Despite Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, talk of banning Muslims from America, and open hostility towards Syrian refugees, he has some supporters in the Middle East. Authoritarian governments see him as a strongman figure who will make deals with other strongmen like themselves.
Some of the Gulf elites hope that, as a tough-talking Republican, he will be harder on Iran than Barack Obama. Trump called the deal struck by Obama on Iran’s nuclear programme a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated”.
Conversely, the revolutionary establishment in Tehran welcomes Trump’s election because it thinks this will accelerate what it sees as inevitable US decline. For many others – probably the majority of Middle Easterners – there is simply a sense that neither candidate had much to offer the region, and that US leaders are all largely the same.
Trump’s varied and contradictory statements on Middle East policy, lack of a policy or military track record, and very limited team of foreign policy advisers have left a blank canvas on to which these different observers can project their own wishful thinking.
Had Hillary Clinton won, her foreign policy positions would have been unusually predictable, given her extensive track record and an advisory team full of familiar faces. By contrast, Trump’s foreign policy positions on many issues are uncertain, and have been underanalysed, as so much of the professional foreign policy analysis world has, wrongly, judged him to be stupid, mad and incapable of winning.
Some conclusions can be drawn, however. Trump has repeatedly expressed his respect for strongmen, saying that even “bad guys” such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi could be useful in fighting terrorism. In past interviews he praised China for the Tiananmen Square crackdown while criticising Mikhail Gorbachev for losing control of the Soviet Union.
And he has been extremely sceptical about the post-1945 international order that successive US presidents have upheld. A video he tweeted on election day showed a montage of Clinton shaking hands with foreign leaders, and clips from the World Economic Forum, contrasting with the betrayed-looking faces of American voters.
Compared with Clinton or Obama, he is likely to have a much narrower focus on US interests, more rooted in concerns about the domestic economy rather than being a global policeman or a leader of the free world. There will be even less serious attention paid to democracy promotion, less pressure on human rights abusers, and a strong possibility of cuts in foreign aid. Promoting women’s rights in the region will be harder given the new president’s much-publicised comments on sexual assault, which will reinforce the narrative of the region’s social conservatives that western-style gender norms are immoral and oppressive.
But one thing Trump is likely to have in common with Obama is an acute awareness the US public has little appetite for a deeper US military engagement in the Middle East. So the impulse to pivot away from that part of the world will continue, even as events may conspire to suck the US back in. Trump will be more ready than Clinton to strike a deal with Russia over Syria, seeing Vladimir Putin as a man who can fight terrorism.
Despite his bluster about “dismantling” the Iran deal, it’s likely that Trump will stick with it. The alternatives are either to reconstruct the previous international sanctions regime, which the US would struggle to do if it unilaterally walked away from the deal, or reconsider the option of another Middle Eastern war, which is one of the last things his supporters will want.
On the Middle East peace process, beyond the expressions of support for Israel which are standard in US elections, he has also suggested a two state solution is not a priority – and his incentives for investing energy in a particularly unrewarding area of international diplomacy will be low.
Trump has said repeatedly that US allies, including those in the Gulf, should pay for the security protection it provides them. This does not mean he will wind those security guarantees down. Saudi Arabia does pay for its security protection, indirectly and implicitly, by massive purchases of US arms and its wider energy and economic cooperation with the US. At a personal level, Trump has real estate investments in UAE, suggesting he sees the country as a safe bet. But Trump is unlikely to get stuck in to the wider regional crises, from Syria to Yemen, where the Gulf countries would like to see the US defending their interests. Thus some of the frustrations that Arab political elites have expressed with Obama are likely to recur with Trump.
Broader Arab public opinion is generally critical of what is seen as a history of excessive US intervention in their region. The US’s promotion of democracy and human rights has already been profoundly undermined by the Iraq war and the consequent association of democracy-promotion rhetoric with violent regime change. Some will be glad to see the prospect of a more isolationist US. However, this won’t necessarily translate into more self-determination and sovereignty for the region. Instead there will probably be more multipolar competition by international powers, including Russia, China, India and competing European interests.
The mistrust of political elites now observed across the developed world has been the norm in the Middle East for some time. Many have simply viewed the US election with the same black humour often applied to the region’s own politics. Indeed, satirising Trump’s rhetoric about banning Muslims, an advert this week by Jordan’s national airline, Royal Jordanian, promoted deals on flights to the US with a tagline saying: “Just in case he wins … travel to the US while you’re still allowed to!”
Jane Kinninmont is a senior research fellow, Middle East and north Africa at Chatham House (The Royal Institute of International Affairs)