Washington Watch: Listening and Learning: Arab Opinion Matters (1-2)
I listened attentively to Syrian President Bashar al Assad's most recent speech in which he berated the Arab League's intervention to help stem the violence currently racking his country. Claiming that he was listening to his countrymen and speaking for them and that his regime was the standard-bearer of "Arabism,” al Assad denounced the League as not representing true Arab sentiment. For obvious reasons, we can't poll in Syria right now, but as the past ten months of mass protests and the unremitting and largely regime-sponsored violence have made clear, al Assad may speak for some, but certainly not all, Syrians.
While we are looking at the U.S., it too needs to listen better to Arab opinion. America's favorable ratings among Arabs, which were at dangerously low levels during the Bush Administration, got a boost from the change in policy expected by the election of Barack Obama. Three years later, U.S. favorable ratings are lower than they were in 2008, as Arabs see no change in how America relates to the issue they still see as central to their relationship with the West—that is, the unresolved matter of Palestinian freedom and dignity.
Israel, too, should listen, but given that country's hard-line direction, they have become increasingly tone deaf to Arab and world opinion. Our polls show that the Arab public still supports the Arab League's peace initiative for a two state solution, but a majority of Arabs in every country no longer believe that Israel has any interest in making peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu's behavior and U.S. acquiescence to Israel's policies are radicalizing Arab opinion creating a more dangerous and volatile environment with every passing day.
We have also polled in the two Arab countries where uprisings brought down governments, creating the possibility for change. But those who have been newly elected in Tunisia and Egypt must now pay attention to what the voices of their countrymen are saying. In both countries the number one concern is expanding employment. While Tunisians also want an expansion of democracy, and "increasing women's rights" is high up on their list of political priorities, Egyptians are more focused on the basic needs of life and "ending corruption.” The success or failure of these "revolutions" will be measured by their ability to meet the expectations that inspired them.
Listening to opinion is also critical for other governments in the region. In Saudi Arabia, for example, far and away the number one concern is the need to expand employment. With a "youth bulge" necessitating the creation of three million new jobs over the next decade, Saudis want to know that their children will be educated and find meaningful work in their country. And in our surveys of business leaders in the Gulf region we find a growing concern that opportunities be created to support private sector economic growth, so that small businesses can become the engine driving this needed job creation. Business leaders recognize that it is simply not a sustainable situation for the government to be the "employer of first resort" absorbing this growing work force. The private sector must be involved.
As I explain in my recent book "Arab Voices: What they Are Saying to Us and Why It Matters" and now in my NYU course, Arab opinion matters. It clearly matters to the West which has long ignored Arab sentiment. But the views of the public matter within the region as well. The sooner leaders, East and West, listen and learn, the sooner real change can occur.
By Dr. James J. Zogby, 20/01/2012