Exclusive: China Tops U.S. as Favorite Power Among Arabs Despite Challenges

A new poll obtained exclusively in advance by Newsweek reveals that China leads the United States in popularity among the people of at least seven Arab countries, as Beijing's ambitious outreach continues to find fertile ground in a region in which Washington has left behind a difficult legacy.

But challenges have emerged for the Chinese effort to win hearts and minds in the Arab World, as there is some degree of skepticism toward what Beijing has to offer.

Arab Barometer, a nonpartisan research network based at Princeton University that has been conducting high-level polling in the Middle East and North Africa since 2006, conducted the survey based on nearly 23,000 interviews across Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia and Sudan between October 2021 and April 2022, with a margin of error of about 2 points in each country.

The results, soon to be featured on Arab Barometer's website, showed that only in Morocco, which had the highest opinions of both countries, did respondents have a slightly more favorable view of the U.S. (69%) than China (64%), and in Jordan, they were tied (51% each). China achieved the same figure (51%) in Lebanon, but the U.S. (42%) was nine points below.

Those who had positive perceptions of the U.S. were in the minority in most other countries, with the exception of Sudan, where the U.S. (57%) was only three points behind China (60%), and in Mauritania, where the U.S. scored exactly half (50%), while China had a 13-point lead at 63%.

Double-digit leads were also scored by China (50%) against the U.S. (33%) in Tunisia and in Libya, where just under half had a favorable view of China (49%) and even fewer had a favorable view of the U.S. (37%).

Palestinians had the lowest opinions of both countries, though China at 34% achieved its largest lead in all countries against the U.S., which came in at just 15%.

China, vs, US, favorability, in, Arab, countries
A poll released August 9 by Arab Barometer shows the favorability of China and the United States among respondents from nine Arab countries. Arab Barometer

Michael Robbins, director and co-principal investigator at Arab Barometer, discussed the findings of the study with Newsweek.

"China has recently reemerged as a power in the MENA[Middle East and North Africa] region," Robbins said. "China stepped in with a number of advantages, with few regional entanglements and a stated desire to remain apolitical in the region. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has increased levels of economic engagement across the region."

"Given the direct meddling of many other powers," he added, "its more neutral political stance may have appeared refreshing to many ordinary citizens across the region."

Chinese officials have frequently criticized U.S. interventions across the Middle East and Afghanistan, and have taken a far more neutral stance on geopolitical issues in Beijing's extensive business dealings with Iranian, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi firms, among others.

With the exception of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, every Middle Eastern and North African country, including the other seven surveyed by Arab Barometer, has signed on to the BRI.

On Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying accused the U.S. and its allies of having "made up various pretexts such as so-called possession of weapons of mass destruction to picture other countries as threats — and sometimes even without any valid reason— to blatantly launch military strikes and even unleash wars on sovereign countries."

In her comments, which came in response to U.S. accusations regarding People's Liberation Army drills surrounding the disputed island of Taiwan, she specifically called out "humanitarian tragedies" in countries such as Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, the first target of the U.S.-led "War on Terror" that has spanned the Middle East and its peripheries in Asia and Africa for more than two decades.

"How many innocent civilians have been wounded and killed?" Hua asked reporters rhetorically. "How many families have been torn apart and lost? Have the U.S. and other NATO countries involved done any soul-searching on these tragedies? Have they felt even a tinge of guilt for the serious ramifications and catastrophes they caused? Have they ever made an apology to the victims in those countries? And have they ever given them any compensation?"

During the next press briefing held Monday, her colleague, Wang Wenbin, lodged a similar accusation.

"For quite some time, in the name of democracy and human rights, the U.S. has wantonly interfered in the internal affairs of developing countries and launched military interventions and aggression against them," Wang said. "That poses the biggest threat to regional and international security."

Though these arguments may resound for many in the Arab World, Robbins pointed out that opinions of China have declined in recent years, and he attributed this to a shift in how Chinese economic overtures have come to be viewed.

"China is not a truly neutral party," Robbins said. "Its terms of economic engagement are ones that tend to heavily favor Beijing over local populations as many, including those living in Sri Lanka and Pakistan among others, have come to realize recently. It appears that those in MENA are starting to come to a similar conclusion — Chinese economic engagement is not all it is cracked up to be."

Other results from the latest Arab Barometer polling showed that those in all nine countries were more likely to view China as providing the lowest-quality and cheapest projects, as opposed to Germany, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the U.S. or "other" countries.

When it came to highest-quality construction, Germany won out in all nations except Mauritania, where the U.S. was the first choice. Across all nations, China was seen as the country that built projects at the lowest cost, with the U.S. and Germany at the other end of the spectrum with the most expensive. The U.S. was also chosen as the favorite to pay the best salary among respondents in the majority of countries.

Desires to build stronger economic relations with Beijing and Washington were mixed. More respondents in Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Libya and the Palestinian territories expressed enthusiasm for tightening economic ties with China, while more in Sudan, Morocco and Lebanon sought to strengthen economic cooperation with the U.S., all with single-digit differences except in Sudan, in which 10% more backed better economic relations with the U.S. than with China.

As for whether either power was viewed as a "critical economic threat," however, respondents in all countries were more likely to point the finger at the U.S. than China.

China, President, Xi, addresses, Arab, Cooperation, Forum
Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a speech during the 8th Ministerial Meeting of China-Arab States Cooperation Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July, 10, 2018. China has offered tens of billions of dollars in investment to Arab League members, all but two of which are members of the Belt and Road Initiative. WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

The study might not reflect the full scope of China's influence in the Arab World, as much of Beijing's regional investments has been geared toward wealthier nations, such as those located in the Arabian Peninsula.

Robbins said that these nations have a far stronger say when it came to the conditions of striking deals with China.

"There is a major difference between Chinese engagement with the Gulf countries and the rest of the region," Robbins said. "The Gulf countries are not approaching from the same position of relative weakness. All are wealthy countries that could potentially benefit from Chinese investment and economic engagement, but are not dependent upon it as a development strategy. Losing Chinese investment may hurt them to a degree, but they have other options given their status as high-income countries."

This may mitigate concerns over dealing with China in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, or even Egypt, located on the bridge of North Africa, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. China has expanded its dealings with these countries in recent years.

Robbins argues that by comparison "most other countries in the region are at a far weaker position vis-a-vis China," saying that "China can more easily dictate terms of engagement, which often leads to deals that are more in China's interest than those of the country itself."

Also potentially affecting regional perceptions were shifts within the U.S. itself.

Robbins said that President Joe Biden, while his popularity was "moderate" in the region, was still "far more widely favored than former President Trump in the countries that we have surveyed."

During his Middle East trip that brought him to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia last month, Biden proclaimed that the U.S. "will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran."

At the same time, he has shared his predecessor's stated aim to end "forever wars" in the region. And Robbins said the drawdown of U.S. military involvement may be having a positive impact on perceptions of Washington.

"We do have some evidence that there would likely be support for a decreased role for the U.S. in the region," Robbins said. "When we asked about views of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a majority in all countries surveyed were in favor, including 80% in Palestine and Jordan."

"These results suggest that MENA publics favor a decreased security role for the U.S.," he added.