The very concept of public opinion in highly secretive Saudi Arabia is almost an oxymoron. Hard data are difficult to come by, and even rarer is information about controversial and strategically critical current issues: views about military action against Iran, corruption and the state of civil liberties within the kingdom, religious extremism and al Qaeda, and donations to other mujahideen. Yet I was able to obtain exactly this kind of data by working with the new Princeton, N.J.-based firm Pechter Middle East Polls and an established regional survey team.
The results are eye-opening. A third of the Saudi public would approve a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear program, and a fourth is even willing to say it would support an Israeli operation. A solid majority of Saudis want local elections, which have been postponed for two years. Solid majorities also say that corruption and religious extremism are serious problems in their country. At the same time, 36 percent call it "an Islamic duty" to donate funds to "armed mujahideen fighting in various places around the world," but only about half that percentage voices support for al Qaeda.
What Do Saudis Want?
Take a closer look at the state of Saudi public opinion today.
By David Pollock
Most intriguing of all, however, is that none of these hot-button issues ranks very high on the public's agenda compared with economic concerns. In fact, a majority of urban citizens in this oil-rich country name inflation, unemployment, or poverty as Saudi Arabia's most important national priority.
Gathering the data to draw these conclusions was a unique challenge, but not insurmountable. There are two sets of practical difficulties that limit pollsters working in this conservative and tightly controlled country: political or cultural constraints, and special sampling challenges. Luckily, after 25 years in the field, I have developed a few tricks for gathering information in societies such as these. One very valuable tool, which I pioneered in the region during the 1990-1991 Iraq-Kuwait crisis, is to piggyback some political questions on a commercial product survey -- about cars, shampoo, media audiences, airlines, almost anything. Such surveys are now fairly routine in most Arab countries, and this "double-edged" polling technique has a solid track record. This strategy has the benefit of greatly reducing the odds of interference by local authorities. At the same time, it has the added virtue of putting respondents more at ease with "icebreaker" questions before broaching sensitive social or political issues.
Occasionally the transition from one topic to the next can be a bit awkward, but it works. During the mid-1990s, while I was monitoring a survey in one Arab village, we tacked on a slew of very direct political questions to a long marketing survey about the plastic toy Legos, of all things. One respondent was convinced that there must be some connection between politics and Legos and persistently asked me to explain how the two topics were related. I'm not sure I was able to persuade him that there really was no link, except the convenience and cost savings of combining the two totally unrelated topics into one survey. Nevertheless, even this interview produced clear, thoughtful, and apparently quite candid responses to all the questions on the form, whether about Legos or politics.
Telephone polls, while temptingly easy to organize, are widely viewed with suspicion in the Middle East. They are therefore distinctly inferior to in-person interviews, especially about anything controversial. Interviewers must be drawn from the area, allowing them to fit easily into society, and also to ensure that only Saudi citizens are sampled, not the millions of Arabic-speaking guest workers -- but not too local, in that they are personally known in the neighborhood. Scrupulously observing gender divisions is also vital: Women interview women; men interview men.
Another common cultural phenomenon is widespread reluctance to admit ignorance, even about obscure or trivial things. So, when asking if respondents are aware of various items or issues, it can be useful to include a completely fictitious term on the list, as a kind of reality check. In this Saudi poll, a remarkable 70 percent of the urban public said it was aware of the country's Majlis al-Shura, a royally appointed, purely advisory council that seldom makes any real news. In retrospect, I wish I had also asked a "control" question to check on the validity of this figure.
In a recent commercial survey in Egypt and Jordan, for example, I asked if certain brand names were American or not -- and I made up a brand called "George's Sportswear" out of thin air and put it on the list along with such real brands as Crest toothpaste, Xerox, and Nescafé. Sure enough, about half of Egyptians and Jordanians voiced an opinion about whether "George's Sportswear" is an American or a non-American brand -- even though it really does not exist at all. I have obtained similar results on such fictitious questions in Israel, too. The useful lesson learned is to take findings on similar questions in these countries with a large grain of salt. I'm not really sure why respondents in the United States and Europe seem more willing to concede that they have never heard of something; but if asked a follow-up question, they will often venture an opinion about it anyway!