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What Arabs Think; What Arabs Do

Over the weekend, a handful of participants at the annual conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy were treated to a sneak peek of a new, large study of Arab behavior vis-à-vis the United States.

Unlike surveys of public opinion in the Arab world, this study gauged behavior patterns, both popular (of individuals) and official (of governments).


The survey shows that despite the well-documented sharp increase in anti-American sentiment during the past decade -- a decade that featured President Bush, the Iraq war, Abu-Ghureib, Israel's military operations in Lebanon and Gaza, and more - despite all that, Arab behavior patterns were not impacted. Political resentment was not translated to actions such as boycotting.


The research team was headed by David Pollock, a former State Department official and a leading expert on Arab attitudes and opinions, now a scholar at WINEP. Pollock and his aides combed through data pertaining to 19 Arab states and found that since 2000:

  • There was little change in the number of student applications to study in America;
  • Despite a sharp drop in visa applications to travel to the U.S., there was a recovery during the decade with a number of visa applications in 2008 that exceeds the level of the year 2000;
  • There was a sharp surge in importing U.S.-made consumer products in the past five years;
  • There was a similar increase in bilateral trade with the U.S. and in Arms purchases from the U.S.


Furthermore, to the extent that there was an increase in anti-American protest, such demonstrations were directly related to specific developments that provoked the "Arab street," such as the Iraq invasion or Israel's military campaign in Gaza.


On the other hand, Pollock found that there was a significant decrease in the number of times that these 19 Arab states voted with the U.S. in the United Nations.


Pollock said that he was particularly intrigued by his finding that consumption of American-made products so sharply increased during this Bush decade. To understand the phenomenon better, he commissioned polls in Arab states and found that despite anti-American (political) sentiments, only a minority said that such sentiments are likely to drive them to not buy American brands.


Do you find it surprising that Arabs make a distinction between political sentiments and consumer habits? I don't.


Listening to Pollock, I was reminded of how even the most revolutionary Palestinian nationalists used to buy Israeli cigarettes during the first intifada, despite calls to boycott Israeli products. I remember a popular song at that time that rhymed the Arabic word "nidal" (struggle) with "Imperial," the best-sold (yet cheap and unstylish) West Bank-manufactured cigarettes. Visiting a Palestinian Fatah activist at that time, I noticed that he was smoking Israeli-made "Time." I asked him if that was politically correct, and he replied: "you don't really expect me to smoke that unsavory crap," referring to the Palestinian brand.


Pollock is a friend and a top-notch professional. I have great respect for his work, and I therefore am impatiently awaiting his report, which he expects to publish in a couple of months.


I am particularly interested in his conclusions chapter, because I can't quite understand the significance of his findings. Yes, Arabs dislike American policies but like American products. That does not make them hypocrites, and Pollock agreed with me on that. Yes, they still want to study in the U.S. and their governments buy more and more American weapons. What is the lesson to be learned from this? What are the policy implications?


Nabil Khoury, a U.S. diplomat who directs the Near East office of analysis at the State Department's Bureau of Research and Intelligence, sat on the panel with Pollock and cautioned against any kind of smugness. The findings do not show that the U.S. can give up on efforts to reach out to Arab hearts and minds and improve America's image in the Arab world. "The fact that people come to study here does not mean that we are doing things right," he said. Pollock agreed.