As President Obama prepares to address Muslims around the world, questions about the mood and opinions of Arabs are surfacing. A new poll on attitudes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates shows that the election of President Obama is fueling hopes about U.S. Middle East policy. But it also reveals that most Arabs hold unfavorable views of the United States.
Attitudes in the Arab world toward the United States are still negative, according to the 2009 poll conducted by the University of Maryland with Zogby International.
Seventy-seven percent of those polled say the United States is the second-greatest threat after Israel, still an improvement compared to the 2008 poll. Forty-five percent of Arabs polled have a favorable view of President Obama.
University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami commissioned the survey.
"They like him. They are open to him. They are hopeful," he says. "The majority is expressing hopefulness toward American foreign policy since he has become the president, but that has not yet been translated into profound change in attitudes toward American foreign policy."
Arab-Israeli peace, troops in Iraq key issues
More than 4,000 people in six Arab states were canvassed in April and May. An overwhelming majority identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as a key issue, and 41 percent said a peace agreement brokered by Washington would change their view of the United States.
If American troops are withdrawn from Iraq by the year 2011, 51 percent said they will hold favorable views of the United States.
University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami says Muslims will base their opinion of the United States on U.S. policies
Telhami says, for Arabs, actions speak louder than words.
"In the end, they are going to judge on the basis of actions, and I think the president himself in his first interview with Al-Arabiya said, 'I know you are not going to judge me by what I say. In the end, you are going to judge me by what I do,' and I think the administration understands this."
The poll also inquired about which news networks Arabs watch, with Al Jazeera, funded by Qatar's government, coming out on top, and the U.S.-government-financed Alhurra finishing near the bottom.
However, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the U.S. agency that oversees Alhurra, says the Zogby poll gauges audience preference. But Letitia King says her agency measures audience reach, which shows the U.S. government channel reaches nearly 27 million people each week across the Middle East.
Obama's election inspires hope
Zogby International conducted a separate poll in the same Arab countries on President Obama's first 100 days in office.
In four of the countries - Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Lebanon - a majority said Barack Obama's election as president boosted their approval of the United States.
President Bush, by contrast, was disliked in the Arab world because of the Iraq invasion and the widely held view that his administration launched a war on Islam.
James Zogby, Arab American Institute president
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute and a senior analyst for Zogby International, headed by his brother, John Zogby. He says the polls indicate President Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq and build better relations with the Muslim world will likely improve U.S.-Arab ties.
"I think he already has begun to do that. The question is he has a little more work to do to continue to deliver on that, but banning torture and changing the direction already in terms of the rhetoric that has been used, his speech in Turkey, what he will do when he goes to Cairo, all of these things will contribute to that."
The unfavorable views of the United States are not based on religion or values but on U.S. policies in the Middle East, Zogby says the surveys show.
He says Arabs are expecting President Obama to address critical issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict during his upcoming address to Muslims around the world.