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Source: GALLUP

Apr 19, 2023

Saudi Arabia's Soft Power Outshines Iran's


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- After years of hostility, Saudi Arabia and Iran started work last week on reopening their embassies in Tehran and Riyadh -- the latest step toward restoring diplomatic relations between the two regional rivals.

Detente between these major energy exporters follows a multi-decade struggle for regional influence, often marked by proxy warfare. But while Iran has largely proven successful in bolstering its military allies in neighboring countries, Gallup data show that Saudi Arabia maintains a relative wellspring of support that Iran does not share.

Across 13 Muslim-majority countries stretching from Morocco to Pakistan, median approval of Saudi Arabia’s leadership in 2022 was substantially higher than Iran’s leadership (39% vs. 14%, respectively).

Saudi Arabia More Popular in All Countries Surveyed

Approval of Saudi Arabia’s leadership is higher than Iran’s in all 13 countries surveyed in 2022, and in many, the gap is sizable. However, Kuwait and Libya stand out for their preference toward the Kingdom. In neighboring Kuwait, a 47-percentage-point approval difference in Saudi Arabia’s favor highlights the close relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and OPEC partners, while a 41-point divide in Libya favors Saudi Arabia.

While approval is higher for Saudi Arabia in all countries, the difference is most muted in Türkiye, where strong disapproval of both Saudi Arabia and Iran translates to only a three-point approval advantage for Saudi Arabia. In the Palestinian Territories, the approval gap is a relatively low 12 points, though Palestinians’ opinions of all foreign powers, including China, Russia and the U.S., have remained similarly low for years.

Iran’s Leadership Extremely Unpopular

The theocratic government that came to power after Iran’s 1979 revolution made quick enemies throughout the Middle East by calling for the overthrow of Gulf monarchies and secular Arab governments. The Islamic Republic’s role as a disruptor and its support for Shia minorities in majority-Sunni countries put it at odds with governments throughout the Middle East and their populations.

In 2022, only in Pakistan does a plurality approve of Iranian leadership (50%). In no other surveyed country does more than a quarter of the population approve, making Iranian leadership deeply unpopular among the 12 others.

Countries where Iran has had the greatest influence give Tehran some of its lowest marks. Large majorities disapprove of Iranian leadership in Iraq (86%), Yemen (80%) and Lebanon (73%).

Unlike Saudi Arabia and most of the region, Iran is non-Arab and non-Sunni. But while Lebanon’s Shia population gives Iran relatively high levels of support (58% approval vs. 39% disapproval), Iraq’s Shia Muslim population does not (17% vs. 83%), underscoring a key source of Iraqi nationalist leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s support.

Bottom Line

A diplomatic thaw in Saudi-Iranian relations can only be considered a positive development for war-weary populations such as Yemen’s, which is at the center of the two rivals’ power competition. But while the potential impact on regional alignment, ongoing conflicts and Iran’s nuclear program remains largely unknown, China has already been crowned by many pundits as a winner for its role in facilitating the agreement.

Meanwhile, the United States’ lack of role or consultation signals that previously U.S.-reliant countries in the region -- like Saudi Arabia -- may now be exploring options beyond a U.S. partnership. As China and Russia begin to play a larger role in the Middle East and the U.S. is perceived as losing interest, Saudi Arabia may choose to increasingly use its considerable regional influence in ways that are less palatable to U.S. interests.

Beyond being the world’s most important oil producer, Saudi Arabia remains the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and a perceived leader of the Muslim world. The country’s relative popularity in the immediate and surrounding regions makes it a partner that cannot easily be dispensed.

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For complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.

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