Arab Public Ranks China, Turkey, Iran's Ahmadinejad Ahead of U.S., Obama

Iran's Ahmadinejad among most favorable leaders, Obama near bottom.

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Public opinions in the Middle East have become more favorable toward the United States and the Obama administration since a year ago, according to a recent regional survey. But compared to other countries and other world leaders, America and President Obama are far from regional favorites.

On Monday, the Brookings Institution and the University of Maryland released the results of a poll conducted late last month in five countries throughout the region: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan.

According to the poll—which was overseen by Middle East expert Shibley Telhami—despite improvements in favorability around the region, the United States still ranks low in the region among other world powers. It remains unclear whether this year's so-called "Arab Spring" has changed views of Americans for the better.

"One of the really striking things about the survey [is] the extraordinary difficulty that the U.S. has had in translating its support for political change in the Arab world into improved opinions of the United States from Arabs," said Steven Heydemann, senior advisor for Middle East initiatives at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who spoke at the poll's launch on Monday. "The Arab Spring dividend continues to be very elusive."

China, Germany, Russia, and France rank ahead of the United States as the most preferable international superpowers. And among world leaders, President Obama ranks near the bottom, below leaders like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan—the regional favorite—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and even deceased Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein.

[Read: Politicians 'Insulted' by Foreign Aid to China.]

What's most striking, says Heydemann, is the perception of U.S. motivation in the region. More than half of the people polled believe that the United States is most concerned with "controlling oil" in the region. "Protecting Israel" is perceived as the second most important priority, followed by "weakening the Muslim world."

On the other hand, only five percent think that the United States is driven by a desire to spread human rights, or to promote democracy.

"To the extent that we anticipate that the Arab Spring, the awakenings, offered us an opportunity to realign how the Arab World thinks about the United States, the data make clear how compelling the gaps continue to be," Heydemann said, adding that many in the region continue to view the country through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The poll shows that while 59 percent of the people in these five nations still have an unfavorable view of the United States, more now view the United States favorably compared to a year ago.

This jump in favorable ratings could be connected to views about the way the United States has handled the Arab Spring uprisings that started earlier this year, Telhami says. Twenty-four percent of those surveyed said the United States was one of the two major international powers that played "the most constructive role" in the region's recent events. Turkey and France were considered the most constructive, ahead of the United States.

While most in the region supported the cause of anti-government rebels this year, the people there are largely split on whether they support international intervention, such as the NATO mission in Libya. [Slideshow: The Death Toll of the 'Arab Spring' Revolutions.]

President Obama's own popularity rating has improved from last year, which the poll suggests may be due to his stance on human rights issues and foreign assistance in the region. Thirty-four percent of those polled this year have a positive view of Obama, compared with 43 percent who view him negatively, and 13 percent who are neutral. By contrast, in 2010, negative views were 19 percentage points higher and positive views were 15 percentage points lower.

Still, this year's polling suggests a net drop in popularity since his first year in office in 2009, when 39 percent gave him a positive score and 24 percent judged him negatively.