Poll: Arab nations sour on Western democracy

2022-07-14 15:24:01

The White House is seen in Washington, DC, the United States, on Feb 15, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

The United States has not been a responsible stakeholder in the Middle East, and "the broad trend since the mid-2000s has been one of disenchantment and disillusionment with the US' role in the region", according to a foreign policy expert.

"The US has swung between an overmilitarized strategy through much of the first decade and half of the 21st century to one that has failed to come to the aid of partners and allies at critical moments during the second half of the 2010s," Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, told China Daily.

A recent poll shows that Arab nations' faith in democracy is diminishing, particularly the belief that Western-style democracy could deliver economic stability across the Middle East and North Africa region, according to a BBC News Arabic survey.

Nearly 23,000 participants in nine countries and the Palestinian territories were interviewed for the July 6 poll, "The Arab World Survey 2021/2022".

Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton University, conducted the survey for BBC News Arabic between October 2021 and April 2022, three years after the last survey.

The survey found that all places surveyed showed declining faith in democracy. In Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and the Palestinian territories, half or more say their countries' economies are weak under a democratic system.

For example, 72 percent of Iraqis said so; 57 percent of participants in Jordan agreed with the statement, while the number in the 2018-19 survey was 24 percent.

The findings also include that those surveyed believe economic conditions are worsening, with a majority of respondents in all places saying the economic situation in their country is "bad" or "very bad".

And most participants don't expect the situation will improve in the next few years. More than half of people in most places surveyed say that they have experienced food insecurity and scarcity.

"The survey's findings point to the dashed hopes and expectations in the Middle East and Arab world, a little over 10 years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. It was hoped that the Arab Spring would usher in more development, more prosperity, more democracy, and ultimately a more peaceful region. None of these hopes have been realized," said Gupta.

Michael Robbins, the director of the Arab Barometer, said that there's a growing perception that Western democracy is not a perfect form of government, and it won't fix everything, as cited by the BBC.

"What we see across the region is people going hungry, people need bread, people are frustrated with the systems that they have," said Robbins.

One week after the survey results were published, US President Joe Biden on Tuesday kicked off his visit to the Middle East, which is his first trip to the region as a president and takes him to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia.

Just Security, an online forum for analysis of national security, foreign policy and rights, based at the New York University School of Law, published an article titled Backgrounder: President Biden's Middle East Trip. It described "the future of important bilateral relationships and multilateral initiatives" between the US and Middle Eastern countries as "at stake".

The article listed a number of issues, including "regional security cooperation, the fate of nuclear negotiations with Iran, America's involvement in building peace between Israel and Palestine".

Gupta said that the purpose of Biden's visit to the region is limited and focused. "He wants the Sunni Arab Gulf oil producers to ramp up production in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict so as to ease the high oil prices and the inflationary pressures that it is creating.

"And a secondary purpose of the trip is to send a message of continuing American resolve and interest in the region so that basic stability is maintained, and Washington thereby doesn't need to get dragged down deep into the many longstanding quarrels and flashpoints," he said.

In Gupta's analysis, Biden will likely achieve the secondary purpose of the trip and a modicum of progress for the primary goal.

"So to a large extent, the movement of oil prices will be determined not so much by the coaxing of Gulf producers to ramp up production as much as by the emerging trends in the global economy, including the recessionary clouds hovering above," said Gupta.

Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said that the US faces several challenges in its relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other non-treaty allies in this region.

"Regional partners will be aware of the US pivoting to focus on Asia and Europe, and Biden's visit will not change this perception," Byman wrote in Biden's difficult task: Reviving US partnerships in the Middle East, published July 8 on Brookings' website.

"For now, the US relationship with regional allies is transactional, with little trust or respect on either side," he wrote.

Gupta said that the US has not been a responsible stakeholder in the Middle East, and there have been numerous instances in American relations with Middle Eastern countries over the last 20 years, while "the broad trend since the mid-2000s has been one of disenchantment and disillusionment with the US' role in the region".

"From administration to administration, there have been pendulum swings in the US' policy. And rather than endow security and stability to the region, the US has more or less ended up 'breaking' the region over the past 20 years or so with its numerous illegal and ill-advised wars. Neither ally and partner nor adversary is happy with this state of affairs," he said.

"The region has become tired of America, and America too has tired of the region."

Gupta said that China, by contrast, had been maintaining "a lower profile and deepened its relations, especially its economic relations, with parties on all sides of the divide in the Middle East and the Arab World".

"And it has stayed away from political involvement in the region's conflicts, including brokering peace arrangements, as well as from military entanglements in the region, except the limited ones mandated by the United Nations such as the counterpiracy missions. This has been a wise strategy. China has been a political and development partner to all, shown restraint and not chosen sides," said Gupta.

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