6,000 miles from DC, Arabs are watching US election closely
Five days from today Americans decide who will be the 45th president. It is a contest that has gripped the attention of the entire world more than any other in history.
The Arab News/YouGov poll of opinion across the MENA region shows just how important this race is to the region. And it reveals some interesting contradictions.
Of those we surveyed, 12 percent said they are watching the US election closely and another 40 percent said they read occasional articles or notice the buzz about the race in social media. Ninety-one percent have heard of Hillary Clinton and 77 percent of Donald Trump. There is little enthusiasm for either but 78 percent believe Clinton would be better for the Arab world if elected as president versus 22 percent for Trump. But on abortion and security, the majority of Arab opinion backs Trump over Clinton. It is not unreasonable to assume that this support would extend to other important social issues.
Of course we must answer the question: What does our survey of Arab opinion actually measure? Let us right away be clear, there are parts of Arab opinion we could not measure, for example areas suffering from the effects of war. Our methodology is based on interviews of previously recruited online panelists, which has the advantage of allowing us to create demographically accurate models of people who do have access to the Internet.
Our 15 years of experience doing this across Europe and America in countless elections demonstrates that this methodology predicts elections to within 3 percent of actual outcomes, but where Internet penetration is low, as in some parts of this region, we cannot represent all demographics equally. However, what is very striking about our results is that opinions are very similar across all income and education levels, gender and even age, making me very confident that this data is a reliable representation of all Arab opinion.
So back to the results of our research, and the first thing to note is how they reveal a high degree of engagement with events 6,000 miles away. The identity of the American president has always mattered to the whole world because of America’s global influence and its history of intervening in foreign lands. So perhaps we should not be surprised at high level of interest in this region given that conflicts here are one of the major themes of the campaign.
Trump wants to halt all immigration of Muslims into America while Clinton, in her role as secretary of state in the Obama administration and before that influential First Lady during her husband’s period in office, has been an important player in regional affairs. No wonder half of our respondents said the next US president would have “significant impact” on the Arab world and only 9 percent said “no impact.”
But I think there are two other factors that make this particular presidential race so fascinating and attention-grabbing in this region. First, it is because Trump is seen as a potentially destabilizing force. He represents a break from past US policy in his apparent warmth for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, his isolationism, his indifference to the interests of US allies, his rejection of conventional diplomacy and his attack on free trade. So this is the candidate most likely to create change, and change can be threatening.
The second factor in creating high Arab interest in current American politics is rather different though, and seems to contradict the sentiment of the first factor: Trump is interesting because he speaks out for some conservative attitudes that are unfashionable in the West but that Arabs strongly identify with.
Politics aside, Arabs believe crime (41 percent) and inequality (20 percent) are the two most pressing national issues facing the ordinary people in America; both present in either candidates’ agenda.
As a Brit, allow me to mention our recent referendum which made the decision that we would leave the EU — Brexit. That campaign also expressed a profound contradiction in many voters’ minds, fear of change from a globalist economic agenda versus a rejection of fashionably progressive social attitudes. The same contest of values is being played out not only in Britain but across Europe, and now in America. And it is clearly also gripping Arab attention, perhaps reflecting the same tensions here.
Our respondents believe that the biggest threat to America’s security is Russia, and that the biggest internal issues they face are crime (41 percent identified this as the most important) and inequality (20 percent). Meanwhile YouGov’s latest polling for CBS in the US shows that the race is tightening and the chances are edging higher that we will all see a lot more of The Don — though Clinton still leads by 3 percent.
— Stephan Shakespeare founded YouGov in 2000 (with Nadhim Zahawi). One of the pioneers of Internet research, Shakespeare has been the driving force behind YouGov’s innovation-led strategy.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view