A recent Pew Research Center survey looked at the decline of Saudi Arabia’s image with neighboring countries in the Middle East. While Saudi Arabia's reputation remains predominantly prestigious with the global Muslim population, the recent geopolitical changes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have led to a sharp decline in Saudi Arabia’s reputation with its neighbors. This is likely to deeply affect the balance of power in the region for the foreseeable future.
While varying widely from country to country, the general image of Saudi Arabia and its government in the Middle East has radically deteriorated. Even though countries like Jordan and Egypt still have a generally favorable public perception of Saudi Arabia (at 88% and 78% respectively), Saudi popularity has decreased everywhere in its region.
The Pew study shows that between 2007 and 2013 the favorable view of Saudi Arabia has decreased by 13% in Egypt, 13% in the Palestinian territories, 14% in Turkey and, to a much more significant extent, 31% in Lebanon. The plummeting of Lebanese opinion has primarily been caused by a sharp decrease of Saudi popularity with Christian and Shia demographics.
More specifically, opinions have changed with regards to the themes of the Saudi record on domestic personal freedoms and Saudi influence abroad.
Even though the international community has recently done very little to denounce Saudi Arabia's poor progress on civil liberties, the generally favorable perception of Saudi’s stance on the issue has faded in the region. We exclude, once again, the Jordanian and Egyptian publics, 60% and 59% of whom, respectively, favor the Saudi government’s position on civil liberties. Yet, there were a solid majority of Palestinians (53%), Lebanese (71%), and Turks (64%) who disagreed when asked whether they thought the Saudi government respects the personal freedoms of its people, followed by 50% of Tunisian respondents.
From a general perspective, it is likely that much of this decline has been caused by Saudi Arabia’s position on the conflict in Syria and increased sectarianism along religious lines.
Saudi Arabia maintains strong financial and political support for the Syrian opposition, seeking the eventual overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in order to weaken Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, Iran. The Syrian conflict has also factored into a general trend of increased religious fragmentation in the region, from Lebanon’s Sunni-Shia divide to Egypt’s social tension with the Coptic population.
This explains the sharp 57% drop of Saudi popularity with Lebanese Shias, who generally look favorably upon the Syrian regime and Iran, and the conviction of 83% of Lebanese respondents that Saudi Arabia maintains a “great deal or fair amount” of influence abroad, compared to only 31% of Tunisian respondents and 44% of Palestinian respondents.
Saudi Arabia’s determined stance against the political actors of the Shia Crescent — from the Iranian government to the Syrian Ba’ath and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — has has begun to marginalize the country in an increasingly divided Arab world.
As more of the Saudi government’s political capital has become invested in Syria’s civil war and general opposition against Iran, Saudi popularity has been weakened by Bashar Al-Assad’s successful standoff against pressure from the American government and political overtures from the new Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani.
The unification of countries across the Arab world is coming to an end, and Saudi Arabia is paying a logical price for picking a more defined position in today’s chaotic Middle East.