American presidency: Trump’s win confuses a jittery Middle East

In his first speech on foreign policy in April 2016, then presidential candidate Donald Trump focused mostly on one region and one ‘enemy’; the Middle East and ‘radical Islam’. In his campaign rhetoric, Trump did not chart a clear path for a policy for the region. Instead, he sent so many conflicting signals that many in the region didn’t know what to make of it. His win in November and subsequent inauguration as President has done nothing to ease that confusion.

Oil and business

Under his mantra of America First, Trump vowed to increase shale oil and gas production, withdraw from the Paris climate accord, drill in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico and lift industry regulations. This will translate into an oil glut and lower prices for producing countries in the region. With less revenue, the Arab Gulf oil monarchies, especially in Saudi Arabia, will struggle with tightening budgets and with keeping their population as pampered as before – a destabilizing scenario.

On the other hand, they find some solace in Trump’s business instincts. Saudi pundits have said their country can offer lucrative contracts that would help with Trump’s goal of bringing wealth back to America. 

Diana Hamade Al Ghurair
Diana Hamade Al-Ghurair

More business can help the six countries making up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) win back leverage lost under the Obama administration with its focus on unwelcome issues such as freedom of expression, human rights and plurality.

‘Let us not forget that Trump is a business man and the GCC states are rich countries,’ says Dubai-based Diana Hamade Al-Ghurair, membership officer for the IBA’s Arab Regional Forum.

‘Trump’s appetite for business may get him to open trade with the GCC.’

Anti-Muslim rhetoric and foreign policy

During campaigning, President Trump’s widely reported anti-Muslim statements created more confusion as to what his policy will really look like.

‘His pro-business leanings will encourage him to engage with the GCC, Turkey and possibly Iran; his statements of suspicion against Muslims, his lack of enthusiasm for traditional alliances, and his strong statements against Iran will push in the other direction,’ Paul Salem, Vice-President for Policy and Research at the prestigious Washington-based Middle East Institute, tells Global Insight.

But others saw a weak connection between Trump’s statements, especially those relating to local policy regarding Muslims and foreign policy in the Middle East.

‘I don’t believe that the Trump administration has or wants to adopt an anti-Muslim policy, whether in the United States or elsewhere,’ says Philip Berkowitz, New York-based Co-Chair of the IBA’s Discrimination and Equality Law Committee and Co-Chair of Littler’s US international practice.

‘Regardless of campaign rhetoric, which was mostly focused on immigration, their fight is not with Islam but with ISIS and with political organisations and states that practise terror.’

‘‘His pro-business leanings will encourage him to engage with the GCC, Turkey and possibly Iran; his statements of suspicion against Muslims, his lack of enthusiasm for traditional alliances… will push in the other direction

Paul Salem, Vice-President for Policy and Research, Washington-based Middle East Institute

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Gulf

States that practice terror might include an important country like Iran – repeatedly referred to as a sponsor of terror in the US. Trump’s anti-Iran statements during the campaign were seen as a pleasant gift for the GCC countries.

Tehran’s Sunni neighbours to the west had worried as they witnessed a Shiite Iran projecting power in their backyard, occasionally aided, as in Syria and Iraq, by their traditional protector and ally, the United States.

Their anxiety peaked in January when the US—Iran nuclear deal came into effect further alienating the wealthy Arab capitals and rewarding their primary opponent in the regional power balance with cash and recognition. But, under President Trump there may be cause for some elation in countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Trump promised to ‘dismantle’ the deal. ‘The UAE is hoping to have excellent relations with the US under Trump, maybe because of his stance on Iran where the GCC is hoping to have him oppose and cancel the sanctions termination announced by the earlier government,’ says Al-Ghurair.

Syria

Trump made other statements that may trouble the same regimes elated by his anti-Iran rhetoric. For one, he said he will stop arming Syrian Sunni rebels who are fighting Russia and Iran-backed forces of Bashar Al-Assad. Ending the Iran deal will be a positive change but weakening the rebels may strengthen Tehran’s hand.

Warmer ties in the region between Trump and Vladimir Putin, particularly in Syria, would undermine Arab powers. An assertive Putin could bring a friendly Trump closer to Iran and Assad’s positions and oppose nullification of the Iran deal.

‘Russia will have the upper hand in the conflict in Syria and ending the war there. Trump is more interested in China and business and jobs rather than Iran and its agreement,’ Ahmad Moussalli, Professor of Political Science and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut, told Global Insight.

Iran and Hezbollah

Meanwhile, the 70-year old President has vowed to rebuild the US military and use it when needed. If Trump expands US bombing in Syria to include Sunni rebel groups – not only ISIS – then that would be music to Tehran’s ears.

Trump rebuked Obama for not bombing or blockading ISIS in Libya. ‘ISIS  is making millions and millions of dollars a week selling Libya oil. And you know what? We don’t blockade, we don’t bomb...This will all change when I become president,’ he said.

When Trump called Obama ‘the founder of ISIS’, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah rejoiced.

‘‘Regardless of campaign rhetoric, which was mostly focused on immigration, their fight is not with Islam but with ISIS and with political organizations and states that practice terror

Philip Berkowitz, Co-Chair, IBA Discrimination and Equality Law Committee

Egypt

The first Middle Eastern leader to congratulate Donald Trump on his election victory was Egypt’s Abdel Fatah El-Sisi. TV show hosts in the state media were ecstatic. Many gloated that Trump’s surprise win turned Arab democrats now into ‘Hillary’s widows’, and cheered the ‘chemistry between Sisi and Trump’.

Some regime confidants said they were heading to the US to meet Trump’s advisers to push him to make good on his promise to list the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s main rival, as a terrorist organisation.

Israel and the Palestinians

Trump has re-affirmed the US alliance with Israel and promised to take the controversial step of relocating the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That was ‘rhetoric as usual’ for many Arabs, particularly Palestinians. Palestinians anticipated an end to the two-state solution, more expansion of settlements on occupied Palestinian land and a continuation of the Gaza siege.

Popular Arab sentiment

Some non-state actors in the region say they will be net losers under Trump including, notably, the region’s shrinking pool of democrats while many ordinary Arabs, as evidenced mostly in social media and private conversations, have expressed nothing short of disgust at Trump’s win. Memorable to many of them here in the Middle East, where 25 per cent of the world’s 1.6bn Muslims live, is his blanket threat to ban Muslims from entering the US.

Citing ‘radical Islam’ is cover for further discrimination at home and a convenient pretext for even more violence, some here say, in a badly bruised and confused region.

Philip Berkowitz
Philip Berkowitz

Berkowitz says Trump doesn’t appear to have more plans either for violence or unprecedented military interventions in the Middle East as some have claimed. He says the incoming president knows the US is a country of laws and that he was unlikely to target Muslims per se.

‘It seems almost needless to say this, but the rule of law will prevail in the United States,’ Berkowitz tells Global Insight. ‘Trump will not change US law or the Constitution, which guarantee freedom of religion and due process of law. He may impose stricter rules against immigration from countries with largely Muslim countries, but it is hard to know what this will look like. US immigration law and security concerns already make it quite a difficult and time-consuming process for refugees to emigrate to this country. We can assume that Trump will take an aggressive stance against ISIS and similar organisations – just as has the Obama Administration.’

Berkowitz says Trump will be hard to deal with but expected him to work within the US laws and regulations. ’Trump will no doubt be a demanding client – anyone who has worked with a strong chief executive knows to expect this. But he knows he must work within the rule of law,’ Berkowitz says.


Emad Mekay is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at emekay@stanford.edu