How Arab publics are reacting to Gaza
Plus, dig in to the 17th edition of the MENA Academy Weekly Roundup!
It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Arab public opinion has been sharply focused on the Israeli war on Gaza, and that Arab leaders (who, as is their way, care significantly less) have been carefully maneuvering around the passionate preferences of their people. We haven’t seen any of the Abraham Accords states actually retract their normalization agreements with Israel, or any Arab government seriously threatened by popular mobilization. But there’s no doubt that MENA regimes are trying hard to position themselves in ways that indicate support for Palestinians (i.e. Jordan supporting the South African ICJ case, the UAE pushing for UN resolutions at the Security Council) and to hide from public signs of cooperation with Israel (i.e. the limited Arab participation in the Red Sea mission).
While the Arab media has been filled with coverage of Gaza and the West Bank, and there have been plenty of large-scale public demonstrations, we haven’t had a lot of quantifiable measurements of Arab public opinion. The Arab Barometer, notably, was fortunate to have been in the field in multiple countries on October 7, allowing their survey teams to identify changes in attitudes after the war broke out (see their important articles in Foreign Affairs about Palestinian and Tunisian public opinion). Khalil Shikaki’s PCPSR has continued to do critically important work regular surveys on Palestinian opinion. Now, we have a fascinating new survey conducted by the Doha Institute’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Arabic only, for now) which surveys about 8000 people across 16 Arab countries as part of their regular series of polling of Arab public opinion.
The findings are very much worth attention, with all the usual caveats about survey work in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes and cascading conflicts. For one, the survey shows the intense identification Arabs continue to have with Palestine: 59% say that they are following the news from Gaza every day, while only 13% say that they don’t follow it or follow it only rarely, and 97% say that they are experiencing psychological pressure from the war. I wish they broke down news sources here - I expect that al-Jazeera is once again by far the dominant news source across much of the Arab world, despite all of its struggles during the post-2011 era; and I would love to know which social media platforms have most thrived during the conflict. It isn’t American media, most likely: 82% see American media as biased towards Israel, while only 7% see it as neutral and professional.
Arab respondents don’t really seem to have a consensus view on why Hamas launched the war, but they mostly think the causes are local: 48% say that the main or second most important reason is Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine, and 45% say the first or second most important reason was the defense of al-Aqsa (Jerusalem). Contrary to popular Washington views, only 4% think Hamas acted in pursuit of a foreign agenda such as Iran’s and only 5% think it was a response to Arab normalization with Israel.
What about the October 7 attack itself and views of Hamas? 67% think the October 7 attack was a legitimate act of resistance to Israeli occupation and 19% say it was legitimate but with some mistakes; only 5% say it was illegitimate. 69% say that since the war began they support the people of Gaza and Hamas, while 23% support the people of Gaza but oppose Hamas; 67% say that Hamas is totally different from the Islamic State and only 3% say there is no difference.
It will come as little surprise that 94% view the policies of the United States towards the war in Gaza as bad or very bad, while 81% think the US is insincere about supporting the two state solution. Whatever the Biden administration thinks it is doing with its messaging, I promise you that it is not working in the Arab world. Other Western countries don’t fare much better, while Russia and China get about 40% approval. No state has a majority positive view, but Iran’s policy is viewed as good or very good by 49% and Turkey’s by 47%. I wish they had asked about Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE but I’m guessing that question wouldn’t be polite in an era of Gulf reconciliation. Oh, and about the Abraham Accords: 89% reject recognizing Israel, while 4% support it.
You can find the press release in Arabic and a summary in English here.
And now, it’s time for the MENA Academy Weekly Roundup #17, with my regular spotlight on recent academic journal articles about the Middle East and North Africa. This week, we have an experimental design on the potential for cooperation among refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, an analysis of the new patterns of alliances and regional politics post-2011, and an examination of infrastructure projects in Jordan and normalization with Israel. We also have a fascinating overview of the evolution of Gulf studies in India, in a very recently launched journal dedicated to transregional and interdisciplinary studies of the Gulf. Full articles and links below!
