Trump: the Arab World

Summary: evidence of Trump’s intentions is limited and contradictory. Changes expected on Syria and Iran, Sisi enthusiastic, but nothing is clear.

Commentators all over the world including in the Middle East are trying to assess what Donald Trump’s success in the presidential election will mean for the region. But the necessary factual base for assessment is thin to non-existent. We will have to wait.

A respected Emirati commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdulla writing in the Dubai-based Gulf News does not mince his words; “There is more to the Gulf states than money and oil. If that is how you view us, then we are in for a bad start. This talk about forcing Arab Gulf states to pay for American protection has added more fuel to the mounting anti-Saudi Arabia manifestations running wild in Washington these days… no matter how I look at it, I frankly see your victory as a political disaster for America and the world at large.” According to a Reuters article “for many Arab rulers and royals Trump’s victory is a source of anxiety. They now face a new America led by Trump who, they fear, could upend a regional order that has prevailed for decades. Some ordinary Arabs like Trump’s no-nonsense style, and praise what they see as his capacity for tough leadership.” President Sisi was reportedly the first to congratulate Trump on his success, and has invited him to Egypt “looking forward to reviving a new spirit throughout the term-office of President Donald Trump in US-Egypt relations, and to further cooperation and coordination for the benefit of the two peoples.”


Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy school writes in his latest article “I will not even mention the Middle East issues that should matter to Americans whose sons and daughters continue to kill and die in many wars there, because the foreign policy aspect of the election campaigns was little more than an extension of Saturday morning cartoon shows.” In an article on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya website Joyce Karam writes “Unpredictability and lack of coherent foreign policy define his policies in the Middle East”, adding more hopefully that the Trump campaign tipped the wink to Arab diplomats in Washington to ignore campaign rhetoric; “what is being said on the campaign trail is different from how he would govern”.

A BBC article asks “what will President Trump do first?”; A list of things he has promised to do in his first hundred days contains mainly domestic issues, although action on immigrants or climate change has obvious foreign policy implications. The article mentions only Iran in the Middle East (the implications for the Iran nuclear deal are considered in a Reuters article which concludes that it is on shaky ground; one overhasty commentator tweeted yesterday “Real scenario: 1) Trump unravels Iran deal 2) World blames US 3) Iran resumes nuke program 4) No international unity 5) Israeli or US attack.”) The only Middle East item in a Washington Post article“What President Trump’s foreign policy will look like” is “A joint military effort with Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat the Islamic State.”

Despite our reservations that assessment now is premature and may turn out to be misleading we circulate below an article from the Middle East Institute website which is the most convincing we have seen. We have omitted two sections: Erdogan Treads Carefully on Trump, by Gönül Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies, and Iran’s Moderates Fear Trump Presidency, by Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow. The full text is at link.

Briefing: Middle East Reactions to the U.S. Election

By Paul Salem, Robert S. Ford, Eran Etzion, Gönül Tol, Alex Vatanka and Gerald M. Feierstein | Nov 09, 2016

In this special edition of our weekly briefing, MEI experts Paul Salem, Robert S. Ford, Eran Etzion, Gonul Tol, Alex Vatanka, and Gerald Feierstein provide analysis on the impact of Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. Presidential Election on the future of Middle East policy, its particular effect on the crises in Iraq and Syria, and how the news has been received across the region, including in Turkey, Iran, and the GCC.

Trump’s Win Adds New Dynamics to Unstable Middle East

Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research

Most of the Middle East’s leaders sent messages of congratulations to president-elect, Donald Trump, while commentators tried to make sense of the momentous change. It’s fair to say that there was caution in G.C.C. capitals, but enthusiasm in pro-government circles in Turkey, Egypt, and Israel. President Hassan Rouhani has reason to worry about his position vis-a-vis Iranian hardliners if U.S.-Iranian relations go back to confrontation; he issued a statement clarifying that Iran would abide by the nuclear deal. There must be quiet rejoicing in Damascus.

Although his positions might change or evolve between the campaign and the presidency, there are currently six key positions that Trump has taken that provide a rough, if often contradictory, outline of where he starts from in Middle East policy.

  • he favors cooperation with Russia and the Assad regime in Syria against ISIS and has little regard for the Syrian opposition;
  • he has promised either to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran or to monitor it very aggressively; either way the tone of détente will be replaced by hostility;
  • he has spoken fondly of authoritarianism and authoritarian leaders, and argued that human rights and democracy should not be U.S. foreign policy priorities;
  • he has said he will ratchet up the war on ISIS without revealing how that would happen;
  • he has vilified Muslims and called for a ban on their entry to the United States; and
  • he has questioned America’s alliances and commitments, and argued instead that U.S. protection should be in exchange for payment.

