Michael Robbins, Amaney A. Jamal, and Mark Tessler

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.

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.


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