The Arab world tilts eastwards
As major international powers continue to compete in the Middle East, public opinion indicators show an increased dissatisfaction with the United States and, to a lesser extent, the European Union (EU). Russia and China, on the other hand, have become more popular across the region.
Last year, a survey of Arab youth published by the BBC showed a decline in the popularity of the United States, with a solid majority – some 57 percent – now regarding the United States as an enemy rather than an ally. Russia, however, was regarded as a top ally by 70 percent of the young people polled, while only 26 percent of them declared it an enemy.
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), recently conducted a similar but more comprehensive public opinion survey that included nine Arab countries, in addition to Turkey, Iran, and Israel.
The survey revealed that in five countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan – all considered to be traditional allies to Washington – public opinion showed greater confidence in Russia than the United States. Seven countries viewed the war in Ukraine as a geopolitical conflict between Russia and the West, rather than a war between two countries, and all nine countries saw Washington as the war's biggest beneficiary.
All the surveyed countries supported the US military withdrawal from the Arab region, and seven countries affirmed that the withdrawal would make the Middle East more secure and improve intra-regional relationships. Even public opinion in the UAE and Qatar – two of Washington's closest allies – suggested that a Russian presence is more beneficial to the Arab region than a US one.
All nine surveyed countries agreed that Europe relies on the US for military protection, and seven, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, were against any larger European military presence in the region. As for the current global order, six countries affirmed that the world is already multipolar and will become more so, while three saw a lingering unipolarity that will soon change.
Another opinion poll conducted by the Arab Barometer on behalf of the BBC showed that China is more popular than the United States in eight out of nine Arab countries, some of which are considered long-term allies of Washington.
Winning the propaganda war
On social media, Arab discontent with Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine is clear. However, this discontent has mainly been directed at the US and the EU, whom the Arab public hold responsible for provoking Russia into a war that has been economically detrimental for their own region.
Across a wide range of sources, including both local government and private newspapers, Arab writers have accused the US and the EU of "double standards". They point to the US and EU's proactive response to the Russian war in Ukraine, compared to their passivity in the face of many conflicts across the world, including ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza. Many argue that Putin's invasion of Ukraine is no worse than the US invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush.
There are also other, deeper reasons for this growing Arab dissatisfaction with the West. The Arab public has not forgotten the long history of Western colonialism in the region, the consistent Western bias in favour of Israel, and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Many in the Arab Spring generation, moreover, have felt abandoned by the West, who shamelessly continued to support the region's authoritarian regimes in exchange for economic and political gains. All these factors have helped to fuel both Islamist and anti-Western nationalist currents in recent years.
Despite its direct involvement in Syria, Russia has gained significant popularity in many Arab countries. Russia is often perceived as standing up to US unilateral dominance of the region, and its provision of subsidised grains and fuel to some Arab countries has helped Russia win over Arab hearts and minds.
Many Arabs see China, on the other hand, as a non-colonial power that has focused over the past few years on building economic relations without explicit political ambitions. China has become the largest trading partner of Arab countries – and the influence of these new ties was reflected when Arab states unilaterally sided with Beijing against the recent official US and European visits to Taiwan.
A pragmatic balance
Despite this public support for Russia and China, which aligns with policies pursued by Arab governments, it is unlikely that a strategic political shift towards China and Russia at the expense of the United States and Europe will occur anytime soon.
The military and political protection that the US provides to Gulf countries cannot be easily sacrificed, and most Arab armies rely heavily on US-manufactured arms. Arabs cannot turn their back on Western technological advancements or the multi-billion dollar Arab–European–US trade balance. Nor can they ignore the significant financial assistance that the United States and the EU provide for developing Arab countries through the International Monetary Fund.
Nevertheless, Arab countries will act pragmatically and realistically. They may gradually reduce their heavy reliance on the West and seek to diversify their political, economic, and military alliances, whether with Russia and China or with neighbouring countries such as Iran, Turkey, and even Israel. And as Henry Kissinger recently argued, following the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, a multipolar Middle East will be "a new game with new rules".
Kissinger's analysis is evident not only in the Saudi–Iranian peace agreement, but also in other significant regional changes. Egypt, Turkey and Iran have forged new ties, and five Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Bahrain, expressed their interest in joining BRICS – a geopolitical bloc that includes China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa. It is expected that BRICS will soon surpass the economic size of the G7, a fact that forced some Europeans to voice their concern.
Arab countries may continue to deepen their alliances with Eastern countries, working to create an alternative to the Western model. Their challenge, in turn, will be to tread carefully to avoid provoking the West.
Walid Al-Sheikh is a Berlin-based journalist and political analyst.