthy that the most positive contrast between the US and Russia for Washington comes from North Africa, which has been largely unaffected by most of those policies and where Russia remains largely unengaged.
And presumably Washington benefits from the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran in the eyes of many Arabs.
It remains fascinating that, despite Russia’s strong alliance with Iran and intervention in the Syrian civil war, that Washington is only seen as a stronger ally than Moscow by Gulf youth by a few percentage points. Arguably, Russia, which is barely present in the Gulf except as an alternative arms supplier, mainly represents an abstract idea for many Gulf youth, rather than a set of specific relations and policies. Russia’s continued strong showing suggests that its primary appeal could be as a supposed alternative global power to the US, despite Moscow’s relatively tiny Middle Eastern presence compared with Washington’s and a striking global mismatch in leverage and capabilities.
Russia may well be standing in for an emergent, but still undeveloped, multipolar world rather than being judged by the actual policies and capabilities of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia’s strong showing (37 per cent) as the Arab country that has most increased its influence in the Arab world in the past five years seems strongly correlated to specifics. The vacuum of leadership in the Arab world following the Arab Spring in 2011 has imposed a burden of regional leadership on Gulf countries, whether they welcome it or not. Traditional power centres such as Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus are, in various ways, unable or unwilling to fulfill their traditional leadership functions. The Gulf countries alone are sufficiently engaged, prosperous, orderly and able to project Arab regional influence. That’s why the UAE (27 per cent) is the runner-up in this category, with once-mighty Egypt struggling at a mere 11 per cent. This reflects the unmistakable circumstances in the Arab world at present: for good or ill, Gulf countries – most notably but not only Saudi Arabia – have inherited the mantle of leadership and influence. It’s hardly surprising Arab youth public opinion reflects that unambiguous fact.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is a weekly columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and is a regular contributor to many other publications. He has made thousands of radio and television appearances and was the Washington DC correspondent for the Daily Star (Beirut). Ibish previously served as a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, and as executive director of the Hala Salaam Maksoud Foundation for Arab-American Leadership from 2004 to 2009. From 1998 to 2004, Ibish served as communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He has a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.