Does public opinion matter in the Middle East? Perhaps, a more basic question would be: do people in the region even know what public opinion means? Those that do may not wish to express it publicly lest it incurs the wrath of the autocrat rulers and their ubiquitous mukhabarat.
Consider the case of two regimes: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Shaykh Salman al-Awda is languishing in prison since September 2017 because he prayed for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He faces the death penalty even though Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) has kissed and made up with the Emir of Qatar.
The situation in Egypt is even worse where politicians that dare to stand in elections against General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi end up in prison. The Egyptian strongman still insists he is ‘democratically’ elected. There are more than 65,000 political prisoners in Egypt. Many have died due to ill-treatment and lack of medication.
While the autocrats do not take public opinion into account when formulating policies, they allow periodic surveys to determine what people, especially the youth think. In most countries the youth constitute a majority. They could become a problem if aroused, as happened during the Islamic Awakening (aka Arab Spring) movement in 2011.
In recent weeks, several surveys have revealed attitudes among the youth that challenge the conventional wisdom of their autocratic rulers: that the youth do not care about religion and merely want to have ‘fun’. While Dubai has for decades been little more than a brothel, Saudi Arabia under MbS is fast catching up by joining the vulgarity caravan.
Gambling casinos have opened and huge concerts are organized in Jeddah at which they let it all hang-out. A Red Sea resort will go even further where women can roam around virtually naked. This is what MbS calls “reforms” to furbish his jaded image in the west. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has gone even further officially declaring that unmarried couples can live together (sex outside marriage is forbidden in Islam).
What do the people think of such policies? In the third week of September, the Dubai-based public relations agency ASDA’A BCW published the findings of a survey that revealed that 41% of 3,400 youth in 17 Arab countries aged 18 to 24 consider religion as the most important factor in their identity. Nationality that is being pushed down the throats of people came a distant second at 18% while family and/or tribe, Arab heritage, and gender lagged far behind.
While the autocrats are pushing their societies towards secularism, 56% of those surveyed said their country’s legal system should be based on Shariah. In the GCC countries, support for Shari‘ah was even higher, at a massive 70%. Similarly, 65% of the youth surveyed expressed concern about the loss of traditional values and culture with the same percentage insisting that preserving their religious and cultural identity was more important than creating a globalized society.
Separate surveys by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) found that 59% of those polled in the UAE, 58% in Saudi Arabia, and 74% in Egypt, disagreed with the notion that “we should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern way.”
On the other hand, and rather paradoxically, 73% felt that religion plays too big a role in the Middle East, while 77% believe that Arab religious institutions should be reformed. This clearly reflects the youths’ dissatisfaction with positions taken by such institutions as Al-Azhar that kowtows to the dictator’s whims or the Saudi religious establishment dishing out fatwas to appease MbS.
There is more bad news for the crusaders that wish to normalize relations with Israel. While Egypt has had a peace treaty with Israel for more than 43 years, only 14% of the Egyptians polled in the Washington Institute surveys viewed such ties favourably. Even less (11%) of Egyptians surveyed favoured the normalisation of people-to-people relations. They had an equally dim view of Bahrain and UAE’s normalization with the zionist entity.
While the Saudi regime is inching towards publicly embracing the zionist entity, people in the kingdom do not support such a policy. Saudis surveyed by the institute found 57% opposed to normalization of ties with Israel. Yet 42% of Saudis surveyed agreed that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.”
If there is anything positive in these surveys for the autocrats, it is the people’s preference for stability over democracy. A massive 82% of those surveyed by ASDA’s BCW said stability was more important than democracy. The autocrats will interpret this to mean that people support them. This will be stretching the facts but since they will not give the option of choosing their leaders anyway, they can interpret the surveys’ finding in whatever way suits their fancy.