How these campaign positions will evolve into a foreign policy as his administration takes office, and how the various regional players will act and react, is too early to tell. But as with the election of George W Bush and Barack Obama, another U.S. election adds new dynamics and uncertainties into an already very unstable Middle East.

What a Trump Presidency Means for Syria/Iraq

Robert S. Ford, Senior Fellow

The Trump team has said little about its approach to Iraq and Syria. Trump himself sees ISIS as a military problem, and he will likely sustain the current U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS and support for Iraqi security forces moving to recapture territory inside Iraq. Trump, however, has expressed little interest in the Iran-Saudi/Turkish competition that is a driving force for many of the conflicts in the region. Because Trump wants to avoid entanglement in new wars in the Middle East or nation-building efforts, his administration will likely not seek to expend much effort to help the quarreling Iraqi communities reach common ground, nor will it expend much effort to help rebuild Iraq.

Similarly, Trump won’t enter into new military commitments such as a no-fly zone in Syria or airstrikes against Syrian government forces. Trump might even shift U.S. policy on Syria toward collaborating with Russia (and thus also Iran and Bashar al-Assad) against Islamic extremists and indirectly against the moderates who fight alongside them against Assad. Turkey will urgently press its case against the Syrian Kurdish P.Y.D. fighters whom the Obama administration has favored against ISIS. To the extent that Trump seeks to complement confrontation over the Iranian nuclear program with efforts to contain Iranian expansion in the Levant, Trump might even implicitly line up with the Turks on Syria. However, his oft-expressed distrust of trying to micro-manage local politics in the Middle East will make it hard to convince the administration to seriously challenge the Russian-Iranian-Assad domination of Syria. Over the longer term, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will have to accept Russian-backed Iranian domination of Syria that enjoys American acquiescence, or to challenge that domination by boosting aid to the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition even without U.S. involvement.

Israel’s Right Welcomes Trump’s Victory

Eran Etzion, MEI Scholar

Israel’s right-wing is in a state of rational exuberance, with the religious right attributing the results to a divine intervention, while the country’s liberal camp are in shock and despair. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might, however, be somewhat more cautious, realizing that Donald Trump will take office free of any tangible commitment to the Israel-friendly establishments of the R.N.C., the Jewish organizations or major pro-Israel donors. While Netanyahu’s major donor—casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—did endorse Trump, it was clearly done belatedly and almost reluctantly. The fact that Trump has some Jewish advisors is also well noted, while the uglier side of pro-Trump anti-Semites and white supremacists is largely ignored, for the time being.

On the policy front, the conventional wisdom in Israel is that Trump will be much more attentive to Netanyahu, certainly regarding the Palestinian issue. The Republicans had eliminated the ‘two state solution’ from its platform, and it’s safe to assume that the issue is very low on Trump’s agenda.

During the campaign, two of Trump’s promises—withdrawing from the Iran-nuclear agreement, and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem—fell on welcoming ears. However, chances are they will be deferred indefinitely. Down the road, at least two issues hold an explosive potential for U.S.-Israel relations. On the home front, the Israeli government will not be able to close its eyes to ongoing anti-Semitic manifestations within Trump’s camp, which will create tensions with the Trump administration. On the international scene, once U.S.-Russia relations show signs of stress—which is bound to happen—Netanyahu will be between the Putin rock and the Trump hard place.

G.C.C. Uncertain About Trump

Gerald Feierstein, Director of the Center for Gulf Affairs

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton enjoyed significant support within the Gulf states. As Secretary of State, Clinton represented the unloved Obama administration’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal as well as its support for the Arab Spring uprisings and the push to unseat long-standing Gulf allies, especially Hosni Mubarak. For his part, Trump’s anti-Muslim bashing and his ill-informed allegations that Saudi Arabia was not doing enough to provide for its own defense will give the Gulf states pause. His pronouncements on Syria — that our focus should remain strictly on the defeat of the Islamic State and that we should be willing to cooperate with the Assad regime as well as the Russians to achieve that goal — also run counter to the views from Riyadh and the other G.C.C. capitals.

Nevertheless, there are elements of Trump’s pronouncements on the region that will be welcomed. Most importantly, his insistence that we adopt a harder line on Iran, including his pledge to undo or re-negotiate the J.C.P.O.A., will be seen positively. The G.C.C. is also likely to welcome Trump’s position that Washington should not be in the business of pressing on human rights and civil liberties issues abroad. None of these positions has been translated from campaign rhetoric into real policy decisions yet, of course. In this absence of clear direction, the Gulf states will continue efforts to shore up relations with Moscow, Beijing, and other key capitals as a hedge against an uncertain Washington.

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