With Arabs, Obama never had a honeymoon

Two recent polls show that Arab nations have not embraced the president the way other areas of the world have.

Rich Clabaugh

As President Obama prepares for the highly anticipated speech he will deliver to the Muslim world from Cairo in early June, new polling from Arab countries suggests he has his work cut out for him.

Only a small percentage of Arabs appear to have been won over by Barack Obama. There has been some slight improvement in US standing during the past year, based in part on the departure of President Bush and in part on Obama's policies, such as announcing a withdrawal from Iraq and a desire to shutter the Guantánamo detention facility. But one new poll suggests that America's "negatives" remain high in Egypt and Jordan in particular, as well as Saudi Arabia.

And when Arabs are asked to name the world leader they most admire, the new American president with "Hussein" for a middle name does not even figure on their list, according to a second poll. By contrast, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a renowned anti-American iconoclast, sits atop that list.

Arabs "are listening, they are hopeful – [but] they are not in love," says Shibley Telhami, a professor of Mideast affairs at the University of Maryland and principal investigator for one of the polls, the annual Arab Public Opinion Survey.

While Obama's negatives are considerably lower among Arabs than Mr. Bush's were, his positives are generally low. This sets the Arab world, roughly defined as the Middle East and norther Africa, decidedly apart from other regions of the world. Western Europe, for example, has enthusiastically embraced Obama.

"There is an uptick [in the Arab world's view of the US under Obama] but that uptick is soft," says James Zogby, senior analyst at Zogby International in Washington, which produced the other poll. Zogby International's survey of Arab opinion about Obama found that "the change is real but somewhat tentative," according to Mr. Zogby.

The United Arab Emirates emerges as the first Arab country to register a net positive view of the US. But the numbers regionwide are based on early impressions of Obama, Mr. Telhami adds, and are not yet an indication of a deeper shift. "This has not yet translated into significant change in their usual attitudes towards the US," he says.

Among the two polls' notable findings ahead of Obama's speech:

•When asked which countries pose the biggest threat to their well-being, Arabs by and large name the same two they have for years: the US and Israel.

•For the first time, Iran emerges as a "threat" for a small but significant number of Arabs – particularly in Egypt and Morocco. Though Iran is a Muslim country, it is not Arabic. Moreover, Iran is predominately Shi'ite Muslim, whereas the Arabic world is predominately Sunni, with the notable exception of Iraq.

•Arabs worry that war will again engulf the region if progress is not made in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the next year to 18 months.

•Yet, as in the past, a slight majority believe peace between Israel and the Palestinians "will never happen."

On Iran, the surveys show that a majority of Arabs believe the country is pursuing nuclear weaponry, despite its claims that its program is for peaceful energy purposes. Large numbers of Arabs say Iran is being singled out by the international community because it is a Muslim country, but for the first time a significant number – again, especially in Egypt and Morocco – say Iran should be pressed to stop its nuclear program.

One-fifth of Arabs put Iran on the list of "threatening" countries, largely because Iran's activities in the region and its support for proxy groups like Hizbullah and to a lesser extent Hamas are drawing attention, says the University of Maryland's Telhami.

Al Qaeda, however, is absent – either as an admired or feared group. "Al Qaeda is really decreasing as a focus in the region," says Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University in Washington.

But that does not mean the attraction of "resistance," either to the Western world or to reigning regimes, has dissipated. "Hamas and Hizbullah have captured that better," Mr. Lynch says.

In any case, Telhami adds, the role of Al Qaeda was "elevated" by the US: "It was never the central player in Arab discourse."

In Egypt, where Obama will give his speech, skepticism remains high about whether Obama can change the dynamics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Some 37 percent of Egyptians said he could, but 32 percent said he could not.

"Too many people still think no US president can make a difference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Zogby says.

Still, George Washington's Lynch says the polling tells him that Obama does have an opportunity. "There is a window of hope and of expectation that Obama can change US foreign policy," Lynch says. "But that window is not going to stay open very long."

If Obama cannot get results soon on concrete issues like Israeli settlements in the West Bank, "that window is going to crash closed for a very long time."

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