How opinion polls are challenging the image Arab leaders like to project

Several recent public opinion polls send a mixed message to autocratic reformers in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which hosts this year’s World Cup in less than two months.

Surveys reveal conflicting attitudes among young Arabs toward religion as well as a widespread rejection of notions of moderate Islam and formal diplomatic relations with Israel.

A survey, published this week by Dubai-based PR agency ASDA’A BCW, found that 41% of 3,400 young Arabs aged 18-24 in 17 Arab countries said religion was the most important to their identity, with nationality, family, and/or tribe, Arab heritage and gender far behind.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to renovate centuries-old mosques dating back to the time of the Holy Prophet

That’s 7% more than those polled in the agency’s 2021 poll.

More than half of respondents, 56%, said their country’s legal system should be based on Sharia or Islamic law.

Seventy percent expressed concern about the loss of traditional values ​​and culture. Sixty-five percent said preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.

Yet, paradoxically, 73% believe that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77% believe that Arab religious institutions need to be reformed.

Autocratic Arab reformers will be encouraged by the unease with the role of religion and the skepticism toward religious authority that has been nurtured by past polls by ASDA’A BCW, which has conducted the poll annually for the past 14 last years.

Even so, the emphasis on religion as a central pillar of identity, concern for traditional values ​​and culture, and appeal to Islamic law cast a shadow over the social reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed. bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and President Mohammed bin Zayed in the UAE.

Additionally, the poll results were released as Qatar debated how to handle potential World Cup fan behavior that violates Qatari law and mores, such as public intoxication and expressions of affection. , premarital sex and sexual diversity.

Qatar has suggested that World Cup fans caught committing petty offenses such as public drunkenness will escape prosecution under plans being drawn up by authorities.

While Saudi Arabia’s break with the religious ultra-conservatism that has long been the kingdom’s hallmark was staggering, reforms in the UAE have been most sweeping in their break with Islamic law which constitutionally constitutes the main source of country law.

Read more: Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030: A Strategic Plan

Mr Bin Salman’s reforms have severely curtailed the authority of the religious police, lifted the kingdom’s ban on women driving, improved women’s rights and opportunities, eased gender segregation and introduced style entertainment Western – all measures that are essentially uncontroversial in much of the world. Muslim world but went against the current of the ultra-conservative fringe of the population and the clergy of the kingdom.

The same cannot be said for Mr Bin Zayed’s equally sweeping changes which decriminalized extramarital sex and alcohol consumption for UAE nationals and foreigners and lifted the ban on living together for unmarried couples.

Mr Bin Zayed’s reforms are expected to persuade some fans to move to the United Arab Emirates during the World Cup and travel for matches to Qatar, which is more socially restrictive.

Even so, the ASDA’A BCW survey suggests that the reforms in the kingdom and the Emirates may not have been greeted with as much enthusiasm by a significant portion of the youth as the two countries would have us believe. public opinion.

Separate surveys by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed that 59% of respondents in the United Arab Emirates, 58% in Saudi Arabia and 74% in Egypt disagreed that “we should listen to those of us who try to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant and modern way.

Youth’s quest for religion and traditionalism clashes with young people’s attitudes toward democracy and diplomatic relations with Israel.

Autocratic leaders will likely be encouraged by the fact that a whopping 82% of ASDA’s BCW respondents said stability was more important than democracy.

Two-thirds thought democracy would never work in the Middle East

Three quarters saw China, followed by Turkey and Russia as their allies, compared to only 63% of the United States and 12% of Israel. Even so, they saw the United States as having the most influence in the Middle East, but a majority favored American disengagement.

Read more: WATCH: Fashion show to promote local fashion held in Saudi Arabia

However, the United States and Europe continue to be the preferred destinations for 45% of respondents seeking to emigrate.

However, despite widespread skepticism about democracy, leaders will also have noted that 60% expressed concern about the increased role of government in their lives.

The establishment two years ago of diplomatic relations with Israel by four countries included in the ASDA’A BCW survey – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – and the fact that Saudi Arabia has become more public opinion about its relations with the Jewish state and its desire to establish diplomatic relations once a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is found has likely shaped the responses in the polls.

Aware of public hesitation, Saudi Arabia, together with the Arab League and the European Union, convened a meeting in New York this week on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to explore ways to dust off the plan. Saudi-inspired Arab peace treaty of 1982.

The plan offered Israeli recognition and diplomatic ties in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.

The path to follow

For his part, Yair Lapid voiced his support for a two-state solution in his speech to the assembly. It was the first time Mr Lapid had backed two states since becoming prime minister and the first time since 2017 that an Israeli prime minister had come out in favor of a Palestinian state.

Still, only 14% of Egyptians polled in Washington Institute polls viewed their country’s 43-year-old peace treaty with Israel and the more recent establishment of diplomatic ties with the Jewish state as positive. United Arab Emirates and others.

Unlike the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, where businessmen, tourists and Israeli residents have been welcomed, ononly 11% of Egyptians surveyed were in favor normalization of interpersonal relationships.

Similarly, 57% of Saudis polled by the institute oppose the normalization of the kingdom’s relations with Israel. Yet a higher percentage in the kingdom and the UAE than in Egypt, 42%, agreed that “people who want to have business or sporting contact with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

Read more: Saudi Arabia – Next mega player in international sport?

In short, the message is that autocratic reformers seem to have an edge over significant segments of their population, even though public attitudes may be contradictory.

For now, keeping the veil on free speech and dissent helps them maintain their grip, but casts a shadow and doubt on the image they strive to project.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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