Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

What Do Saudis Want?

A rare, in-depth look at what the kingdom's citizens really believe on hot-button issues ranging from military action against Iran to al Qaeda to the state of their cloistered country's economic and political life.

HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images
HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images

"It's the economy, ya ahmaq"! The economy -- not Islam, Iran, or Israel -- is widely viewed as the top national priority, and Saudis are mostly bearish about it. Forty percent said their personal economic situation got worse in 2009, though nearly as many (36 percent) reported improvement. Looking ahead, just one-fourth expect better in 2010.

U.S. role: Asked what the United States should do in the region, economic or technical assistance takes first place, with 30 percent of responses. Surprisingly, this narrowly edges out U.S. efforts on various Arab-Israeli issues, with a combined total of 27 percent. Promoting democracy ranks far behind, at just 9 percent.

Country's direction: Despite economic worries, Saudis are relatively satisfied regarding the bellwether question of their country's overall situation, auguring well for the kingdom's stability. A narrow majority (54 percent) say the country is moving "in the right direction," compared with 39 percent who see it moving in the wrong direction.

"It’s the economy, ya ahmaq"! The economy — not Islam, Iran, or Israel — is widely viewed as the top national priority, and Saudis are mostly bearish about it. Forty percent said their personal economic situation got worse in 2009, though nearly as many (36 percent) reported improvement. Looking ahead, just one-fourth expect better in 2010.

U.S. role: Asked what the United States should do in the region, economic or technical assistance takes first place, with 30 percent of responses. Surprisingly, this narrowly edges out U.S. efforts on various Arab-Israeli issues, with a combined total of 27 percent. Promoting democracy ranks far behind, at just 9 percent.

Country’s direction: Despite economic worries, Saudis are relatively satisfied regarding the bellwether question of their country’s overall situation, auguring well for the kingdom’s stability. A narrow majority (54 percent) say the country is moving "in the right direction," compared with 39 percent who see it moving in the wrong direction.

The youngest Saudis polled (those between ages 18 and 24), or nearly a quarter of the adult population, were the most satisfied: 59 percent felt Saudi Arabia was moving in the right direction. Residents of Riyadh and Dammam/al-Khobar are also somewhat more favorably inclined on this question than those in Jeddah.

Corruption: A strikingly high proportion of Saudis cite corruption, in answer to an open-ended question, as the country’s single most pressing challenge. About as many as cite either inflation or unemployment. Each of those three ills garners around 20 percent of responses.

On this issue, however, Jeddawis voice much less concern than residents of the other two major metropolitan areas polled. Large majorities say corruption is a serious national problem in Riyadh (74 percent) and Dammam/al-Khobar (85 percent), but in Jeddah, inexplicably, that figure drops to just 42 percent.

Iran: When asked another open-ended question about external threats facing Saudi Arabia, "religious extremism" led by a large margin. Iran, Israel, or any other perceived outside danger (including swine flu!) lagged far behind.

Still, the level of popular support for tougher sanctions against Iran is unexpectedly high: 57 percent. By comparison, 35 percent would approve a U.S. military strike against Tehran’s nuclear program, and 25 percent say that even about an Israeli strike.

Al Qaeda and other groups: While a mere 20 percent of urban Saudis voice any support for al Qaeda, that overall figure masks significant regional differences: 16 percent in Jeddah claim that they support the movement, but that number rises to 31 percent in Dammam/al-Khobar, where an even higher proportion, 42 percent, call donations to unspecified "armed mujahideen" an "Islamic duty." These regional differences might help explain why half of Saudis overall, regardless of their own view, think that al Qaeda’s message does appeal to Muslims in general.

David Pollock is the Kaufman fellow and director of the Fikra Forum blog at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Previously he served on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff and as senior advisor at the State Department.

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