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A Marriage of Convenience: Surprising Popularity of Trump on Arab Social Media

Donald Trump? He’s more popular than Barack Obama within the Arab world online, primarily due to his hostile rhetoric against Iran. Moreover, and not surprisingly, The Donald is as polarizing as ever.

These are some of the most significant results that were drawn from our study that analyzed all the conversations on Twitter written in Arabic concerning the U.S. and the war against ISIS from October 2014 to the end of June 2017 (i.e., more than 6 million tweets). Not that the last two U.S. presidents have ever been that popular. According to data, the prevalent opinion on both of them is negative, but the results for Obama are worse than Trump’s.

Within the period that was assessed, numbers tell us that the ratio between positive and negative reviews for Obama accounts for 33.9%, despite his several overtures towards the Arab world. Just to mention Obama’s famous speech at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in 2009, which had led to believe that the former U.S. president would have created a great discontinuity with George W. Bush’s era.

On the contrary, Trump gets a more flattering result (44.5%). On the other hand, as it has already been stated, Trump’s decisions and statements on the so-called Islamic State polarize users’ opinions more sharply than Obama’s.

With regard to the current U.S. president, opinions are divided into a criticizing majority (45.2%) and a minority expressing positive views (36.3%), whereas ‘neutral’ posts – i.e. without a clear positioning – rank 18.5%. On the contrary, opinions are way less defined when Obama is at the heart of the debate, with neutral posts accounting for half the total (49.5%).

But what is the most discussed topic when ISIS and the U.S. are involved, within the Arab world online?

Hostility towards Iran is at the center of the political debate. In fact, negative views towards terrorism wave as much as ISIS, for having provided support for both the Syrian and Iraqi government, and for the mainly Shia militias, such as Hezbollah or Hashd al-Shaabi. The 11.4% accuses them of being secret allies of the U.S., and in some cases, of Israel. Being the latter, an opinion which is usually linked to conspiracy theories stating that Iran together with the West would aim at fighting against Arab-Sunni states, both for religious and political reasons.

On the other hand, it is not a coincidence that this group is formed by users who predominantly write from Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, from the other Gulf States, which, according to The Arab Social Media Report, account for more than 40% of the Arabs who use Twitter, and often share very negative views towards Tehran.

The hostility against Iran, and the related anti-Shia sectarian rhetoric, explains what we started with, i.e., Trump ranking – relatively – higher than Obama in positive reviews. In short, the Arab social world seems to have adopted an essentially pragmatic attitude towards the current U.S. president, despite his debated statements on Islam – and some of his controversial decisions, such as the ‘Muslim Ban’ – hoping for a change in Obama’s overture to Tehran.

This pragmatism is sometimes shaken by Trump’s foreign policy. If a week later of his election, the opinion on The Donald was positive (especially three days after the vote), the opposite takes place concurrently with the American airstrikes against a Syrian military base in April 2017, when the average of positive views on Trump plummeted to 26%.

This negative data are even more significant when considering the hostility of the Arab public opinion against Assad’s regime, an Iran ally, which leads back to the fear that Trump called for this airstrike just for propaganda purposes, with no real intention of changing the U.S. policy towards the Syrian government.

Here is the clue to understanding whether this seemingly bizarre “honeymoon” between Trump and the Arab world will last or not. We have to wait for Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal with Tehran, by October 13th. This agreement, that was signed in July 2015 by the Obama’s administration, is expected to progressively reduce Western and U.S. sanctions in exchange for some restrictions on the Iran’s nuclear program.

In this sense, a negative opinion of Trump would bring back the debate in Congress, which could decide to maintain the existing sanctions, thereby leading to the end of such an agreement. This is likely to be the real turning point that will significantly mark the development of United States foreign policy in the coming years, and with it, their role in the Middle East.

(A special thanks to Sarah Okpanum, Islam Fawzi and Basma Ahmed for their help in the Arabic translation)

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