By Jim Lobe
U.S. and Israeli hopes of forging of a Sunni Arab alliance to contain Iran and its regional allies may be misplaced, at least at the popular level, according to a major survey of six Arab countries released last week.
The face-to-face survey of a total of 3,850 respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates found that close to 80 percent of Arabs consider Israel and the United States the two biggest external threats to their security. Only six percent cited Iran.
And less than one in four Arabs believe Iran should be pressured to halt its nuclear programme, while 61 percent, including majorities in all six countries, said Tehran had the right to pursue it even if, as most believe, the programme is designed to develop nuclear weapons.
The poll, the fifth in an annual series conducted by Zogby International and designed by Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, was carried out in November and early December -- after last summer's war between Lebanon's Hezbollah and Israel, but just before the controversial execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The latter event has widened the divide between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims throughout the region, according to some reports, and played into recent efforts by the U.S. to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and Sunni-led Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf sheikhdoms, to contain what they see growing Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.
But Telhami, who will present his findings at a major Brookings-sponsored conference of Islamic leaders in Doha this week, said he doubts these sectarian tensions are changing basic attitudes among the general public on key regional issues in the countries covered in the survey, with the exception of Lebanon.
"The public of the Arab world is not looking at the important issues through the Sunni-Shi'a divide," he said. "They see them rather through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian issues and anger with U.S. policy (in the region). Most Sunni Arabs take the side of the Shi'as on the important issues."
Indeed, the survey strongly suggests that the U.S., whose image in the Arab world has fallen to an all-time low over the past year according to this and other recent polling, faces a steep uphill battle in rallying Arab public opinion behind it on critical regional questions.
More than three out of four of all respondents described their attitudes towards Washington as either "somewhat" (21 percent) or "very" (57 percent) unfavorable. Negative feelings were strongest in the three monarchies: Jordan, where 90 percent of respondents described their views as unfavorable, Morocco (87 percent), and Saudi Arabia (82 percent).