Saudi Arabia is home to Makkah and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims complete the Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah; one of the pillars of Islam. One of the Saudi King’s titles is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”. Of course, Saudi Arabia is not merely a religious site. It is also a regional power house, engaged in what many describe as a cold war with the Shia-majority Iran; a tussle for influence over the Middle East. Its vast oil wealth means it has a hand in many local and international conflicts, and that it can afford to export Wahhabism, its conservative version of Islam, by funding schools and madrassas abroad.
Against this varied backdrop, how do Muslim majority countries view Saudi Arabia? A new survey by the Pew Research Centre yields some interesting results. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its vital role within the Islamic faith, views of Saudi Arabia are broadly positive in Muslim majority countries world-wide. Majorities in Indonesia (82 per cent), Senegal (72 per cent), Malaysia (63 per cent) and Pakistan (95 per cent) view the kingdom favourably. The high approval rating in Pakistan is particularly notable, given that Saudi-funded madrassas are widely accepted to be inculcating fundamentalism in the country.
Yet despite these sky-high approval ratings around the world, the picture is a little more mixed closer to home. The survey shows that Saudi Arabia’s standing has slipped substantially in key countries in the Middle East.
Let’s start with the positives. Broadly, public opinion of Saudi Arabia in the region remains favourable. The kingdom is viewed favourably by clear majorities in Egypt (78 per cent) and Jordan (88 per cent). But elsewhere in the region, views are more split – or even decidedly negative. In Turkey, just 26 per cent of people have a favourable view of Saudi Arabia, while 53 per cent see it unfavourably (the rest did not answer). In Lebanon, around 51 per cent have a positive view, and 49 per cent a negative one. Around half of the population of the Palestinian territories (52 per cent) feel positively about their neighbour. Tunisians are also split, with around 40 per cent having a positive view and 43 per cent a negative one.
Perhaps the most interesting way of reading these figures is to compare with the last Pew survey on the topic in 2007. In four of the five Middle Eastern countries surveyed, Saudi Arabia’s image has substantially worsened in this time. The drop is steepest in Lebanon – falling from 82 per cent favourable view in 2007 to 51 per cent in 2013. In Turkey, the positive rating has dropped by 14 percentage points, and by 13 per cent each in Egypt and the Palestinian territories.
So why has this shift in opinion taken place? One factor may be the ripple effect of the Arab Spring, which toppled dictators across the region in 2011, and shook up established power structures in many Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps partly because of this shift, many of the respondents to the survey were critical of Saudi Arabia’s record on respecting the rights of its citizens. In fact, Jordan (60 per cent) and Egypt (59 per cent) were the only two Middle Eastern countries in which a clear majority said that the Saudi regime protects the personal freedoms of its people. Elsewhere in the region, half or more take the opposite view. Substantial disapproval was evident in Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, and Tunisia.
The Arab Spring has also heightened pre-existing Sunni-Shia tensions in the region. Possibly because of this, a sectarian dimension to views of Saudi Arabia – a Sunni powerhouse – was evident in some countries. In Lebanon, the country which saw the steepest drop in positive views of its neighbour, around eight in ten Sunni Muslims saw the desert kingdom positively, while just six per cent of Lebanese Shia shared the same view.
In recent months, Saudi Arabia has clearly been anxious about certain regional issues. It refused to take up its place at the UN Security Council in protest at the body’s failure to take action in Syria. The apparent diplomatic softening between Iran and Saudi’s old ally the US has also been a cause of concern. This week the US secretary of state John Kerry travelled to the kingdom to shore up this relationship, saying that it remained the “senior player” in the Middle East. This remains true. Clearly, populations around the region are changing their view of their influential neighbour, but it would be premature to say that Saudi Arabia’s immense power is seriously under threat.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.