Fadi Al-Assaad / Reuters An aerial view of Doha's diplomatic area, March 21, 2013.

How Gulf Citizens View Iran

A Survey of What the People Actually Think

In May, in an hour-long interview aired on state television, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman declared that dialogue with Iran was “impossible.” The Shiite republic could not be trusted, he warned, since its foreign policy was guided by the messianic aim of converting and controlling the entire Muslim world. The prince’s fiery rhetoric, however much it dashed hopes that the two geopolitical rivals could reach a settlement in their standoffs in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, was of course not surprising. With the exception of Oman and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Qatar, the Arab Gulf states have long charged Tehran with manipulating, arming, and stoking unrest among Arab Shiite populations both within and outside of conflict zones. As a result, most Gulf governments openly regard Iran as their foremost national security threat.

Whether Gulf citizens agree with such a view, however, is less clear. Scholars have extensively studied elite threat perceptions in the Middle East and Gulf regions, yet very little is known about how ordinary Gulf Arabs perceive Iran and the extent to which their views reflect the internal and external narratives projected by their respective governments. The existing public opinion survey data, collected in the Gulf region after the 2011 Arab Spring, suggest that most Arabs hold broadly negative views of Iran across a number of cultural and political dimensions, and that these opinions depend crucially on individuals’ sectarian identification, with Shiites generally holding substantially more positive views of Iran. But dislike or even hatred toward Iran and its policies is distinct from fear of the country as an assumed political–military aggressor. Moreover, Iran and its suspected nuclear weapons program is today but one of several competing state and non-state threats to Gulf national security: also figuring in are the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other Sunni-dominated terrorist organizations; economic stagnation due to low oil prices; and, from the standpoint of some, continued foreign intrusion by the United

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