WASHINGTON, D.C. -- President Barack Obama may find audiences in many Arab countries more willing to listen when he addresses the Muslim world Thursday from Cairo, Egypt. New Gallup Polls conducted in 11 Arab countries show that although approval of U.S. leadership remains generally low, ratings are up in 8 countries including Egypt.
Throughout much of President George W. Bush's second term, Gallup found U.S. leadership approval ratings in many Arab countries at times in the single digits and among the lowest in the world. Declines in approval were evident in several Arab countries over time, and in some nations, Egypt in particular, views soured significantly toward the end of Bush's term.
Surveys conducted roughly two months into Obama's presidency show median approval of U.S. leadership across the 11 Arab countries surveyed at 25%, ranging from a low of 7% in the Palestinian Territories to a high of 56% in Mauritania.
In eight Arab countries, including Egypt, Gallup recorded double-digit increases in approval from the last measurements of Bush's term. These upsurges, which ranged from 11 percentage points in Syria to 23 points in Tunisia, may reflect positive reception to Obama and his administration's public outreach to the Muslim world. The president's overtures toward pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq and closing Guantanamo Bay prison, two actions that respondents in previous Gallup surveys said could help improve the United States' image, also may have resonated with residents.
While approval is up in a number of countries, it is important to note that considerable numbers of respondents appear to be reserving their judgment or just didn't know enough about the new leadership in the United States to express an opinion. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, the percentage of respondents answering "don't know/refused" increased at least twofold.
Palestinians More Disapproving Than Before
Approval ratings took a negative turn in the Palestinian Territories, dropping from 13% to 7%. Perhaps related to Obama's silence during Israel's attacks on Gaza shortly before he took office, Palestinians grew more uncertain about the leadership of the United States between 2008 and 2009. Disapproval of U.S. leadership during this period remained steady at about 80%, but the percentages of Palestinians who did not have an opinion doubled from 6% to 12%. It's important to note that when Gallup asked Palestinians in 2008 whether it would make a difference who was elected president of the United States, a substantial majority (72%) said it would not.
In two other Arab countries surveyed, Yemen and Lebanon, approval ratings in 2009 didn't change significantly from ratings in 2008.
Gallup Polls show that Obama will deliver his message Thursday with an arguably stronger basis of support than his predecessor ever had in many Arab countries. Nonetheless, approval remains low and underscores the work that remains as Obama seeks to pave a new, more positive way forward. Given the higher percentages of people in many Arab countries who do not have an opinion about U.S. leadership, Gallup surveys later this year in these same countries may provide a clearer picture of public opinion about the administration and its efforts to move relations forward.
In addition to policy decisions on matters of concern to the Arab world, Obama's Mideast policy will continue to figure prominently in future relations. The administration's reaction to Israel's shifts in rhetoric on the negotiation of a two-state solution will likely have a bearing on future views of U.S. leadership.
Results are based on face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in February and March 2009 in Egypt, the Palestinian Territories, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Yemen, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Non-Arabs were excluded from the sample in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait; samples in these countries are nationally representative of Arab adults. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error ranged from a low of ±3.3 percentage points in Tunisia to a high of ±3.8 percentage points in Yemen. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.