People polled across the Middle East see Russia as an ascendant power in the region while the image of the United States has darkened, a poll indicates.
The survey comes as US President Donald Trump faces accusations of fanning anti-Muslim sentiments by sharing right-wing-extremist propaganda videos on Twitter.
Russia’s military support starting in 2015 prevented the defeat of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. That, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin emerging as a potential broker of a deal ending the war and creating a post-war order, boosted Moscow’s profile in the Middle East. The poll said majorities of people questioned in nine countries in the region said it was important to have good relations with Moscow.
In Turkey, 100% of respondents said good ties with Moscow were key, up from 24% in 2016.
The poll, by Zogby Research Services, was conducted in August and September in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates with more than 7,800 respondents who were surveyed mostly in face-to-face interviews. The poll was commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the UAE.
“If Putin has done anything, he has established Russia as a player in the region,” James Zogby, managing director of Zogby Research Services and president of the Arab American Institute, said during the presentation of the poll at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Russia gained in the power perception ratings despite its role in the Syrian war being seen negatively in most countries. Most respondents said they did not think peace in Syria was possible with Assad, Russia’s ally, staying in power.
Good ties with the United States were seen as more important than they were a year ago by most respondents. Turkey again was the outlier with 100% of those asked saying good relations with Washington were crucial.
“In almost every country the percentages of those who say it is important to have good relations with the United States and Russia are higher than they were in 2016,” Zogby said in a summary of the poll results.
Trump’s stance towards the Muslim world raised concerns in the region, the survey suggested. Most people polled in Egypt (55%) and pluralities in the Palestinian territories (44%) and Iran (39%) said changes under Trump had been negative.
“The policies of the new Trump administration towards any area of the Middle East are seen as positive only in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey,” Zogby said. “Egyptians and Palestinians are the most negatively inclined towards the Trump policies, with the attitudes of the Lebanese, Jordanians and Iraqis mixed. Egyptians and Turks are the most opposed to the Trump policy towards Iran.”
He added that strong majorities in almost all countries surveyed said they did not believe that Trump would achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Some perceptions of the US role in the region have roots that pre-date Trump’s election by many years, Zogby said, drawing attention to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I don’t think that anyone of us will be able to fathom the depth of the error of the Iraq war and what it did to the region and the consequences of basically weakening US standing” as well as the “unleashing of Iran,” he said.
Trump has made efforts to regain the trust of Gulf Arab countries and a staunchly anti-Iranian stance is the heart of his Middle East policy. He has vowed to solve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Unconfirmed media reports said Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy, is to soon present an outline of the administration’s peace initiative.
Trump caused outrage by retweeting three video clips of the right-wing UK group Britain First that purportedly showed violence by Islamist extremists. One of the clips, in which a dark-haired youth attacks a blonde teenager on crutches and which was presented as an attack by a Muslim migrant in the Netherlands, was exposed as fake by Dutch authorities. The Dutch Embassy in Washington said the violence took place between two teenagers who were born and raised in the Netherlands.
The other videos show a man in Islamic clothes smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary and an alleged Islamist mob killing a boy. The New York Times said the clips showed 4-year-old events from Syria and Egypt.
Arab-American and Muslim rights groups in the United States said Trump was, in effect, calling on his supporters to attack Muslims; the White House said the president was trying to draw attention to the importance of border security.
Another Zogby poll showed favourable opinions in the United States of Arabs have risen 7% since July. For Muslims, the increase is 9%, the Arab American Institute said in a statement announcing the poll’s December 5 publication.
“A majority of Americans also hold favourable opinions of both Arab Americans and American Muslims. These upticks are the result of a more positive attitude among Democrats and Independents in the face of an atmosphere of heightened xenophobia and documented increase in reported hate crimes,” the statement said.
Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.