What a Difference a Year Makes

Each year Zogby International (ZI) polls Arabs in six countries to test the mood across the region. Last year we found that despite ongoing conflicts and internal problems plaguing some countries, many Arabs were expressing a degree of confidence in their present circumstances and optimism about their futures. In fact, last year’s mood was the brightest since we began our annual polling in 2002.

That was last year. This year is a different story.

By any measure, 2006 was a difficult year in the Middle East, with a devastating assault on Lebanon, the continued plight of the Palestinians and the steady descent of Iraq into civil war taking a huge toll in lives and fortunes. But what were the further consequences of these events?

We were asked by the Arab Business Council (ABC) to add some questions to our 2006 survey to assess the impact regional developments had on the economic and political environment in each of the countries covered in our annual poll (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco). What we found was that these conflicts have, in fact, had a dampening effect on attitudes in each of the countries covered in our survey.

To be sure, the impact of these three issues differed from country to country, but the combined effect is clear.

When we asked our respondents in the six countries to rate the roles played by a number of issues in the political stability and economic development of the region, far and away, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq rated highest in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. Lebanon, of course, presents a special case, and not only because it was the only one of the six countries covered in our survey where conflict actually occurred. One year ago, Lebanon appeared to be on the rebound. Despite persistent internal divisions, 2005 marked the first year since we began our polling that Lebanese, across the spectrum of their society, displayed any sense of optimism. Suffice it to say that the gains of last year have been erased.

But not only in Lebanon.

When we asked our respondents if they were better off than they were four years ago, in five of the six countries covered in our survey, attitudes were down. And when asked if they expected to be better off in the next four years, attitudes were also down–”in some cases significantly so–”in all six countries. Of real concern were the substantial number of respondents who simply said they were “not sure” how well off they would be in the future. For example, in Morocco and Lebanon more than one-third and in the UAE almost three-quarters expressed uncertainly.

All of this points to an obvious fact. The people of the Arab world are organically linked not only by geography, history and culture. They are tied by sentiment, as well. As a result of this, the number of conflicts that have plagued the region–”each of which took a dramatic turn for the worst in 2005-2006–”have taken a profoundly negative toll on the Arab public’s mood.

While the United States persists in seeing each of the region’s “troubles” as discreet occurrences and expects “business as usual” to continue in countries not directly involved in conflict situations, the region’s people see reality quite differently. The impact of these conflicts spill over beyond borders. Oil revenues might be up in Gulf countries, for example, but concern over the plight of the Palestinians and the fear of an imploding Iraq combine to damp down optimism and confidence. And the dynamics unleashed by the war in Lebanon are felt well beyond the conflicts of that troubled land.

All of these conflicts combined have become a troubled brew. What we have learned from our polling is that in their wake they have brought: increased anti-American sentiment, creating real stress for US allies (all six countries covered in our polling are US allies); an empowered and emboldened Iran, causing concern in governments across the region; increased sectarian division and growing support for extremist groups. And the consequences of all of these can only be a dampening of the public mood and an increase in uncertainty, neither of which can be a good thing either for economic planning or progress toward internal political reform.