Listening and Learning: Arab Opinion Matters

I listened attentively to Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s most recent speech in which he berated the Arab League’s intervention to help stem the violence currently racking his country. Claiming that he was listening to his countrymen and speaking for them and that his regime was the standard-bearer of "Arabism,” al Assad denounced the League as not representing true Arab sentiment. For obvious reasons, we can’t poll in Syria right now, but as the past ten months of mass protests and the unremitting and largely regime-sponsored violence have made clear, al Assad may speak for some, but certainly not all Syrians.

On the other hand, we have polled about Syria across the Arab World, and what we find is that it is al Assad who is out of touch with the reality of Arab opinion or, as he might put it, "the beating heart of Arabism.” In every country surveyed, including Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan, we learn that overwhelming majorities of Arabs side with the Syrian demonstrators and say that it is time for the al Assad government to step down.

I love polling because it erases doubt as to what people are really thinking. What I have learned from my brother, John Zogby, is that when you survey public opinion, everyone’s views count. I call it the "respectful science.” You ask, they answer. Responses get organized by age, gender, education level attained, income, region, and more. When you present the results, it is as if you’ve opened a window, letting in the voices of a society, so that you hear what they are saying about their lives, their aspirations, and their attitudes.

I’m in the United Arab Emirates right now, teaching a short course on the importance of public opinion at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. Looking at the most recent polling we have done across the Middle East and North Africa makes clear some of the problems facing this region while providing keys to solutions for some of the big issues, as well.

It is not only in Syria that we need to listen and learn. When we go next door to Iraq, where we see the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki making a power grab, exacerbating the risk of internal civil conflict, we find strong majorities deeply worried about the future of their country, rejecting division and favoring instead a government that can create jobs, end corruption, and provide the stability and basic services needed for all Iraqis to lead decent and productive lives.

While Iran’s leadership is busy provocatively and aggressively playing their nuclear card, our polling there reveals that the democracy movement remains strong among Iranians. All across the country, the top priority concerns, in addition to employment, are democracy, civil and personal rights, political reform, and an end to corruption.        

At the same time, polling in the Arab World also offers a cautionary warning to the West’s strategy to confront Iran’s leaders. While it is true that Iran’s favorable ratings among Arabs have plummeted and are now less than one half of what they were just five years ago, should the West or Israel attack Iran, all bets are off. Since the only countries with significantly lower favorable ratings than Iran in the Arab region are the U.S. and Israel, the best way to resurrect Iran’s ratings would be for the U.S. or Israel to attack it. 

While we are looking at the U.S., it too needs to listen better to Arab opinion. America’s favorable ratings among Arabs, which were at dangerously low levels during the Bush Administration, got a boost from the change in policy expected by the election of Barack Obama. Three years later, U.S. favorable ratings are lower than they were in 2008, as Arabs see no change in how America relates to the issue they still see as central to their relationship with the West–”that is, the unresolved matter of Palestinian freedom and dignity.

Israel, too, should listen, but given that country’s hard-line direction, they have become increasingly tone deaf to Arab and world opinion. Our polls show that the Arab public still supports the Arab League’s peace initiative for a two state solution, but a majority of Arabs in every country no longer believe that Israel has any interest in making peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s behavior and U.S. acquiescence to Israel’s policies are radicalizing Arab opinion creating a more dangerous and volatile environment with every passing day.

We have also polled in the two Arab countries where uprisings brought down governments, creating the possibility for change. But those who have been newly elected in Tunisia and Egypt must now pay attention to what the voices of their countrymen are saying. In both countries the number one concern is expanding employment. While Tunisians also want an expansion of democracy, and "increasing women’s rights" is high up on their list of political priorities, Egyptians are more focused on the basic needs of life and "ending corruption.” The success or failure of these "revolutions" will be measured by their ability to meet the expectations that inspired them.

Listening to opinion is also critical for other governments in the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, far and away the number one concern is the need to expand employment. With a "youth bulge" necessitating the creation of three million new jobs over the next decade, Saudis want to know that their children will be educated and find meaningful work in their country. And in our surveys of business leaders in the Gulf region we find a growing concern that opportunities be created to support private sector economic growth, so that small businesses can become the engine driving this needed job creation. Business leaders recognize that it is simply not a sustainable situation for the government to be the "employer of first resort" absorbing this growing work force. The private sector must be involved. 

As I explain in my recent book "Arab Voices: What they Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters" and now in my NYU course, Arab opinion matters. It clearly matters to the West which has long ignored Arab sentiment. But the views of the public matter within the region as well. The sooner leaders, East and West, listen and learn, the sooner real change can occur. 

(For access to polling data referenced in this article, please click here.)