Arab Public Opinion on National Security and Foreign Intervention

The Arab League celebrated its 75th anniversary this year in the midst of regional politics that have never been more polarized, with continuous foreign intervention in Arab affairs. As a new administration prepares to take over in Washington, most Middle East-related analyses have focused on how regional leaders would react moving forward. The missing piece, however, is the people’s voice, the submerged public opinion on key issues related to Arab national security.

The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index offers insight on this question. It indicates that the Arab public has some similar attitudes toward perceived threats as its respective leaders, but it differs regarding how best to tackle them. On the question of what constitutes a threat to Arab individuals, the top three answers were drugs, terrorism, and external risks and interventions—even though there are profoundly pressing challenges facing the Arab world such as poverty and lack of basic rights for citizens. Three trends emerge that are worth observing in this poll when it comes to the Arab public’s perception of foreign powers.

1. Trump’s Impact on the US Image in the Arab World

Washington during the Trump Administration was caught in the web of a strong alignment with Israel and a belligerent approach toward Iran, which was reflected negatively in the polls. A combined total of 66 percent of respondents believe that the United States and Israel pose the biggest threat to Arabs’ national security (at 27 percent and 39 percent, respectively). This was partially driven by President Donald Trump’s absolute support of Israel, including the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, these trends might shift slightly if the Biden Administration restores some balance in US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The ongoing rivalry between Washington and Tehran in the Arab world is impacting public opinion in the region, with 58 percent of respondents holding equally negative views of US and Iranian policies, followed by 41 percent negative views of Russian policies and 42 percent negative views of Turkish policy in Libya.

2. The Arab Public Does Not Support an Alliance with Israel against Iran

For the past four years, there has been talk about how an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran would change regional dynamics and result in deterring Tehran. Arab public opinion, however, does not seem to agree fully with this premise. Israel topped the list of countries that pose a threat to the Arab world with an average of 23 percent, and 88 percent of the respondents disapprove of diplomatic recognition of Israel by their home countries. This applied across age groups in the region. Such opinions raise questions about the domestic challenges that might face the Arab-Israeli normalization process moving forward. The respondents’ unfavorable view toward recognizing Israel was at its highest in the Gulf region, including 65 percent in Saudi Arabia. Further, over three quarters of the Arab public agree that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs, and not the Palestinians alone.

3. A Similar Remedy to a Different Threat Assessment

As expected, the Arab public is not monolithic regarding views of threats to national security. In the Arab Mashreq, 46.5 percent of respondents believe that Israel poses the biggest threat, compared to 24.5 percent in the Nile Valley. The Gulf seems consumed with the Iranian threat and the distrust driving the intra-Gulf crisis. The Maghreb is the only part of the Arab world that does not perceive any prevailing major threats from outside the region, based on the findings of the Arab Opinion Index. The respondents of the Arab Maghreb were highest in their assessment of Israel as the country most threatening to the security of the Arab world, while respondents in the Arab Mashreq were the highest in assessing the United States as the greatest security threat.

Arab public attitudes regarding the intervention of foreign powers are broadly negative. When presented with a list of countries and asked if each country poses a threat to the security and stability of the region, 89 percent of Arabs responded that Israel poses a threat, 81 percent pointed to  the United States, 67 percent to Iran, 55 percent to Russia, and 44 percent to France.

Even though it presents different threat assessments of foreign powers depending on individual countries, the Arab Opinion Index reflects a public wary of foreign intervention. Sixty-six percent of respondents hold negative views of Russian and Iranian policies in Syria and 55 percent believe the rise of the Islamic State (IS) was the result of foreign intervention—even though this exonerates Arab regimes from partially paving the way for the rise of IS, directly or indirectly.

The major question facing the Arab world is how to address these threats, individually and collectively. Unlike their leaders and regimes that consider disunity and selective foreign intervention are the answer to these threats, the Arab public remains a believer in Arab unity, with 81 percent of respondents agreeing that Arabs form “a single nation.” Absent a minimal Arab national security strategy devised by regimes that reflect the will of their constituencies, the Arab public’s views on these critical issues might not matter in a practical way. However, they give an indication of the widening gap between Arab regimes and the citizens of their countries, on both domestic and foreign policies.