BOSTON — A new public opinion poll in the Arab Gulf region reminds us again of a cardinal truth about political realities in the Arab region: make sure to listen to what ordinary people feel, more than you listen to what local or foreign governments say.
I was reminded of this while reading the results of a public opinion poll of citizens in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman, by Justin Gengler, professor and head of the Policy Department at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) at Qatar University, and colleagues at the University of Michigan. They sought the public’s views on the leading security threats they perceived, with a special interest in whether citizens viewed Iran as their major security concern and threat — as the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) say is the case.
As Gengler noted in an important article in Foreign Affairs a few days ago (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/persian-gulf/2017-10-02/how-gulf-citizens-view-iran), the results show that, “Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program is today but one of several competing state and non-state threats to Gulf national security: also figuring in are the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Sunni-dominated terrorist organizations; economic stagnation due to low oil prices; and, from the standpoint of some, continued foreign intrusion by the United States and other Western governments.”
Their survey of five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (the UAE did not participate) interviewed more than 4,000 citizens aged 18 and older. The results were important, but not surprising for people who pay attention to ordinary citizen sentiments in the Arab world.
First, they revealed widely varied orientations toward individual security challenges among the five states, alongside differing feelings of security versus insecurity. For example, 46 percent of Omanis said that no country poses a challenge to their stability and security, while 22 percent of Qataris and just two percent of Kuwaitis felt no security threats from other states (no surprise, given Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait decades ago and the current siege and regime change attempts against Qatar by the Saudis and Emiratis).
More significantly perhaps was the finding that, “Iran all but disappears from the picture” when Gulf citizens are asked about threats from transnational terrorism, Western interference, and economic crisis. A majority of all respondents (53-68 percent) except in Bahrain saw terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda as their leading security threat. Iran placed a distant second in Qatar and Kuwait (23 and 21 percent of respondents identified it as their top security concern). Iran took third place in Oman (just15 percent of respondents), where second place was economic issues due to the oil price collapse. In Saudi Arabia, terrorism tops citizen concerns, and Iran comes in second place (25 percent).
Second, I would add, this poll is important for reminding us that the intense anti-Iranian campaigns by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and the US government seem to reflect very narrow political concerns or manipulative ambitions, more than they reflect the human realities or sentiments of people on the ground in the Gulf and the wider Arab region. Thousands of businesses and families in Arab Gulf states have significant commercial or personal links with Iran (including Emiratis and Saudis whose governments trash Iran daily). Such structural human and economic links suggest that Iranians and Gulf Arabs know each other and viscerally understand the importance of maintaining good neighborly relations in all fields of life, for their collective well-being.
Third, the past four decades in the Middle East reflect the catastrophe we have all suffered by basing policies mainly on Arab-Israeli-American government views, without sufficiently taking into consideration the sentiments of ordinary people on the ground in these countries. The Saudi-Emirati-Israeli-American government view of Iran as a dangerous hegemonic threat to the entire Middle East and the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism seems at great odds with the more nuanced views of the people of the Arab Gulf region, who see any threats from Iran within the context of other more pressing, actual, constraints and fears in their lives.
The last four decades have witnessed a slow fraying of Arab state control and legitimacy, and diffusion of sovereignty and power among assorted non-state actors that now often drive history. We are stupid indeed to keep following the violent, fear-laden hysteria policies of governments in assorted Middle Eastern and Western states, and ignore the sentiments and aspirations of ordinary men and women who increasingly shape our societies and their historical arcs. If we persist in this course, we will expand the catastrophes all around us to new heights of reckless irresponsibility by criminal governance.
So this is a timely reminder that we should pay attention to the credible pollsters and analysts who help us hear the views of those ordinary citizens who have been ignored for so long in the Middle East. Those citizens’ views will shape our world to come, or bury us and our children before our time has come.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 04 October 2017
Word Count: 828
For rights and permissions, contact:
firstname.lastname@example.org, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.212.731.0757
Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for Le Monde diplomatique, and The Washington Spectator, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Rami G. Khouri and Immanuel Wallerstein.