America Is Losing the Arab World

And China Is Reaping the Benefits

October 7, 2023, was a watershed moment not just for Israel but for the Arab world. Hamas’s horrific attack occurred just as a new order appeared to be emerging in the region. Three years earlier, four members of the Arab League—Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—had launched processes to normalize their diplomatic relations with Israel. As the summer of 2023 drew to a close, the most important Arab country that still did not recognize Israel, Saudi Arabia, looked poised to do so, too.

Hamas’s assault and Israel’s subsequent devastating military operation in Gaza have curtailed this march toward normalization. Saudi Arabia has stated that it will not proceed with a normalization deal until Israel takes clear steps to facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state. Jordan recalled its ambassador to Israel in November 2023, and a visit to Morocco by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned for late 2023 never materialized. Arab leaders have watched warily as their citizens have grown vocally opposed to the war in Gaza. In many Arab countries, thousands have turned out to protest Israel’s war and the humanitarian crisis it has produced. Protesters in Jordan and Morocco have also called for an end to their countries’ respective peace treaties with Israel, voicing frustration that their governments are not listening to the people.

October 7 may turn out to be a watershed moment for the United States, too. Because of the war in Gaza, Arab public opinion has turned sharply against Israel’s staunchest ally, the United States—a development that could confound U.S. efforts not only to help resolve the crisis in Gaza but also to contain Iran and push back against China’s growing influence in the Middle East. Since 2006, Arab Barometer, the nonpartisan research organization we run, has conducted biannual nationally representative opinion surveys in 16 Arab countries, capturing ordinary citizens’ views in a region that has little opinion polling. After the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq, other polls consistently found that few ordinary Arab citizens held positive views of the United States. By 2022, however, their attitudes had improved somewhat, with at least a third of respondents in nearly all countries Arab Barometer surveyed affirming that they held “a very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” opinion of the United States.

But surveys we conducted in five countries in late 2023 and early 2024 show that the United States’ standing among Arab citizens has declined dramatically. A poll in Tunisia conducted partially before and partially after October 7 strongly suggested that this shift occurred in response to the events in Gaza. Perhaps even more surprising, the surveys also made it clear that the United States’ loss has been China’s gain. Arab citizens’ views of China have warmed in our recent surveys, reversing a half-decade trend of weakening support for China in the Arab world. When asked if China has undertaken serious efforts to protect Palestinian rights, however, few respondents agreed. This result suggests that Arab views reflect a profound dissatisfaction with the United States rather than specific support for Chinese policies toward Gaza.

In the coming months and years, U.S. leaders will seek to end the conflict in Gaza and initiate negotiations toward a permanent settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States also hopes to safeguard the international economy by protecting the Red Sea from attacks by Iranian proxies and to cement a regional alliance that contains Iranian aggression and limits Chinese engagement in the region. To achieve any of these goals, however, Washington needs the partnership of Arab states, something that will be harder to get if Arab populations remain so skeptical of U.S. aims in the Middle East.

Since October 7, Arab public opinion has turned sharply against the United States.
U.S. analysts and politicians often imply that what they sometimes dismissively call “the Arab street” should be of little concern to American foreign policy. Because most Arab leaders are authoritarian, the argument goes, they do not care much about public opinion, and U.S. policymakers should therefore prioritize making deals with powerbrokers over winning the hearts and minds of Arab citizens. In general, however, the notion that Arab leaders are not constrained by public opinion is a myth. The Arab Spring uprisings toppled governments in four countries, and widespread protests in 2019 led to changes in leadership in four other Arab countries. Authoritarians, too, must consider the views of the people they govern. Few Arab leaders now want to be seen openly cooperating with Washington, given the sharp rise in anti-American sentiment among the populations they rule. Arab citizens’ anger at U.S. foreign policy could also have serious direct consequences for the United States. Our prior research based on data from opinion surveys in Algeria and Jordan has demonstrated that anger at U.S. foreign policy can cause citizens to have greater sympathy for acts of terror directed at the United States.

Some Arab Barometer findings, however, also reveal that Arabs’ growing skepticism about the United States’ role in the Middle East is not irreversible. Variations in opinion between publics in countries that the United States has treated differently indicate that the United States can change the way it is perceived in the Arab world by changing its policies. The survey results also suggest specific shifts in approach that would likely improve Arabs’ perceptions of the United States, including pushing harder for a cease-fire in Gaza, increasing U.S. humanitarian assistance to the territory and the rest of the region, and, in the longer term, working for a two-state solution. Ultimately, to win the trust of Arab citizens in the Middle East, the United States must show the same care for the suffering of the Palestinians that it does for that of the Israelis.

