The new Arab News/YouGov poll on US perceptions of the current dispute between Qatar and some of its Arab neighbors is both interesting and complex.
Interpreted properly, credible opinion polling is a highly valuable tool for understanding the reality of popular positions and their underlying causes.
For example, the repeat polling in Egypt that revealed how rapidly support for the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Muslim Brotherhood fell off a cliff between early 2012 and 2013 — and why it did so — told those who were prepared to listen something very important about the fragility of their position. The fact that the Brotherhood members themselves failed to understand this — and their external sympathizers refused to believe it — also told us something important about the power of wishful thinking.
So what does this poll tell us about US attitudes to the various actors in this current dispute? To give a properly considered answer to this question, of course, I would need to study the data and methodology in more detail. But my initial reactions are as follows. First, there is a surprising level of awareness of the core problem — security, stability and counter-terrorism. This has been widely covered in the serious US press — the New York Times, the Washington Post and so forth. But their readerships tend to be elite and liberal. The poll suggests that anyone who follows the news has a relatively high level of awareness not just of the dispute but of wider factors including Syria and Iraq. And that in turn suggests that the Middle East is becoming a more pressing concern for a significant number of Americans.
That is perhaps hardly surprising given the viciousness and persistence of armed conflict in the region. But it shows a relatively high level of sophistication to link these conflicts to wider political disputes between individual states over the future of the region. And it is here that we see perhaps the most interesting point. There is a high level of support for the view that Egypt and the UAE are friends of the US. Saudi Arabia has ground to make up here, which is an important policy point for decision-makers in Riyadh: Reputation matters in the modern world and you do not improve that without a smart, targeted and sustained communications strategy. But Qatar comes off worst, with strongly negative views associated with the country over issues such as terror financing and Al Jazeera’s news reporting. Qatar’s humanitarian, educational and development efforts are unrecognized. That is almost certainly not the case in parts of the wider Middle East: Qatar has long been a generous donor to Gaza, for example.
But even here simply spending money doesn’t guarantee popularity. In Libya, as I witnessed at first hand in 2011, if people think you are spending money to buy their affections while seeking to manipulate the political situation to advance your own interests and those of selected clients, it will not end well. And in spite of efforts over the last decade or so to persuade people that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are both distinct from and more acceptable than Al-Qaeda and Daesh — often on the grounds that they are committed to an Islamist version of the democratic process and the nation state — a high plurality of the respondents to the poll remain rightly suspicious of them.
That represents a failure of the project to frame them as essential participants in any future political-security dispensation in a reconstructed Arab Middle East and North Africa. The same applies to the Taliban in Afghanistan. That should give pause to those who think that various forms of political Islamism — all of them with at least a contextual willingness to deploy tactical violence to achieve their aims — need to be reintegrated into national political processes without any fundamental change in their approach.
And it points to something that Karl Popper, the distinguished defender of open societies against their totalitarian enemies, made clear over half a century ago: Wisdom is not the preserve of elites. It emerges in the collective attitudes and decisions of ordinary people, their instincts and their common sense. We have seen that in various forms in Egypt, in Libya, in Tunisia, in Iraq and in the Gulf over the last seven years. You can’t buy that. And you shouldn’t want to.
— Sir John Jenkins is Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain. He is also a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Until January 2015, he was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He was also the Benghazi-based British Special Representative to the National Transitional Council and later ambassador to Libya during the 2011 revolution, ambassador to Iraq, Syria and Burma and consul-general in Jerusalem. In a 35-year career in the British diplomatic service, he also lived and worked in Kuwait, the UAE and Malaysia. He was director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Foreign Office in London from 2007-2009.