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Poll: More Saudis think Israel, rather than Iran, is region’s biggest threat

Survey also finds half of Bahrainis and third of Emiratis don’t think Jewish State has right to exist, suggesting Israelis’ affinity for Gulf states is not entirely reciprocated

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The flags of the US, United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, on September 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The flags of the US, United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are screened on the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, on September 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Saudis consider Israel, not Iran, the greatest threat to regional security, according to an opinion poll out of Jerusalem released Wednesday.

The poll, which surveyed hundreds of people throughout the Gulf as well as in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Morocco, the US and Germany, also showed recent normalization deals with Israel receiving a chilly reception, underlining gaps between the stances of authoritarian regimes in moderate Sunni states and their populaces.

Asked which country threatens the stability of the Middle East the most, 33 percent of Saudis chose Israel, compared to 25% who chose Iran.

In Bahrain, a majority Shiite country ruled by a Sunni elite which recently agreed to normalize ties with Israel, 24% chose Israel, compared to 18% who pointed to Iran.

Respondents in Qatar, Morocco and the PA also flagged Israel as the greatest threat. Moroccans said Turkey was the second-largest threat to the Middle East, ranking Iran only third.

Only Israelis (45%) and residents of the United Arab Emirates (27%) chose Iran as the main threat, though 17% of Emirati respondents still chose Israel.

Both the US and Germany saw the US as the main instigator of instability in the Mideast, placing Iran second.

The findings appear to contradict the view of virtually all Middle East analysts, who say that Sunni Arab states are getting closer to Israel, which they see as a strong ally in the joint fight against Shiite Iran.

“Everyone in Israel thinks everyone in the Arab world considers Iran a huge threat, but I can tell you that not even Israelis are convinced Iran’s such a threat,” said Jerusalem-based pollster Mitchell Barak, who conducted the survey on behalf of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation said.

The survey also showed that Iran is not perceived as constituting as big a regional threat as is often assumed. Asked to rank the Iranian threat from 1 (very low) to 10 (very high), Israeli respondents on average responded by 7.4. The number was significantly lower in Bahrain (3.8), Qatar (4.3), Morocco (5.3) the UAE (6) and Saudi Arabia (6.8).

“Iran is really not considered such a great threat,” Barak said.

In this photo taken on a trip organized by the Saudi information ministry, a man stands in front of the Khurais oil field in Khurais, Saudi Arabia, September 20, 2019, after it was hit in a September 14 missile and drone attack blamed on Iran. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The poll, which had a margin of error of 4-5% depending on the country, surveyed between 300 and 600 respondents in each place, though only 267 from Qatar were included.

The data for the poll was collected via ads placed in cell phone apps in nine different countries. In some Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain, public opinion is tightly controlled by the respective regimes, and some pollsters say gauging actual public opinion in many Gulf countries is difficult.

In Bahrain, for instance, Barak’s company, Keevoon, had to make greats efforts to locate enough respondents to allow for a representative sample, including offering compensation.

While online polls are generally considered less reliable than telephone or face-to-face surveys, the results generally dovetailed with previous surveys that also showed lower levels of support for normalization with Israel than telegraphed by slick official campaigns promoting the deals.

Only 46% of respondents from the UAE and 31% from Bahrain said they have favorable impressions of Israel. Forty-three percent and 48% had unfavorable impressions, respectively.

“Israelis like Emiratis and Bahrainis much more than they like us,” Barak said. “On Israeli social media channels I see what amounts to an Israeli-Gulf lovefest. But they don’t like us as much as we do.”

Two-thirds of Israeli respondents had a good feeling about the UAE. One in two Israelis has a favorable view of Bahrain.

Israeli model May Tager, left, covers herself with an Israeli flag next to Anastasia Bandarenka, a Dubai-based model who wraps herself in a UAE flag during a photoshoot in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Manama and Abu Dhabi recently signed normalization agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, and established formal diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, after decades in which they refused to recognize the Jewish state despite clandestine security cooperation.

According to the survey, 86% of Israelis (and 72% of Israeli Arabs) support these agreements. By contrast, 69% of Emiratis and 46% of Bahrainis were in favor of the deals their respective governments made with Israel.

The US administration brokered these deals and officials in Washington say a number of Arab states are keen to normalize relations with Israel as well. Some 52% of Qataris, 35% of Saudis and 17% of Moroccans expressed support for the Abraham Accords.

Other Arab countries have an even worse view of the Jewish state, the poll found: Only 16% of Moroccans, 23% of Saudis and 28% of Qataris had a favorable view of Israel (70%, 65% and 59%, respectively, had an unfavorable view).

The survey found 52% of Israeli respondents have warm feelings for Morocco. Forty-five percent of respondents said they view Qatar and Saudi Arabia favorably.

The survey also showed there was only “lukewarm support” for Israel’s right to exist, Barak said.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

For instance, one in two Bahrainis and a third of respondents from the UAE disagreed with the assertion that Israel has a right to exist. The numbers were even higher in Saudi Arabia (62%), Qatar (57%) and Morocco (56%).

The survey is the latest in a series of recent polls suggesting widespread disapproval of normalization in the UAE and Bahrain. A 2017 poll by the Washington Institute found that only around 15% of both Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain supported diplomatic overtures to the Jewish state.

In July 2020, just two months before normalization with Israel, a subsequent survey by the think tank found that 80% of Emiratis disagreed with the statement that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”

Another survey from the Doha Institute’s recent Arab Opinion Index also indicated that many ordinary people in Arab states often disagree with their governments regarding Israel.

“However, everyone likes the Palestinians,” Barak said during a Zoom presentation of his findings. Nearly three-quarters of Emiratis, Bahrainis and Saudis, and a whopping 80% of Qataris, have a favorable view of the Palestinian Authority.

The survey, which was conducted in late October and early November, also attests to abiding support for Palestinian statehood in the Arab world, as 90% of Moroccans, 85% of Qataris, 81% of Emiratis and 72% of Bahrainis said they were in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state.

By contrast, only about a third of Israeli and 45% of American respondents backed the idea of a Palestinian state.

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