Survey experiments can identify sources of Arab views towards Israel

In October 20, Sudan signed an historic agreement to open diplomatic ties with Israel. This deal was part and parcel of a broader, last-minute Trump administration drive to notch up high-profile Middle East policy successes before the US presidential election. Other countries included in the initiative, dubbed the “Abraham Accords,” include the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

Each of these countries received something from the US in return for their agreement. Morocco won US recognition of its claim to Western Sahara, the United Arab Emirates received permission to purchase advanced, US-made F-35 fighter jets and sophisticated drones, and Sudan was taken off the State Department’s list of states who sponsor terrorism. The quid-pro-quo with Bahrain was less clearcut, but appears part of a broader effort to build a political and military alliance against Iran.

I’ve been wondering recently about the public’s attitudes towards these US-brokered agreements. According to the 2019–20 Arab Opinion Index built by the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Arab public opinion appears strongly opposed to diplomatic normalization with Israel.

Thus, in response to the Arab Opinion Index survey item, “Would you support or oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel by your country?”, 79% of Sudanese respondents said “no,” as did 88% of Moroccan respondents. The survey did not reach Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates, but the average “no” response for all 13 Arab countries included in the study was 88%. The main reason cited for this position was Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians.

Now would be a good time for Abraham Accord governments to conduct their own (perhaps confidential) surveys on the issue. Importantly, these surveys should examine different scenarios and tradeoffs, rather than simply asking for “yes/no” responses to the basic question,”do you support [your country’s] ties with Israel?”

Survey experiments can tell us which tradeoffs and scenarios are more likely than others to influence public opinion. They expose randomly selected groups of respondents to different “treatments” — such as descriptions of potential political scenarios — and compares each group’s average response to a baseline “control” condition, typically a simple statement/question with no scenarios of any kind.

For example, imagine an experiment in which respondents were given different alternatives for Israeli-Palestinian relations, ranging from full Israeli recognition of a territorially viable Palestinian state to the creation of a single, one-person-one-vote entity from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In each of these cases, would the Moroccan, Sudanese, Bahraini or UAE public’s support for diplomatic normalization with Israel increase, decrease, or remain about the same?

The answers to these scenario-based questions can tell us whether public opposition to normalization of ties is fundamentally “baked in,”or whether it is somewhat malleable and dependent on the specifics of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Public opinion matters in the Arab world, just as is does in other countries. Political authoritarianism may mask the immediate impact of the public’s view in some Arab countries, but it does not eliminate it entirely. The Arab Spring was inspired in part by public dissatisfaction their governments, reminding rulers that they ignore public opinion at their peril.

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