By James M. Dorsey
Rare polling of public opinion in Saudi Arabia suggests that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be more sensitive to domestic public opinion on foreign policy issues such as Palestine than he lets on. The polling also indicates that a substantial number of Saudis is empathetic to protest as a vehicle for political change.
The poll conducted on behalf of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is likely to reinforce Prince Mohmmed’s resolve to crackdown on any form of criticism or dissent at a time that the kingdom is struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic and a steep fall in oil prices and demand.
The Washington Institute survey strokes with polling by others, including James Zogby, an Arab-American researcher and activist and author of The Tumultuous Decade: Arab Public Opinion and the Upheavals of 2010–2019.
Saudi reluctance to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates in recognizing the State of Israel suggests that autocratic Arab leaders, despite denying freedoms of expression and the media and cracking down on dissent, are at times swayed by public opinion. Polls are often one of the few arenas in which citizens can voice their views.
“I know that the Saudi government under MbS (Prince Mohammed) has put in a lot of effort to actually do its own public opinion polls… They pay attention to it… They are very well aware of which way the winds are blowing on the street. They take that pretty much to heart on what to do and what not to do… On some issues, they are going to make a kind of executive decision... On this one, we’re going to ignore it; on the other one we’re going to…try to curry favour with the public in some unexpected way,” said David Pollock, a Middle East scholar who oversees the Washington Institute’s polling.
Mr. Pollock’s most recent polling suggests that Palestine ranks second only to Iran among the Saudi public’s foreign policy concerns.
Mr. Zogby’s earlier 2018 polling showed Palestine as ranking as the foremost foreign policy issue followed by Iran in Emirati and Saudi public opinion. The same year’s Arab Opinion Index suggested that 80 percent of Saudis see Palestine as an Arab rather than a purely Palestinian issue.
Speaking in an interview, Mr. Pollock said that with regard to Palestine, Saudi officials “believe that they have to be a little cautious. They want to move bit by bit in the direction of normalizing at least the existence of Israel or the discussion of Israel, the possibility of peace, but they don’t think that the public is ready for the full embrace or anything like that.”
Saudi Arabia last week said it would only formalize its relations with Israel once the 2002 Arab peace plan that calls for a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been adopted by Israel.
The UAE said its move had been in part designed to prevent Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, that would have rendered the Arab peace plan irrelevant.
Mr. Zogby suggested that widespread doubt that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved may have softened public attitudes towards relations with Israel.
“This should not be overstated, however, since it appears from our survey that this shift may be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians,” Mr. Zogby cautioned.
Public responses in the Gulf to the formalization of the UAE-Israeli relationship have been divided, often more diverse in countries with a greater degree of freedom of expression and assembly.
Political groups, civil society organizations, trade unions and professional associations in Kuwait and Bahrain, many associated with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, were more critical.
A statement by more than half of the members of Kuwait’s parliament insisted that there could be no normalization without a resolution of the Palestinian problem.
Oman’s grand mufti, Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili, sought to dampen potential Omani aspirations of following in the UAE’s footsteps by declaring the liberation of occupied land “a sacred duty.”
The importance of public opinion in the Gulf was highlighted in the Saudi poll by responses to the notion that “it’s a good thing we aren’t having big street demonstrations here now the way they do in some other countries” – a reference to the past decade of popular revolts that have toppled leaders in among others Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan.
Opinion was split down the middle. 48 percent of respondents agreed, and 48 percent disagreed.
Saudis, like most Gulf Arabs, are likely less inclined to take grievances to the streets. Nonetheless, the poll indicates that they may prove to be more empathetic to protests should they occur.
“Arabs know what they want and what they do not want. They want their basic needs for jobs, education, and health care to be attended to, and they want good governance and protection of their personal rights. While they are focused on matters close to home, at the same time they continue to care deeply about the denial of legitimate rights and the suffering of other Arabs, whether in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, or Yemen,” Mr. Zogby said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. He is also a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture in Germany.