U.S. Public Opinion of Late

The past year was a tumultuous time for the bilateral relationship, largely comprising a war of words in U.S. news outlets over Saudi and Emirati (un)willingness to coordinate oil production decisions around U.S. foreign-policy goals in Europe. For a relatively short post, I looked at the periodic polling that the Harvard-Harris project conducts on questions relating to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Rhetoric peaked in October with suggestions from President Biden that there would be “consequences” for oil production cuts from the Saudi-led OPEC+ group, though any consequences have yet to be forthcoming.

Still, the idea that Saudi Arabia was not “doing it’s part” to support lower energy prices – while no doubt helped along by elite rhetoric from policymaking and media circles – appears to have resonated beyond the Beltway. The percentage of poll respondents who consider Saudi Arabia an ally of the United States dropped to just 12% in October of 2022 (Figure 1), a further fall from the mid-20s “approval rating” that prevailed after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Figure 1: Respondents views of whether Saudi Arabia constitutes an ally or enemy to the United States (versus don’t know/neither/neutral). Source: Harvard-Harris Poll, 2017-2022.

What to make of all this? For now, the Biden administration has calculated (perhaps correctly!) that U.S. public opinion isn’t translating into any meaningful pressure to “recalibrate” the U.S.-Saudi relationship beyond the rhetorical level. As of early December, the U.S. was “not actively considering any significant retaliatory actions against the kingdom,” and in any case we might expect views of Saudi Arabia to recover as media coverage moves on.

Still, a few things worth noting.

First, declining support for Saudi Arabia qua ally has mostly translated into ambivalence rather than antipathy. The slight uptick in Americans viewing the Kingdom as an enemy is still below levels after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, when 63% believed that punishing Saudi Arabia was more important than preserving the security relationship (Oct. 2018) and a full 40% viewed the Kingdom as an enemy (June 2019).

Second, while October 2022 questions only cover Saudi Arabia, support for understanding Saudi Arabia as U.S. ally in Feb. 2022 was not much lower than views of actual U.S. treaty ally Turkey (both at ~24%) and less support for viewing Saudi Arabia as a U.S. enemy than Russia or China (30% vs. 64% and 68%, respectively).

Third, despite considerable discussion in Saudi op-ed pages about whether the Democratic Party constitutes a particular enemy to the Kingdom, an increasingly critical assessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been a bipartisan development (at least at the popular level). While Republicans were more supportive of the Kingdom as U.S. ally during the Trump administration (Figure 2), Saudi Arabia’s reputation took an equal hit among across the board after the murder of Khashoggi. Republicans were also more likely to view the Kingdom as an enemy of the United States relative to Democratic respondents (37% vs. 29%).

Figure 2: Views of Saudi Arabia as ally by partisan group. Source: Harvard-Harris Poll, 2017-2022.

Update: Other Polls

The other polls I’m aware of that regularly ask about favorability toward Saudi Arabia (Gallup & the Chicago Council) last updated in February & August of this past year. They ask less pointed questions about sentiment towards countries (a 4-point favorable/unfavorable scale and a 0-100 thermometer scale, respectively) and both show a similar trend (slow improvement 2002-2012 or so, generally declining views thereafter). Looking at partisan trends would take longer than I have time for at present, but at least for the Chicago Council poll in 2022 there is little difference between Republican (~36/100) and Democratic (~35/100) respondents’ views.

Figure 3: Favorability toward Saudi Arabia, 0-100 scale. Source: Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Figure 4: Favorability toward Saudi Arabia, 4-point scale (very/somewhat favorable/unfavorable). Source: Gallup.

The lack of a steep drop-off in 2022 for either poll suggests that the negative views captured in the Harvard-Harris poll are a function of September-October discussions of Saudi Arabia in the United States. The next round of the annual Gallup poll should in turn indicate whether the Harvard-Harris poll captured an enduring shift in views or just a media-cycle-driven blip on the radar.

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