Each Arab Barometer survey polls over 1,200 respondents and is conducted in person in the respondent’s place of residence. These surveys question respondents on their views on a wide array of topics, including economic and religious issues, views of their governments, political participation, women’s rights, the environment, and international affairs. Since October 7, Arab Barometer has completed surveys in five diverse Arab countries: Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, and Morocco.

Because Arab Barometer’s previous round of surveys in these countries was conducted between 2021 and 2022, factors other than the war in Gaza may have contributed to changes in public opinion between then and now. One additional poll, however, happened to provide an invaluable benchmark, allowing us to deduce that certain key shifts in opinion probably occurred much more recently. Between September 13 and November 4, 2023, we conducted a scheduled survey in Tunisia involving 2,406 interviews. About half these interviews were conducted before October 7 and about half afterward. To understand how Tunisians’ views changed after October 7, we calculated the average responses during the three weeks before Hamas’s attack and then tracked daily changes in the weeks that followed—finding a swift, sharp drop in the percentage of respondents who held favorable views of the United States. The results in most other countries we surveyed in 2021–22 and after October 7 followed a similar pattern: in all but one, views of the United States also declined markedly.

Despite the horror of Hamas’s attack, few Arab Barometer respondents agreed that it ought to be called a “terrorist act.” By contrast, the vast majority agreed that Israel’s campaign in Gaza ought to be classified as terrorism. For the most part, Arab citizens surveyed after October 7 assessed the situation in Gaza as dire. When asked which of seven words, including “war,” “hostilities,” “massacre,” and “genocide,” best described the ongoing events in Gaza, the most common term respondents chose in all but one country was “genocide.” Only in Morocco did a substantial number of respondents—24 percent—call those events a “war,” about the same percentage of Moroccans that called it a “massacre.” Everywhere else, less than 15 percent of respondents chose “war” to characterize what was happening in Gaza.

Furthermore, Arab Barometer surveys found that Arab citizens do not believe that Western actors are standing up for Gazans. Our survey asked, “Among the following parties, which do you believe is committed to defending Palestinian rights?” and allowed respondents to select all that applied from a list of ten countries, the European Union, and the United Nations. No more than 17 percent of respondents in any country agreed that the United Nations is standing up for Palestinian rights. The European Union fared worse, but the United States received the lowest marks: eight percent of respondents in Kuwait, six percent in Morocco and Lebanon, five percent in Mauritania, and two percent in Jordan agreed that it stood up for Palestinians. The results for the United States diverged even more from those of other Western and global actors on the question of protecting Israel. When asked whether the United States was protecting Israeli rights, more than 60 percent of respondents in all five countries agreed that it was doing so. These percentages far exceed the percentages of respondents who agreed that the European Union or the United Nations is protecting Israel.

These perceptions in the Arab world about Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and about the United States’ approach to it, appear to have had major consequences for the United States’ overall reputation. In nine of the ten countries in which Arab Barometer asked about U.S. favorability in 2021, at least a third of all respondents said that they held a favorable view of the United States. In four out of the five countries surveyed between December 2023 and March 2024, however, fewer than a third viewed the United States favorably. In Jordan, the percentage of respondents that viewed the United States favorably dropped dramatically, from 51 percent in 2022 to 28 percent in a poll conducted in the winter of 2023–24. In Mauritania, the percentage of respondents that viewed the United States favorably fell from 50 percent in a survey conducted in the winter of 2021–22 to 31 percent in the survey conducted in the winter of 2023–24, and in Lebanon, it fell from 42 percent in the winter of 2021–22 to 27 percent in early 2024. Similarly, the percentage of respondents who agreed that U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policies were “good” or “very good” dropped by 12 points in Lebanon and nine points in Jordan over the same period.

The timing of our survey in Tunisia strongly suggests that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza drove this overall decline. In the three weeks before October 7, 40 percent of Tunisians said they had a favorable view of the United States. By October 27, not quite three weeks after the start of Israel’s military operations in Gaza, just ten percent of Tunisians said the same.

Although Arabs’ opinion of the United States and Biden declined after October 7, views on different aspects of the United States’ engagement with the Middle East did not all fall equally. Our respondents were just as likely to agree that U.S. foreign aid to their country strengthens education initiatives or that it strengthens civil society as they were before October 7. In fact, respondents in Jordan, Mauritania, and Morocco in our winter of 2023–24 survey were slightly more likely to agree that U.S. foreign aid strengthens civil society than they were in 2021 and 2022. These findings suggest that disagreement with the U.S. government’s policy toward Israel and the war in Gaza, not other elements of U.S. foreign policy, are driving the decline in the United States’ regional reputation.

