Arabs' new favorite leader: Hugo Chávez!?!

The Venezuelan leader blew away all others as Arabs' favorite world leader in this week's University of Maryland and Zogby International's 2009 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey.

By , Africa/Americas editor

That's right. The colorful Latin leftist has some serious crossover appeal.

He's now huge – or, as Donald Trump would say, "uuuuuge" – in the Middle East.

So big that he's surpassed the usual favorites: Osama bin Laden, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedenejad. At least that's the result of this week's University of Maryland and Zogby International's 2009 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey. (President Obama didn't place, although George W. Bush still did quite well in the "worst world leaders" category, as Foreign Policy points out.)

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It may seem surprising, but a quick look back Mr. Chávez's statements and visits over the past few years reveal why he's now a hero for the "Arab Street," earning nicknames like "Chávez of Arabia."

In January, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah – last year's top leader of the same poll – lauded Chávez for kicking out the Israeli ambassador to Venezuela to protest Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The same move prompted a Kuwaiti Islamist MP to say that Chávez "has proved that he was more Arab than some Arabs," he said. "I call for moving the Arab League from Cairo to Caracas."

In March, Chávez went before Arab leaders in Doha, Qatar, to propose an oil-backed currency to challenge the US dollar. There, he gleefully announced the demise of "the Empire" - or "the Great Satan" as his friend Mr. Ahmadinejad would call the US. (The two have visited each other several times.)

"A new world is being born," Chávez said then. "Empires fall. There is a world crisis of capitalism, it's shaking the planet."

This stuff is gold dust in the Middle East.

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