Despite the long-standing military and economic partnership between the US and the Gulf monarchy, research conducted by us at Redfield & Wilton Strategies has found that three times as many Americans consider Saudi Arabia to be more of a threat than an ally to the United States.
Indeed, a strong plurality of Americans (43%) say they consider Saudi Arabia to be more of a threat to the US and its interests, compared to the smaller proportion (16%) who consider Saudi Arabia to be more of an ally. This result comes almost two years after the notable murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul led to widespread scrutiny of the Saudi authorities, with many senior US politicians openly questioning the US-Saudi relationship for the first time.
Remarkably, likely Biden voters and likely Trump voters were aligned almost identically on the question of Saudi Arabia’s relationship to the United States. Whereas 43% of likely Trump voters consider Saudi Arabia to be more of a threat, this is the case with 47% of likely Biden voters. Conversely, 21% of likely Trump voters and 24% of likely Biden voters view Saudi Arabia as more of an ally.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights may explain a greater proportion of female (49%) than male (38%) respondents viewing Saudi Arabia as more of a threat than an ally to the United States.
On the other hand, when respondents were asked about Turkey’s relationship with the United States, the plurality (31%) said they view Turkey neither as an ally nor a threat to the United States.
27% said they consider Turkey, which is a member of NATO, more of a threat, and 20% said Turkey is more of an ally. Interestingly, the gender pattern observed with Saudi Arabia was reversed here, with a smaller proportion of female (21%) than male (34%) respondents saying they view Turkey as more of a threat to the US.
When asked about their thoughts on the overall success of President Trump’s approach to the Middle East, the public was very divided. 34% agreed and 33% disagreed that President Trump’s policies in the Middle East have been an overall success.
This split is reflective of the 41% who approve and 46% who disapprove of his overall job performance since becoming President. Whereas only 2% said they do not know whether they approve of Trump’s overall job performance, 12% are uncertain about whether they approve of his administration’s policies in the Middle East. These figures reflect the lesser degree of attention the Middle East has received during Trump’s presidency in comparison to previous ones. For example, the Bush presidency was marked by 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Arab Spring, the subsequent civil wars in Syria and Libya, and the rise of ISIS unfolded over the course of Obama’s presidency.
However, one decision taken by Trump that the public appears broadly supportive of was ordering the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in early January of this year. Our poll found that 44% agree and 17% disagree that, in hindsight, Trump made the right decision in ordering the killing of Qasem Soleimani. Whereas in the aftermath of the event there were widespread concerns that it might lead to armed conflict with Iran, a series of events (including Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accidentally shooting down an Iranian civilian airplane) led to de-escalation, which could explain the degree of support for Trump’s decision now.
Nonetheless, the 34% who neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement and the 15% who selected the ‘don’t know’ option once again highlight the electorate’s limited awareness (and perhaps lack of interest) in events taking place in the Middle East. Indeed, with 79% of respondents saying the candidates’ stances towards China will be at least somewhat important in deciding their vote in November, it appears that the American electorate has shifted its gaze eastwards when it comes to foreign policy priorities—to the extent that foreign policy is a factor determining their vote. Indeed, it appears that this election that will be primarily fought along the lines of domestic policy, with the idea of holding China responsible for the coronavirus pandemic likely being the foremost foreign policy debate that will feature on the campaign trail.