Despite offering limited material and rhetorical support for Gaza, China has been the primary beneficiary of the United States’ decline in reputation among Arab publics. In its 2021–22 surveys, Arab Barometer demonstrated that Arabs’ support for China was declining. But in recent months, this trend has reversed. In all the countries Arab Barometer surveyed after October 7, at least half the respondents said they held favorable views of China. In both Jordan and Morocco, key U.S. allies, China has benefited from at least a 15-point increase in its favorability ratings.

When asked whether U.S. or Chinese policies are better for their region’s security, respondents in three of the five countries we surveyed after October 7 said they preferred China’s approach. China’s actual presence in the region has, in fact, been minimal, with its engagement focused mostly on economic deals through its Belt and Road Initiative. Arab publics in the Middle East appear to understand that China has played a limited role in the events in Gaza: only 14 percent of Lebanese respondents, 13 percent of Moroccans, nine percent of Kuwaitis, seven percent of Jordanians, and a vanishingly small three percent of Mauritanians agreed that China is committed to defending the rights of Palestinians.

It is likely, then, that respondents’ increasingly favorable views of China reflect their dissatisfaction with U.S. and Western policies. When asked more specific policy questions, our respondents gave more ambivalent answers. Asked if they thought Chinese policies are better at “protecting freedoms and rights,” American policies are better, Chinese and American policies are equally good, or Chinese and American policies are equally bad, a plurality of Kuwaitis, Mauritanians, and Moroccans said U.S. policies are better than Chinese policies. Respondents in two countries that border Israel, however, felt the opposite: in Arab Barometer surveys in Jordan and Lebanon after October 7, substantially more respondents agreed that China’s policies are better than the United States’ at protecting rights and freedoms.

China’s record on protecting rights and freedoms at home and abroad is poor, but the Lebanese and Jordanian populations now consider the United States’ record to be even worse. This finding reflects a larger trend in Arab Barometer’s data: geography matters. People who live closest to the conflict in Gaza and whose countries have historically accommodated large numbers of Palestinian refugees expressed the lowest confidence in specific U.S. Middle East policies.

Our surveys suggest that the slump in Arab support for the United States is not inevitable and that Arab publics respond sensitively to differences in U.S. policy toward issues key to the region. This indication emerges most powerfully from results in Morocco—the one country in the region that has bucked the trend of growing skepticism about U.S. policy. In 2022, 69 percent of Moroccans held a positive view of the United States, by far the greatest support in the Arab world. This already strong support has actually increased: Arab Barometer’s winter of 2023–24 survey found that 74 percent of Moroccans now view the United States positively. Morocco is also the only country whose population clearly preferred the United States’ Middle East security policies over those of China, by 13 percentage points.

The role the United States has played in supporting Morocco in a territorial dispute is almost certainly the reason Moroccan opinion is an outlier. For decades, the Moroccan government has administered much of Western Sahara, where a movement backed by Algeria seeks to establish an independent state. Until 2020, no UN member state recognized Morocco’s sovereignty. That year, the United States recognized Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara in exchange for Morocco’s formalizing diplomatic ties with Israel. Particularly in the second half of 2023, the Biden administration strongly reaffirmed this policy. Our survey of Moroccan opinion coincided with a heavily publicized visit by Joshua Harris, a senior U.S. diplomat, to both Algiers and Rabat to underscore this policy position.

It appears that its policy on Western Sahara largely immunized the United States from the decline in support that it has suffered in other Arab countries. Other Western countries that did not follow the United States’ lead in recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara have not retained the Moroccan people’s support. Between 2022 and the winter of 2023–24, the percentage of Moroccans who said they held a favorable view of the United Kingdom fell from 68 percent to 30 percent, a larger decline than that for other countries we surveyed. Moroccans’ opinions of France soured, too, falling by ten points.

