Americans are ambivalent towards Israel-Gulf normalisation

A new survey shows many Americans still do not view Gulf nations as allies after normalising their relations with Israel.

US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani attend a signing ceremony for the agreements on "normalisation of relations" reached between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain at the White House in Washington, United States on September 15, 2020. [The White House / Tia Dufour / Handout via Getty Images]

Only half of Americans think Israel is an ally of the United States, and that number drops to 28 percent for the United Arab Emirates, 24 percent for Saudi Arabia, 18 percent for Qatar, and 14 percent for Palestine, according to a new survey of 2,059 adults in the US conducted on September 9-10.

While majorities or pluralities of Americans say these Middle Eastern countries are neutral towards the US, smaller percentages say they are enemies: 32 percent for Palestine, 31 percent for Saudi Arabia, 22 percent for Qatar, 20 percent for the UAE, and 16 percent for Israel – The word “country” is used flexibly, as Palestine is currently neither sovereign nor free.

The survey, which we – two academics at Northwestern University in Qatar – commissioned from The Harris Poll, has implications for the five countries, all eager to advance their regional interests by strengthening their ties with the US. The results also have implications for US President Donald Trump, who in the last stretch of his re-election campaign, is touting the normalisation agreements the UAE and Bahrain recently signed with Israel as major diplomatic breakthroughs – the data for the survey were collected soon after the UAE-Israel deal was announced, but before a deal between Bahrain and Israel was reported. Moreover, the survey serves as a report card for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE’s well-funded public relations and lobbying operations in the US vying for public support, auspicious policies and arms deals.

Middle Eastern countries seen as ‘neutral towards the US’

According to our data, despite still not being considered an “ally” by the majority of Americans, Saudi Arabia has had some success in improving its rating in the US in the past year.

In our survey, we presented the respondents with the specific question: “Do you consider each of the following an ally, an enemy, or neutral toward the United States?”, followed by the five countries listed in random order. In September 2019, the Harvard Harris Poll posed the same question to 2,009 registered American voters for a different set of countries that also included Saudi Arabia. In that poll, 41 percent of respondents said Saudi Arabia is an “enemy” of the US, compared with just 31 percent in our poll.

The 2019 Harvard Harris poll also asked about Russia and China, and 63 percent and 51 percent of respondents, respectively, said those nations are enemies of the US, so the five Middle Eastern countries fielded in our survey can take heart that their grades could be worse.

Nevertheless, there is still much room for improvement for all five countries, particularly given how many Americans said they perceive these countries as “neutral” towards the US.

Fifty-nine percent of Americans, for example, said Qatar is “neutral” towards the US, which is remarkable given the state has hosted a forward headquarters of US Central Command, the US’s largest military installation in the Middle East, for 17 years. Qatar is also hosting peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with US representation attending.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said Israel is neutral towards the US, and 52 percent said the same of the UAE, 45 percent of Saudi Arabia, and 54 percent of Palestine.

Americans largely ambivalent towards the Gulf, Israel-Palestine

While all five countries claim to be friends of the US, their relationships with each other are complex. Israel has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for more than 70 years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have since 2017 maintained a blockade against Qatar, partly because Qatar has a positive relationship with their main regional rival, Iran – though the UAE trades with Iran far more than Qatar does. Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim to support Palestinians’ struggle for statehood, but by moving to normalise their relations with Israel the two Gulf states also appear to tacitly endorse Israel’s occupation.

For its part, Qatar supports Palestine, possibly more so than any other Gulf country, and sends critical financial aid and supplies to Palestinians living under an Israeli blockade in Gaza. Qatar does not have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and said it will not take steps towards normalisation until the Palestinian conflict is resolved.

Israel is eager to establish diplomatic ties with Arab countries beyond Egypt and Jordan – with which it signed deals in 1979 and 1994, respectively – partly to strengthen its international standing, partly for financial gain, and partly to distract from its occupation of Palestine and the corruption scandals Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently facing.

Since taking office in 2016, the Trump administration repeatedly made moves in support of Israel, such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem and putting forward a so-called “peace plan” that paves the way for the expansion of Israel’s settlements. It also unilaterally withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, pleasing not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Meanwhile, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi embarked on a campaign to malign Doha, which they view as supporting Iran, and increased their efforts to strengthen ties with Israel and the US.

After unconditionally supporting Washington in its endeavours in the Middle East and taking serious steps to normalise their relations with Israel – following its longtime ally, the UAE, Saudi Arabia is also expected to sign a normalisation deal with Israel in the near future, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi likely expected the American public’s support for them to increase.

As our survey demonstrated, however, Americans are still largely ambivalent about these countries. The American public’s tendency to focus on domestic rather than international affairs, coupled with the unprecedented public health crisis the country is currently going through, can explain this trend to a certain extent.

The fact that the highly publicised agreements the UAE and Bahrain recently signed with Israel were not really “peace” deals, and did not resolve any actual conflicts in the region, however, also likely contributed to American ambivalence about these countries.

Indeed, unlike Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel, neither the UAE nor Bahrain has fought a single war with Israel. And the agreements the UAE and Bahrain signed with Israel, which focus on economic and security collaboration, do little to solve actual physical conflicts in the Middle East, such as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the blockade against Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s brutal war on Yemen. In Haaretz, academic Marc Owen Jones noted that a key UAE motivation to sign an Israel “peace” deal was the opposite of peace: Getting advanced warplanes from the US.

In any case, the fact that Americans are ambivalent towards many of the countries surrounding Israel-Gulf normalisation may mean the highly publicised deals between Israel and Gulf nations will not much improve Trump’s approval ratings or his fortunes in the upcoming presidential election.

For Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, and Qatar, the findings indicate that their own approval ratings in the US have room to grow beyond that of their regional rivals, just as the countries themselves often compete with one another in their own neighbourhood.

Survey data reported here were collected via the Harris On Demand poll, a nationally representative, online, bi-weekly survey of about 2,000 US residents run by The Harris Poll. We surveyed 2,059 US adults on September 9-10, 2020.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.