Poll shows better image for Russia in the Middle East as US standing erodes

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.