China has benefited from the United States’ decline in reputation among Arab publics.
In every country we surveyed, respondents indicated that they believe that states in the Middle East and North Africa, and not global actors, are most committed to protecting Palestinians’ rights. Yet this opinion does not translate into a desire to see the United States adopt neutrality or exit the Middle East. Despite their anger at the United States’ policies toward Gaza, Arab publics made it clear that they want the United States to be involved in solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

One Arab Barometer survey question asked respondents which issue should top the Biden administration’s agenda in the Middle East and North Africa, offering seven options: economic development, education, human rights, infrastructure, stability, combating terrorism, and the Palestinian issue. In three of the four countries where this question was asked in surveys after October 7, a plurality of respondents agreed that Biden should prioritize the Palestinian issue, even over other key concerns facing their countries. In fact, the proportion of Arab citizens who responded that the Biden administration’s top priority in the region should be the Palestinian issue has risen dramatically over the past two years—by 21 points in Jordan, 18 points in Mauritania and Morocco, and 17 points in Lebanon. And our Tunisian data suggest that this rise occurred almost immediately following the start of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

The war in Gaza has reduced Arabs’ support for normalizing ties with Israel from an already low level. Yet this does not mean that the Arab world is turning against a peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Our research in Tunisia initially suggested that the outbreak of war in Gaza might drive a decline in support for a two-state solution. In fact, in polls conducted between December 2023 and March 2024 in Jordan, Mauritania, and Morocco, greater percentages of respondents indicated their support for a two-state solution over a one-state solution, a confederation, or an open-ended “other” approach than had supported these options in 2022.

Before the events of October 7, it appeared that a new regional order was emerging in the Middle East. As some Arab governments sought to normalize ties with Israel—the first such agreements in nearly 30 years—it seemed that the primary divide in the region might not run between Israel and the Arab states but rather between Tehran and the countries that seek to contain the Islamic Republic’s aggression abroad. A new coalition to contain Iran, including Israel and key Arab states, would have been immensely beneficial for limiting Iran’s influence in the region.

It might still be possible for the United States to midwife such a coalition: the help Jordan gave Israel in repelling Iran’s April 13 drone and missile attack, and decisions by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to give the United States intelligence ahead of that attack, suggested that key Arab leaders still believe that a regional realignment is in their interest. The surveys we conducted after October 7 found that approval of Iran remains low among Arab publics. Thirty-six percent of Lebanese, 25 percent of Jordanians, and only 15 percent of Kuwaitis expressed a favorable view of Iran.

But efforts toward a full realignment will struggle as long as the decline in regional support for the United States persists. Cold peace accords, like those forged between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, are always at risk of rupture. The United States is irreplaceable as a broker for normalization deals. The Egyptian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian peace accords were largely held in place by the enormous amount of assistance the United States gave to both Arab countries. The last half decade’s normalization deals have hinged on promises by the United States to address Arab countries’ concerns, including recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror, and selling F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.

In the post–October 7 context, losing the support of Arab citizens means not only risking the support of Arab leaders but also jeopardizing the domestic stability of the United States’ key Arab allies. Anger about the suffering of Palestinians has already spilled onto the streets. In Jordan, protests have already derailed Project Prosperity, a UAE- and U.S.-backed agreement between Jordan and Israel on water and energy. After cooperating with Israel and the United States to counter Iran’s strike, Arab regimes have remained quiet about their role out of fear of further inflaming the anger of their citizens. The United States needs to try to ease the general pressure Arab governments feel not to work with Israel to counter Iranian influence.

The region is at a pivot point—and the United States is theoretically well positioned to apply the necessary leverage to help secure a cease-fire in Gaza and help move the Israelis and Palestinians toward peace. To restore its regional credibility, however, the United States must lay out concrete, pragmatic steps toward a two-state solution, identifying what effective postwar governance in Gaza will look like and what Israelis and Palestinians must do to ensure that progress is made toward peace. Holding both Israeli and Palestinian leaders accountable is long overdue. The United States must not only sponsor peace talks but also insist on an end to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

For too long, Arabs have perceived the United States as working to secure its own interests and those of allied Arab leaders ahead of the interests of ordinary citizens—even as Arab citizens seek greater support for democratization and anticorruption efforts. In addition, another Iranian-Israeli confrontation might not be as performative as the one that occurred in April 2024. It might be devastating. The United States must work to win the trust of Arab publics to contain Iran, not only covertly but with public, courageous, and effective policies.

The present situation offers the United States both dangers and opportunities. There is no straightforward equivalent to Morocco’s Western Sahara issue in most Arab countries. But the case of Morocco makes clear that when Arab citizens feel that the United States stands up for their interests, they judge it more favorably. The dangers of failing to address declining Arab support for the United States go beyond Gaza. Without a significant shift in U.S. support for Israel’s war, and without smart changes to U.S. policy to blunt growing Arab anti-Americanism in the longer term, other actors—including China—will continue to try to crowd the United States out of a leadership role in the Middle East.

Check Also

Putin’s New War Economy

Why Soviet-Style Military Spending—and State Intervention—Won’t Save Russia In Russia, the tradition of making fun …