President Bush is expected to make his first state visit to Saudi Arabia Jan. 14. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest places. It is also the home country of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists.
What Mr. Bush will find in Saudi Arabia would surprise most Americans – indeed, most Muslims around the world, who look to Saudi Arabia as their spiritual home.
For in this country most sacred to Muslims, Mr. bin Laden's countrymen have dramatically turned against him, Al Qaeda, Saudi fighters in Iraq, and terrorism itself. And they have also equally dramatically turned in favor of bin Laden's chief enemy: the United States. The people of Saudi Arabia are now among the most pro-American and antiterrorist of any in the entire Muslim world.
These are just some of the startling findings of a rare opinion survey conducted in Saudi Arabia last month by the nonprofit polling group I lead, Terror Free Tomorrow, and by D3 Systems.
Fewer than 1 in 10 Saudis has a favorable opinion of Al Qaeda, and 88 percent approve the Saudi military and police pursuing Al Qaeda fighters. Only 15 percent of Saudis have a favorable opinion of bin Laden himself. (A Saudi poll late in 2003 showed 49 percent favorable.)
Even for Saudis with a favorable view of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, addressing the problem of terrorism is one of their most important priorities, as it is to all Saudis, chosen by close to 90 percent. Only unemployment and inflation weighed more heavily on the Saudi public.
Saudis reject terrorism nearly unanimously. They aren't clamoring for radical rule from bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Indeed, more than two-thirds support stronger, closer relations with the US. Three-quarters of Saudis also said their opinion of America would significantly improve if the US took certain actions, such as increasing visas or signing a free-trade treaty with Saudi Arabia. These are practical, achievable steps that should be on Bush's agenda.
In fact, compared with the most populous Muslim countries, Saudis are among the most favorable to the US. While only 40 percent currently have a favorable opinion, that's twice or more the percentage of those in Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Indonesia. For Saudis, this is a profound turnaround from just a year and a half ago, when, in a limited Terror Free Tomorrow survey, only 11 percent had a favorable opinion of the US. That figure has now more than tripled, while unfavorable ratings have plummeted from 89 percent to just half.
Two factors help explain this major shift: 1) US policies are perceived to be less hostile, and 2) Saudi King Abdullah has promoted moderation.
While Saudi citizens have been reported by the American military to make up almost half of the foreign suicide bombers in Iraq, the Saudi public itself is strongly opposed to any Saudis fighting in Iraq. Sixty-three percent of Saudis oppose their fellow citizens fighting against Shiite militias in Iraq. An even higher percentage – 69 – favors Saudi Arabia working with the US to resolve the Iraq conflict.
On many issues, Saudis fault the current US agenda, and sometimes even that of their own king. Particularly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, only a third of Saudis support the king's peace plan and a two-state solution. Roughly half favor all Arabs continuing to fight until there is no state of Israel. This is clearly an area where stronger leadership is needed to shift Saudi public opinion.
Yet to the question many in the West have repeatedly asked – "Where is the voice of the moderate Muslim majority who stand against Al Qaeda, bin Laden, and terrorism?" – the people of Saudi Arabia have delivered a definitive answer.
The people of Islam's spiritual home clearly and unequivocally reject Al Qaeda, bin Laden, Iraqi insurgents, and terrorism. They also just as forcefully look forward to the day when the US and Saudi Arabia can have closer and stronger relations.
This gives Bush a unique opportunity to forge a deeper alliance not just with King Abdullah, but the people of Saudi Arabia themselves – and Muslims everywhere.
• Kenneth Ballen is president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion. This nationwide survey of Saudi Arabia was conducted in partnership with D3 Systems by telephone in Arabic. It had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent.