US-UAE: Viewing Each Other

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As part of their work examining the East- West divide, my students at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus designed a survey to be administered in the U.S. and an Arab country in order to better understand how Americans and people in the Arab World understand themselves and each other. Last year we examined the perceptions that Americans and Egyptians had of each other. This year we focused our study on the U.S. and the UAE. The survey, conducted on-line by jzanalytics, a New York-based polling company, found a striking gap in understanding between the two peoples.

There were a few caveats that had to be considered in conducting these two surveys and in evaluating the results. Both countries have near universal internet penetration and jzanalytics’ extensive work in conducting on-line surveys in the US has demonstrated that this approach can provide an accurate measure of U.S. public opinion. But because we have not yet tested the reliability of on-line methodology in the UAE, we cannot be as certain about the accuracy of our results in that country. And given the enormous diversity of the population in the UAE, where Emirati citizens represent only about 20% of the overall population, the results for the UAE, of necessity, represent all residents in the country, including its large non-Emirati Arab and Asian communities. Nevertheless, even with these considerations, the findings of the two surveys can provide a useful measure of the different perceptions both societies have of each other.

Firstly, while residents of the UAE demonstrate very favorable attitudes toward the U.S. (a 64% positive rating), only 19% of Americans have a positive view of the UAE. Thirty-eight percent of Americans give the UAE a negative rating, while a substantial 43% say they are “not sure” and “do not know enough” about the country. In a pattern that repeats throughout the survey findings, African Americans have significantly more favorable attitudes (almost 3 to 1 favorable) while a majority of women report being “not sure”. It is also important to note that while there is a very high percentage of Americans who say they are “not sure” or “do not have enough information” to give an assessment about the UAE, that doesn’t appear to stop them from making negative assessments about the culture and values of the UAE.

Fifty-one percent of the UAE residents agree that the U.S. is an ally or friend of the UAE, while only 14% of Americans feel that the same can be said about the UAE. At the same time, one-third of Americans describe the UAE as a “country with whom we do business, but not a friend” and another 38% say they are “not sure”.

When asked to describe which society is “more respectful of the rights of others” and in which society is it “more possible to enjoy life” 60% of Americans chose the U.S., while in both instances, a plurality of residents of the UAE chose the UAE. Again, 64% of Americans feel that the U.S. is “more generous”, while 57% of people in the UAE say that the UAE is the more generous country.

There are some areas where American attitudes appear to be less certain. When asked which country is “more violent”, 67% in the Emirates say the U.S. is more violent country, but only 39% of Americans point to the UAE as being more violent. And again, while 75% of people in the UAE say that UAE is “more respectful of families and traditions”, only 38% of Americans say that the U.S. leads in this area.

The bottom line is that while Americans appear to be supremely confident in their cultural superiority as the society that is more generous and more respectful of individual rights, they are less sure about whether their society is less violent and more respectful of families, tradition, religion and values.

Other real differences appear when residents in both countries are asked to identify “the most important aspect of living in your country” and “what do you expect from the government” in your country? Fifty-five percent of Americans point to “the freedom to live life as I choose” as the most import aspect of living in the U.S., with “economic opportunity” receiving 13%,”freedom of religion”, receiving 11%, and other options like “respect for diversity” and “our history and culture” each receiving only scant mention. In the UAE, on the other hand, a plurality of 40% point to “economic opportunity” as the most important aspect of life in that country, followed by 21% who identify the “freedom to live life as I choose” and 14% saying “respect for diversity”.

Forty-one percent of Americans say that “protecting my rights and freedoms” is what they most expect from government, with between 16% to 13% choosing “keeping me safe”, “providing needed services”, and “providing economic opportunity”. On the other side, what 31% of residents in the UAE “most expect from government” is “keeping me safe”, followed by 27% who point to “protecting my rights and freedoms” and 22% who say that “providing economic opportunity” is the most important thing government does for them.

What we can conclude is that there appears to be a real gap in perception and understanding between people in the UAE and the U.S., with Americans not fully appreciating or reciprocating the favorable feelings residents in the UAE have toward the U.S. Nor do Americans fully understand how positively people in the UAE feel about the culture of the country or the quality of life and opportunities provided for them by the government in the UAE.

(To view the two polls mentioned in this article, click here)