The Arab Barometer, a non-partisan research network based at Princeton University, carried out 23,000 interviews across nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa region between October 2021 and July 2022, in what it’s called the largest public opinion survey of its kind since Covid.
It found that of the polled countries in the MENA region, China rather than the United States is the favored superpower by the majority. When asked more specifically whether respondents want stronger economic relations with China and again with the U.S., six of the nine countries and territories surveyed favored China, with only Morocco, Lebanon and Sudan choosing the U.S. (The following Statista chart does not include the ninth country, Mauritania, since the question was not polled there in 2018-19.)
But this gap in perceptions is narrowing. According to the survey, the share of people saying they wanted stronger economic relations with China has dropped in many of the countries since the same question was asked in 2018-19. Jordanians and Palestinians are now 20 percentage points less likely to want stronger economic ties with China than before, while Sudan saw a 14 percentage point decrease and Libya and Morocco a 13 percentage point decrease. In terms of the U.S. there has not been as widespread a decline since 2018-19. Only the Palestinian territories (-10 p.p.) and Jordan (-9 p.p.) have seen major declines while Sudan (-2 p.p.) and Morocco (-1 p.p.) saw smaller drops and Iraq (+11 p.p.), Tunisia (+9 p.p.) and Libya (+6 p.p.) saw increases.
The writers of the report offer several possible explanations for these outcomes. Firstly, they suggest that the decrease of interest in economic ties with China over the past years could be linked to perceptions of Chinese companies in the region - the presence of which have likely become more noticeable in recent years with the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Survey respondents to the 2022 poll generally responded more negatively towards Chinese construction companies than those of the U.S., Germany or the UK, stating that they thought the projects were more likely to be cheaper and of lower quality. Germany was the favorite for high quality construction projects and the U.S. was picked as the most likely to pay the best salary.
But other factors likely come into play too. Respondents in many of the polled countries were more concerned by the threat posed by U.S. economic power than that of Chinese economic power, and the report authors highlight how political issues may have also impacted perceptions in the region, whether that’s in China’s case, with the country’s treatment of Muslim minorities, particularly the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, or in the U.S. case with its support for Israel.
Find out more on China's current diplomatic efforts in the Middle East here.