Daniel Masterson, “Refugee Networks, Cooperation, and Resource Access,” American Political Science Review (published online 13 November 2023). ABSTRACT: Without formal avenues for claims-making or political participation, refugees must find their own means of securing services from state and non-state providers. This article asks why some refugee communities are more effective than others in mitigating community problems. I present a framework for understanding how refugees’ social networks shape the constraints and capabilities for collective action. I analyze a field experiment where I organized community meetings with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, randomly assigning the recruitment method for meetings to introduce exogenous variation in network structure. During meetings, participants were tasked with resolving collective action problems. I examine the dynamics of subsequent group discussion. Results show that although densely networked refugee groups exhibit more cooperation, they suffer from a resource diversity disadvantage. Group diversity facilitates access to resources that may help refugee communities confront community problems. The novel experimental design allows for separately identifying group-level and individual-level mechanisms.
Raffaella Del Sarto and Eduard Soler i Lecha, “Regionalism and Alliances in the Middle East, 2011-2021: From a “Flash in the Pan” of Regional Cooperation to Liquid Alliances,” Geopolitics (5 January 2024). ABSTRACT: This article addresses the shifting patterns of regionalism and alliance formation in the Middle East in the decade following the 2011 Arab uprisings. It seeks to explain why regional organizations, most notably the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, failed to advance any durable regional cooperation, in spite of an initial period of bold activism. Second, the article seeks to shed light on why government-driven, informal and instable regional alignments that also include non-Arab parties and non-state actors came to prevail instead. Our approach draws on Stephan Walt’s concept of the balance of threats; we posit however that this concept needs to integrate a liberal-constructivist perspective to assess both the nature of threats and the significance of domestic factors. While we consider the Arab uprisings a potential turning point, our explanation of the patterns of cooperation and conflict in the Middle East after the uprisings points to regime (in)security and shifting threat perceptions as key factors. They explain the side-lining of established regional organizations and the priority given to alternative and volatile forms of regional cooperation, that is, the prevalence of “liquid alliances.”
Benjamin Schuetze, “‘Seizing the Moment’: Arab-Israeli normalization, infrastructure as a means to bypass politics and the promotion of an Israeli-Jordanian transit trade-route,” Geopolitics (January 2024). ABSTRACT: This article explores efforts at Arab-Israeli normalisation in Jordan. By mid-2011 the escalating violence in Syria had closed the overland trade route connecting Europe and the Arab Gulf. Despite the emergence of an alternative route via the Suez Canal, several (inter)national NGOs have since attempted to establish a transit trade route via Israel and Jordan. Due to the non-public nature of most attempts at normalisation, research on the topic is rarely empirically grounded. Exploring what happens when trade routes stop, this article offers an empirically-grounded discussion of attempts at normalisation via infrastructure as a means to bypass politics. It argues that such efforts are part of a deeply political project aimed at the selective regional integration of Israel, premised on the reinforcement of existing and the creation of new forms of violent containment. It explains infrastructure’s popularity in efforts at normalisation by focusing on its spatial, temporal and material duality.
M.H. Ilias and A.K. Ramakrishan, “Gulf Studies in India: Reimagining the Region,” Journal of Gulf Studies (January 2024). ABSTRACT: This work makes a detailed enquiry into the origin, growth and spread of Gulf studies as an academic discipline in India, which in its customary frame is profoundly grounded in the European and the Northern American experiences of dealing with the region. The question, how did/does the study of the Gulf region in India differ in terms of its focus and motivation has been addressed through a detailed survey of institutions, scholars and literature that broadly represent the Gulf studies in the country. The enquiry begins with pioneering institutions and their decolonial motivations and aspirations in establishing a tradition of area studies completely or partly independent of similar institutions in the West. Gulf studies in India now travels along a new direction in the context of a growing synergy between India and the Gulf states as both the regions share considerable symmetry in the perception of regional and global economic and political issues. The contemporary initiatives suggest an alternative way of understanding the region, its economy, geography, politics, people and cultures. The work makes an overview of the Gulf studies in India covering major institutions which promote Gulf studies, individual scholars engaged in the study of the region and seminal interventions by the people from the academic institutions, think tanks and the press.
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