Monday, November 24, 2014

State Dept. Spends $541K on 'Arab' Opinion Polls Overseas

    The U.S. State Department recently awarded a contract worth $541,250 to a foreign research firm to conduct public opinion surveys as part of an "Arab omnibus study" in at least eight foreign countries beginning this month. Significant portions of the justification documents were redacted, including the name of the firm awarded the contract (additionally, one entire page of the document is blacked out.) According to the documents, the award was a "sole source" contract as market research found that no US or other foreign firm could handle the assignment at a competitive cost.
    The surveys are to include 1,000 adults and will be conducted in three waves. The first two will include six countries in November 2014 and April 2015, and the third will cover eight countries in July-August 2015. The survey results are to include twenty unique data sets. The documents do not details the nature of the questions to be asked, and the state department did not respond to an inquiry about the questions nor even about the countries where the surveys are to be conducted.
    Although the state department has not disclosed the exact nature or location of the studies, testimony given by Jeffrey D. Feltman, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, to a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee in 2011 includes this passage that appears to mirror the type of survey revealed in the above contract:
The continuous coverage of the Assad regime’s brutality in the pan-Arab media has decimated Assad’s standing on the Arab street. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute suggests that Assad has become a pariah in the Arab world. The poll, conducted in early October surveyed over 4,000 Arabs in six countries. Just three years ago, a region-wide poll of the same six countries asked respondents to name a leader, not from their own country, that they most respected. Bashar al Assad scored higher than any other Arab head of state. Today, however, the overwhelming majority of Arabs side with those Syrians demonstrating against the government (with support for them ranging from 83% in Morocco to 100% in Jordan). When asked whether Bashar al Assad can continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings he receives are a mere 15% in Morocco and 14% in Egypt, with the rest in low single digits.
    The Arab American Institute (AAI) poll cited by Feltman was conducted by AAI President James Zogby, who is also the managing director of Zogby Research Services that specializes in polling in the Arab world. (James Zogby is the brother of well known US pollster John Zogby.) As previously mentioned, however, the documents accompanying the recently awarded contract have been carefully scrubbed to remove any mention of the contract winner, as well as the reasons that the winning firm was selected to the exclusion of all others, as these excerpts show:

    It is unclear if the state department played any role in previous surveys or if this contract represents the department's first foray into direct commissioning of polling in the Arab world. A search of the government contracting website fbo.gov did not turn up any comparable contracts in the past. An email to Zogby Research Services seeking comment was not returned.
    The recent coalition bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as the Obama administration's continued opposition to Bashar al-Assad's rule in Syria seem to be compelling reasons for the state department's continued interest in attitudes of the local populations. Given that Arab attitudes towards the US and President Obama quickly plummeted after initial positive reactions after the president's 2008 election, the administration may wish to keep closer tabs on how US policies are impacting attitudes towards the United States in the Arab world. With only two years remaining in his second term, President Obama has relatively little time to recapture the promise for healing and reconciliation that some saw in his 2009 Cairo speech. Five years later, that hope seems as elusive as ever.

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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