Steven Stanek
The National
May 20, 2009 - 12:00am

About half of the Arabs in six countries said in a recent poll they have a favourable view of Barack Obama and were hopeful about US foreign policy.

Analysts emphasised, however, that the mood could quickly change based on how the US president deals with a number of upcoming foreign policy challenges in the region, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to withdrawing troops from Iraq.

The University of Maryland/Zogby International poll – conducted in the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Morocco – showed that 45 per cent of the 4,000 Arabs surveyed view Mr Obama positively. If Egypt is removed from the survey – Egypt’s population is larger and more neutral than other countries, which can skew the numbers – Mr Obama’s positive rating soars to 60 per cent.

Still, the positive numbers have led only to modest improvements in the United States’ standing. A majority – 77 per cent – of Arabs said they have a “somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” attitude towards the United States, down from 83 per cent last year. It ranks second only to Israel as the country Arabs view as the world’s biggest threat.

The poll was conducted in April and May and has a margin of error of 1.6 per cent. Shibley Telhami, an expert on US foreign policy at the University of Maryland and the survey’s principal investigator, called Mr Obama’s ratings a “remarkable” improvement over Mr Bush, who continues to rank – along with Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister – as one of the top two disliked leaders in the world among Arabs, according to the poll.

But Mr Telhami said the positive numbers do not necessarily amount to enthusiasm for Mr Obama. Of those who rated Mr Obama positively, only 11 per cent were “very positive”, while the rest were “somewhat positive”. Twenty-eight per cent were neutral and one-quarter said they had negative views of Mr Obama. When respondents were asked an open question to name the leader they admired most, Mr Obama did not rank among the top 12.

“This is not a love affair,” Mr Telhami said during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington. “This is: we’re interested. We think we like this guy. We’re prepared to listen.”

The poll results come as many are looking for Mr Obama to signal a shift in foreign policy towards the Middle East. On Monday, he held his first meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and he is scheduled to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, this month. Mr Obama will travel to Cairo in early June to give a major speech on US relations with the Muslim world.

The new president, who promised to “reboot” the US image, has earned high marks for some of his initiatives, including his planned withdrawal from Iraq, banning of harsh interrogation tactics and the planned closing of the prison camp in Cuba.
There are some signs that such gestures have paid off.

A little more than half of Arabs, according to the poll, said they were hopeful about Mr Obama’s policy in the Middle East compared with 14 per cent who said they were discouraged. Those numbers were particularly high in the Gulf: 79 per cent of Saudis polled approved of Mr Obama’s foreign policy.

In Egypt and Jordan, however, views were particularly bleak – about three-quarters of the population in both countries view the United States unfavourably, according to the poll.

Mr Obama faces a slew of foreign policy challenges that may affect his stature among Arabs. Many are related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which more than one-third of those surveyed listed as their top priority. A major test could come with the issue of settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Mr Obama has called on Israel to freeze settlement expansion, but Mr Netanyahu has so far resisted. Iraq is seen as another major issue for Arabs, with 42 per cent ranking it is as the issue most central to assessing Mr Obama’s performance. Iran, by contrast, ranked quite low when respondents were asked to name the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East. Still, the number of those who believe Iran should be pressured to stop its nuclear programme almost doubled, to 40 per cent in 2009 from 22 per cent in 2008.


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