In 2017, Arab News, the Middle East’s leading international English-language daily, formed a partnership with the online polling company YouGov to conduct a series of surveys designed to shed light on regional attitudes to international events, in a region where credible statistics can be hard to come by.
As “The voice of a changing region,” we felt it incumbent upon us to take the pulse of public opinion in that region, the better to fulfil our journalistic mission to be a credible source of information about the Arab world for regional and international readers, and to provide insights about the Middle East and North Africa to English speakers worldwide.
Today, we report the results of our latest collaboration with YouGov: An examination of attitudes on the “Arab Street” to the conflict in Ukraine. The findings offer illuminating insights on the catastrophe unfolding on Europe’s eastern flank that will reverberate far beyond the MENA region.
They suggest apathy and disinterest in the Arab world toward this atrocious conflict; 66 percent of respondents said they had no stance on the war, while those who did choose a side were almost evenly divided — 18 percent backed Ukraine and 16 percent Russia.
Most strikingly, perhaps, the findings lay bare the extent of the distrust of the West across all 14 of the countries covered in the survey. Almost a quarter of the 7,835 people surveyed (24 percent) pointed the finger of blame for the conflict squarely at NATO, while more than one in ten (13 percent) said US President Joe Biden was responsible. Only 16 percent blamed Russia.
This can be attributed in part to Russia’s massive investment in its own news channels in Arabic, and to a massive online outreach effort. Even before the beginning of the so-called “special military operation” on Feb, 24, a flood of material across numerous social media platforms, in several languages including Arabic, made the case that Russia was responding to NATO expansionism and acting only in self-defense.
But underpinning the widespread Arab skepticism on this issue is not so much the success of Russian propaganda, but rather the steady ebbing away of trust in the West over the past two decades.
The region and its people have witnessed the chaos and suffering caused by the “liberation” of Iraq and the subsequent rise of Daesh, the betrayal of the people of Syria and the abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban. As Maryam Forum Foundation co-founder Khaled Janahi pointed out at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos last week, Iraqis are still paying the price for the failures of US reconstruction efforts that that have left their country “effectively a failed state.”
It is telling, also, that from a regional perspective, NATO and the US, currently in the form of President Biden, are seen as virtually one and the same.
This skepticism toward the West and its motives perhaps also informs the apparent indifference of Arabs to the conflict. Nevertheless, that an overwhelming 66 percent take no stance on such a major international event, with its enormous consequences for the wider world, betrays a worrying tendency toward isolationism that is simply not sustainable in today’s global economy.
One issue highlighted in the survey that is close to our hearts here at Arab News is the level of trust in the media covering the conflict. Gratifyingly, with the support of 27 percent of respondents, Arabic media emerges as the most trusted, edging ahead of Western media with 21 percent. But in an era of information overload and rampant fake news, that a third of respondents expressed trust in none of the media reporting on the war should serve as a red flag to news outlets of all stripes.
Today, more than ever, trust in media is not a given, but must be earned.