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In the Middle East and North Africa, people are worrying about food

Five things to know from Arab Barometer’s latest survey

- October 6, 2022

What do people across the Middle East and North Africa think about food security, gender equality, democracy, climate change and China? Arab Barometer, the largest and longest-standing public opinion survey covering the MENA region, provides insights.

The new seventh wave includes more than 26,000 face-to-face interviews covering 12 MENA countries. The survey, conducted October 2021 to July, is the largest public opinion survey in the region since the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some takeaways.

Food insecurity has hit alarming levels

In half of the countries surveyed, a majority of citizens reported that they have often or sometimes run out of food within the previous 12 months. And most citizens in three-quarters of the countries surveyed say they worried that they would run out of money before they could afford more food, over the same period.

The bulk of these surveys were carried out before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which means the results don’t capture the full extent of the subsequent jump in food costs and shortages of food across much of the region. The growing sense of food insecurity is of particular concern beyond the clear human cost. Salma al-Shami explains in a new report how the lack of food is linked to a lower commitment to democracy, a higher desire to emigrate and diminished concerns about addressing climate change and other critical issues facing the region.

Ukraine war has side effects on Middle East geopolitics

Citizens want democracy — but realize it’s not perfect

In previous Arab Barometer survey waves, the vast majority of respondents affirm that democracy remains the best system of governance. This seventh wave is no exception — but there have been dramatic changes in the perception of democracy overall. In the past few years, MENA publics have become far more likely to say that the economy runs poorly under democracy, that democracy leads to instability and that democracy is indecisive.

These outcomes could reflect the broader global retrenchment of democracy. Or perhaps these shifts are the result of MENA citizens reflecting on the recent challenges experienced by countries in the region such as Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq — three countries where governments have changed as a result of elections in the past decade. Regardless, the results make clear that citizens value democracy, though many have updated their views of how democracy works.

MENA countries are far from achieving gender equality

Arab Barometer surveys asked respondents whether men and women should play equal roles in public and private life. In most of the surveyed countries, majorities responded that men are better political leaders and that men should have the final say over decisions in the family. However, new analysis by MaryClare Roche demonstrates how these views are changing across much of the region.

In the case of Tunisia, over the past four years, Arab Barometer surveys show a 16-point decline in the perception that men are better at politics. And in Lebanon, surveys note a 16-point drop in the perception that men should have the final say within the household, compared with the 2018 survey. This recent survey wave found smaller but meaningful declines on these perceptions in a number of countries, suggesting that the region is moving toward a greater acceptance of women’s equality.

China remains more popular than the United States, but that might change

Arab citizens are more positive toward China than toward the United States, but views of America have improved, while views of China are rapidly changing. In Jordan and the Palestinian territories, citizens are now 20 points less likely to want closer economic ties with China than in 2018-2019. In Sudan, Morocco, Libya and Lebanon, Arab Barometer found a decline of at least five points on this same question. And none of the countries surveyed showed a meaningful increase in citizen support for closer economic links with China over this period.

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China’s relative decline probably comes down to a closer familiarity with Beijing’s foreign policies. Arab Barometer also looked at perceptions of Chinese economic investment in local infrastructure. Although MENA publics largely see Chinese investment as the most affordable option for infrastructure projects, they also perceive these projects as low-quality investments that pay lower salaries to the local workforce than companies from other countries would probably pay.

Ultimately, most publics appear more likely to prefer investment from a U.S. or European company vs. a Chinese company. As China continues to pursue economic engagement in the region, these findings suggest that views of China might not improve as a result of this strategy.

Citizens worry about climate change but rank other concerns higher

The global COP27 meeting in Egypt will take place in November. New questions developed for this wave reveal that many MENA citizens think climate change is a critical issue and they want their governments to do more to address the problem. When asked about their primary environmental concerns, the primary issue is water — water scarcity, pollution of drinking water and pollution of their country’s waterways.

Citizens are also likely to assign equal blame the government and their fellow citizens for the lack of progress on environmental issues. Majorities in all the countries surveyed say that both parties are responsible for existing environmental challenges.

The survey also finds that levels of recycling or reusing basic items varies widely across the region. However, questions that asked why respondents recycle reveal that few cite the environment. Instead, the primary personal motivations behind recycling are cost savings and convenience. In short, concerns about the environment take a back seat when compared with other issues, but MENA publics are aware of environmental challenges and want action.

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Michael Robbins is director and co-principal investigator at Arab Barometer.

Amaney Jamal is dean of the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and co-principal investigator of Arab Barometer.

Arab Barometer data and data analysis tools are freely available online thanks to our funders, including the Middle East Partnership Initiative, USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the BBC Arabic.