Information Warfare: July 1, 2004

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Saudi Arabia is a country with a lot of rules and prohibitions. Until recently, even independent opinion surveys were forbidden. But that has changed recently, and some polling is now allowed. The results have been interesting. After September 11, 2001, a government approved poll (which could not ask any sensitive questions), found that 96 percent of the population supported Osama bin Ladens ideas about a world wide Islamic empire. However, only about ten percent would support bin Laden and his al Qaeda crew as the leaders of this Islamic empire. Bin Laden is seen, by most Saudis,  as a rough piece of business. 

When al Qaeda began terrorist operations in Saudi Arabia, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, support for al Qaeda among Saudis fell by about half. As the attacks continued, support fell further. Currently, only a few percent of Saudis see Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in a favorable light. Interestingly, they do not see liberal reformers in a much better light. Only about 12 percent of Saudis support those who would introduce the rights and freedoms common in the West. Some 63 percent of Saudis are willing to let Saudi women drive cars. Before the 1940s, it was common for Saudi women, at least those living in nomad tribes, to ride horses and camels, but the Islamic conservatives would not accept the fact that automobiles had replaced the four legged transportation. But the thing that really gets the attention of Saudis is unemployment. Some 80 percent consider jobs to be the major issue in the kingdom, while less than one percent feel terrorism is the most important issue. The Saudi government, for years, ran secret government surveys, which no doubt gave them advance knowledge of what they could expect with a survey that would be released in the media. Moreover, it was no secret that most Saudis wanted women to get more rights (or at least fewer restrictions.) With the pro-al Qaeda attitudes of 2001 now diminished, the government could afford to admit what was already widely known. 

Saudi Arabia is also admitting another open secret; most Arab countries do not like to admit what their citizens think. Thats because most Arabs hate, or at least despise, their governments, and those governments see no reason to publicize that fact. But with a real democracy likely to appear in Iraq in the next year or so, other Arab governments are trying to get on better terms with their citizens. Less playing games with information is a move in that direction. But this will bring with it surprises to those in the West as well. Arab societies, especially in the Persian Gulf, are very conservative by any standard. And, despite the paltry achievements of Arabs in the last few centuries, there is no lack of self-esteem among Arabs. They have a very high opinion of themselves, and are quick to blame others for the failure of Arabs to achieve more. These last two attitudes are coming under increasing attack in the Arab world, as the illogic and self-destructive nature of these ideas becomes more obvious to more Arabs. The growing use of highly publicized opinion surveys in Arab countries will probably speed change. It's more difficult to ignore the obvious when it's out in the open.

 


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