Saudis Reject Bin Laden and Terrorism

James Zogby’s Column

What are Saudi attitudes toward terrorism, bin Laden, and the United States?  These are questions that have plagued U.S. policymakers and the American people for the past two years.

However, despite deep concern, to date, no comprehensive study has been conducted into Saudi attitudes on these critical questions.  There have been some partial efforts. A Gallup poll of Saudi opinion conducted in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks pointed to strong negative feelings about the U.S. and a state of denial regarding the attacks themselves.   A later Zogby International (ZI) poll conducted in April 2002 noted that the root of Saudi, and general Arab, alienation from the U.S. was their deep frustration with American policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In fact, as the ZI study found, when Saudis (and in separate polls, Arabs from Egypt, Lebanon, the UAE and Kuwait) were asked their attitudes toward various manifestations of America (e.g. “American freedom and democracy”, “American education”, “American products”, “the American people” etc.) the results were largely and, in many cases, overwhelmingly positive.  Only when asked for their attitudes toward “American policy toward Palestinians”, “Iraq” and “the Arab World in general”, were the responses decidedly negative.  It was, as we concluded, anger at U.S. policy that has created the overall negative attitudes toward America in general.  

Absent any deeper examination, however, questions remained.  Some polemicists, using fragmentary anecdotes, attempted to construct a profile of broader Saudi attitudes.  Despite the absence of empirical data, a negative portrait of Saudi attitudes emerged and, repeated often enough, grew into accepted wisdom.

It came to be believed, for example, that Saudis overwhelmingly supported bin Laden, were consumed with anti-American attitudes and that the country, as a whole, was a breeding ground for anti-American terror.

Following the May 12, 2003 bombings in Riyadh, I traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with the U.S. Ambassador Robert Jordan, a group of American businessman working in the country and a number of groups of Saudi citizens.  From that visit and the discussions I held with both Americans and Saudis, I became convinced of the desirability of attempting to conduct a more detailed study of Saudi attitudes.

In July 2003, working with our Lebanese partner Information International, SAL, ZI began a nationwide study of Saudis from four principal areas of the country (Riyadh, Jeddah, Damman, and Abha).  In all, a random sampling of 600 Saudis was surveyed in face-to-face interviews.  The margin of error for the study is é 4.1 %.

Summary of the Findings

While establishing that policy strains remain central to defining Saudi attitudes toward the U.S., our findings challenged many of the unfounded assumptions that exist regarding Saudi views. 

Saudis almost unanimously reject the use of terror attacks against innocent civilians.  When asked “is the killing of innocent people ever justified”, 99% of our respondents replied “no”, only one percent indicated “yes” as their answer.

More than nine out of 10 Saudis reject bin Laden’s actions which have killed thousands of innocent civilians.  In separate questions, they state that these actions are not consistent with Islam and their own values as Saudis. 

94.5%, for example, agreed with the statement that Osama bin Laden’s actions, “that have killed thousands of innocent civilians on a number of continents” are “not consistent with the values of Saudis.”  88% agreed that those actions “are not consistent with the values of Islam.”  Only 2.5% and 1.5% respectively disagreed with each of these statements.

At the same time 99% of all Saudis agreed that the May 12, 2003 terrorist bombings that struck the expatriate compound in Riyadh “was inconsistent with their values as Saudis and Muslims.” 

More than 9 out of 10 agreed that “innocent civilians in the U.S. did not deserve to die in the attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City.”  More than eight out of 10 say that “Osama bin Laden does not speak for me and my family.” 

While showing strong negative views toward U.S. policy in the Middle East, specifically toward Palestine and Iraq, and displaying an almost 10% decline in favorable attitudes toward some of the manifestations of America (since the April 2002 poll) more than nine in 10 indicated that “the people of Saudi Arabia have no quarrel with the American people.”

When asked to rate the importance of several issues, Saudis ranked their concerns in the following order: personal finances, employment opportunities, Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, political reform, terrorism.

96% said that their “personal finances” were “very important”, 85% said “employment opportunities” were “very important”, while 51.5% said the same about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  36.5% said Iraq was “very important” and 35% and 27.5% respectively said that political reform and “terrorism” were “very important”.

Finally, when asked to give their overall impression about U.S. policy toward Palestinians and Iraq our respondents displayed largely negative views.  Only six percent have a favorable attitude toward the U.S.’s Iraq policy and only one percent have a favorable view of the U.S.’s Palestine policy, with negative attitudes toward those policies being 81.5% and 93.5% respectively.   

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).