Americans are ambivalent towards Israel-Gulf normalisation

Krishna Sharma

Krishna Sharma

Only half of Americans think Israel is an ally of the United States, and that number drops to 28 percent for the United Arab Emirates, 24 percent for Saudi Arabia, 18 percent for Qatar, and 14 percent for Palestine, according to a new survey of 2,059 adults in the US conducted on September 9-10.

While majorities or pluralities of Americans say these Middle Eastern countries are neutral towards the US, smaller percentages say they are enemies: 32 percent for Palestine, 31 percent for Saudi Arabia, 22 percent for Qatar, 20 percent for the UAE, and 16 percent for Israel – The word “country” is used flexibly, as Palestine is currently neither sovereign nor free.

The survey, which we – two academics at Northwestern University in Qatar – commissioned from The Harris Poll, has implications for the five countries, all eager to advance their regional interests by strengthening their ties with the US. The results also have implications for US President Donald Trump, who in the last stretch of his re-election campaign, is touting the normalisation agreements the UAE and Bahrain recently signed with Israel as major diplomatic breakthroughs – the data for the survey were collected soon after the UAE-Israel deal was announced, but before a deal between Bahrain and Israel was reported. Moreover, the survey serves as a report card for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE’s well-funded public relations and lobbying operations in the US vying for public support, auspicious policies and arms deals.

Middle Eastern countries seen as ‘neutral towards the US’

According to our data, despite still not being considered an “ally” by the majority of Americans, Saudi Arabia has had some success in improving its rating in the US in the past year.

In our survey, we presented the respondents with the specific question: “Do you consider each of the following an ally, an enemy, or neutral toward the United States?”, followed by the five countries listed in random order. In September 2019, the Harvard Harris Poll posed the same question to 2,009 registered American voters for a different set of countries that also included Saudi Arabia. In that poll, 41 percent of respondents said Saudi Arabia is an “enemy” of the US, compared with just 31 percent in our poll.

The 2019 Harvard Harris poll also asked about Russia and China, and 63 percent and 51 percent of respondents, respectively, said those nations are enemies of the US, so the five Middle Eastern countries fielded in our survey can take heart that their grades could be worse.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement for all five countries, particularly given how many Americans said they perceive these countries as “neutral” towards the US.

Fifty-nine percent of Americans, for example, said Qatar is “neutral” towards the US, which is remarkable given the state has hosted a forward headquarters of US Central Command, the US’s largest military installation in the Middle East, for 17 years. Qatar is also hosting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with US representation attending.

Americans largely ambivalent towards the Gulf, Israel-Palestine

While all five countries claim to be friends of the US, their relationships with each other are complex. Israel has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for more than 70 years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since 2017 maintained a blockade against Qatar, partly because Qatar has a positive relationship with their main regional rival, Iran – though the UAE trades with Iran far more than Qatar does. Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim to support Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, but by moving to normalise their relations with Israel the two Gulf states also appear to tacitly endorse Israel’s occupation.

For its part, Qatar supports Palestine, possibly more so than any other Gulf country, and sends critical financial aid and supplies to Palestinians living under an Israeli blockade in Gaza. Qatar does not have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and said it will not take steps towards normalisation until the Palestinian conflict is resolved.

Israel is eager to establish diplomatic ties with Arab countries beyond Egypt and Jordan – with which it signed deals in 1979 and 1994, respectively – partly to strengthen its international standing, partly for financial gain, and partly to distract from its occupation of Palestine and the corruption scandals Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently facing.

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