Hugo Chávez: the most popular leader in the Middle East

The results of the new survey of ‘Arab opinion’ conducted by Zogby International show that Barack Obama has a much more favourable rating than did his predecessor as US president. But when asked to name the world leaders whom they most admire, the participants put the President of Venezuela at the top of the poll.

The survey, which was conducted in April and May 2009, sampled the views of 4,087 people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. According to the respected Zogby polling organisation, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.6%. One of the questions put to the participants was “which two world leaders (outside your own country) do you admire most?” The most frequently named leader is Hugo Chavez, at 36%. Following Chavez in order of admiration are Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and former President of France Jacques Chirac (both at 18%), Osama bin Laden (16%), Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (15%) and the current French president Nicolas Sarkozy (14%).

Admiration in the Arab countries for Hugo Chavez has hugely increased since 2008. In the equivalent poll conducted last year, Venezuela’s socialist president was named by only 8% of respondents as being one of the two most admired leaders.

Commenting on this result, the Africa / Americas editor of the US magazine Christian Science Monitor, Matthew Clark exclaimed:

The colorful Latin leftist has some serious crossover appeal.

…It may seem surprising, but a quick look back at Mr. Chávez’s statements and visits over the past few years reveal why he’s now a hero for the “Arab Street,” earning nicknames like “Chávez of Arabia.”

In January, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah – last year’s top leader of the same poll – lauded Chávez for kicking out the Israeli ambassador to Venezuela to protest Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

“He did this because of his humanity, his sense of revolution and, in this way, he dealt a severe blow to those who are now hosting the ambassadors of Israel in their capitals and do not have enough courage to even think about telling them to leave. “

The same move prompted a Kuwaiti Islamist MP to say that Chávez “has proved that he was more Arab than some Arabs,” he said. “I call for moving the Arab League from Cairo to Caracas.”

USA and Israel are my enemies

Covering a range of political, economic and social issues, the Zogby survey gives an indication of the understanding by the public in Arab countries of the complexities of international affairs as they affect the Middle East. Asked to “name two countries that you think pose the biggest threat to you”, 88% named Israel and 77% named the United States of America. Iran and China came a distant third and fourth in the list of enemies, at 13% and 9% respectively.

The participants were also requested to comment on the motivation for Israeli policies and the USA’s support for those policies. Although 39% agreed with the phrase “Israel decides on its own interests and influences the US”, the majority (57%) agreed with one of two alternative formulations: “US and Israel have mutual interests” (32%) and “Israel is a tool of American foreign policy (25%).

On the solution to the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’, most of those surveyed (73%) said that they were “prepared for peace if Israel is willing to return all 1967 territories including East Jerusalem”; but the majority of those who supported peace on that basis were also of the view that “Israel will never give up those territories easily”.

That view is contributory to the very deep pessimism about the prospects for peace which the survey revealed. Only 6% expressed a belief that a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be achieved in the next five years; 40% believe that such a solution is inevitable but will take more time, while 50% think that a lasting peace settlement will never be achieved.

Shaking the planet

Zogby’s ‘Arab opinion’ survey also reflected a growing concern with falling living standards due to the economic crisis. A mere 14% of participants said that they are economically better off now than a year ago, compared with 54% who stated that they are worse off; and only 33% are hopeful that their position will improve next year. A big majority (63%) agreed with the statement that the ‘weakened US economy’ has a global effect which “has a negative impact on me and my family”.

This disillusionment with the economic results of the capitalist system, which is indelibly associated with the global domination of the USA, is without doubt another factor in the increased popularity of Hugo Chavez in the Arab countries. As Matthew Clark of the Christian Science Monitor wrote in his article on the Zogby poll:

In March, Chávez went before Arab leaders in Doha, Qatar, to propose an oil-backed currency to challenge the US dollar. There, he gleefully announced the demise of “the Empire” – or “the Great Satan” as his friend Mr. Ahmadinejad would call the US. (The two have visited each other several times.)

“A new world is being born,” Chávez said then. “Empires fall. There is a world crisis of capitalism, it’s shaking the planet.”

This stuff is gold dust in the Middle East.

Mr Clark’s sneering tone can be disregarded. It is gold dust because it is true. And, in Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere in our world, more and more people are beginning realise it.

By Hilary Keenan


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