His Excellency, Sheikh Donald of the House of Trump
Why the president-elect is already a big hit in the Persian Gulf.
MANAMA, Bahrain — A Kuwaiti royal once explained to me why no one in his part of the world was terribly fond of Barack Obama. Sure, leaders here often disagreed with his policies and found him to be naive and unwilling to wield American power. But what really got under their skin was his way of doing business. Former President George W. Bush, he explained, often reached out just to say hello, texting congratulations when the prince’s favorite Premier League soccer team won. Obama only called when he wanted something.
Three years after that conversation, it should be no surprise that the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf are cheering the election of Donald Trump. Just as Trump’s supporters in America want to “drain the swamp” and overturn eight years of Obama-era policy, America’s Middle East allies are hoping for something similar — the unraveling of a foreign policy that officials and intellectuals here often describe with phrases like “unmitigated disaster” and “resounding failure.”
At last weekend’s Manama Dialogue, an annual security conference hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies that draws dozens of top policymakers, military officials, and spooks from around the region, the mood was largely triumphant. “There’s definitely a feeling that things can’t get worse than Obama,” said Mohammed Alyahya, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
After Obama, any change in the White House would have been welcomed here. But Trump’s brand of radical upheaval has the Sunni Arab Gulf enamored. Leaders here hope he will rewrite Washington’s Iran policy and punish Tehran for its activities throughout the Arab world, where it has supported militias, politicians, and rogue governments in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and arguably Bahrain with varying degrees of exuberance. Most are willing to overlook Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric as a folly of the campaign trail.
Trump’s early moves have mostly affirmed Gulf expectations — and Gulf leaders and analysts seem willing to ignore the shreds of information that don’t. Trump’s cabinet choices include numerous officials who are outspoken against Iran, including former Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. “To the Saudis and the people in the region, some of [Trump’s] picks are very reassuring,” Alyahya said. “Many consider General Mattis’s views on the region as very reasonable and sober and that CIA nominee [Mike] Pompeo views things in a more realistic way than the Obama administration.”
Gulf enthusiasm for Trump also stems from his persona as a businessman. Rather than Obama’s reputation as a calculating, circumspect intellectual, Trump is seen as a figure who thrives on deals, family, and politics. “Businessmen are always predictable,” said Abdulla al-Mannai, a columnist at the Bahraini newspaper Akhbar al-Khaleej. “What’s the bottom line? And what would make him look good?”
“Him being a businessman and the Gulf willing to do business,” Mannai said, “means that, chances are, the Gulf countries will be able to get along very well with Trump.”
Gulf officials’ enthusiasm for Trump is in many ways a product of their disillusionment with Obama. With the 44th president on his way out, Gulf leaders are finally ready to admit the full extent of their disdain for him.
Their list of complaints is long but centers on a fundamental disagreement over America’s role in the region. Obama, elected to get the United States out of regional wars, constantly spoke of the limits of U.S. power and resisted calls for military engagement — particularly in Syria. By contrast, Gulf officials saw American power as a fact on the ground rather than a topic for intellectual debate, attested to by the 58,000 U.S. troops stationed in the region.
By choosing not to act in Syria, these officials argue, Obama gave the green light for Iran and Russia to step in without fear of retaliation. As the story is told here, America’s abdication has led to a dangerous cascade of Iranian influence and a devastating humanitarian crisis, playing out in Syria, Iraq, and the half-dozen regional countries now receiving refugees.
As the Manama Dialogue unfolded, attendees drew attention to what they saw as the culmination of this foreign-policy failure: the imminent retaking of rebel-held eastern Aleppo by Syrian forces, together with Russian and Iranian allies. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped in the city since October under indiscriminate bombardment and ghastly siege.
“Any change is a good change,” Adib Shishakly, the Syrian opposition’s representative to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), said on the sidelines of the meeting. “It cannot get worse than the Obama administration.”
In some ways, the feeling is mutual. Obama has made no secret of his frustration with Gulf countries’ concerns about Iran, even as his administration negotiated a deal meant to curtail Tehran’s nuclear activities and sold anti-missile technology to Iran’s adversaries.
“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians … requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood,” Obama told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in an April interview, in which he insinuated the Gulf countries were “free riders.”
“An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage,” the president added.
The White House also appears to be having second thoughts about supporting a Saudi-led coalition operation in Yemen, meant to oust Iran-backed Houthi rebels from the capital. A year and a half of Saudi airstrikes has devastated the country and spawned a humanitarian disaster, yet in recent months the battle lines have scarcely budged. On Dec. 13, Reuters reported that the United States will halt some arms sales to the kingdom and refocus training of the Saudi air force toward better targeting — the very skills that might avoid future civilian casualties.
In his final trip to the region as secretary of defense, Ash Carter chided Gulf military officials for “complaining” to their U.S. counterparts that Washington should do more. “I would ask you to imagine what U.S. military and defense leaders think when they have to listen to complaints sometimes that we should do more, when it’s plain to see that all too often, the ones complaining aren’t doing enough themselves,” he said in his plenary address to the Manama Dialogue.
Responding to questions, Carter’s voice often bordered on disdain, reminding the audience several times that he had already addressed the queries they posed. But it was when he spoke of inter-GCC tensions that his frustration was laid bare. “The fact is, if countries in the region are worried about Iran’s destabilizing activities — a concern the United States shares — they need to get in the game. That means getting serious about starting to partner more with each other,” he said. The address left Gulf attendees either shaking their heads in disbelief at the arrogant tone or muttering some variation of “good riddance” to the Obama administration.
Gulf officials’ central hope for Trump and his administration is that they will lead a rollback of Iranian influence in the region. The nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers has exacerbated Tehran’s bad behavior, senior officials here insist. “Iran has not proved that it is a quiet country that wants to cooperate with its neighbors,” former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud told the opening panel of the Manama Dialogue. “To the contrary, its activity is increased.”
Trump has echoed those views. The agreement “made a power out of Iran,” he told Fox News last January. “The ink isn’t even dry, and they have already violated the deal.”
His advisors have taken even stronger positions. In testimony to the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services subcommittees in 2015, incoming National Security Advisor Flynn called Iran a “clear and present danger to the region and eventually to the world.”
Trump’s fixes for Iranian behavior — what little he has revealed — also sound like something the Gulf can live with. In the same Fox News interview in January, Trump suggested that Saudi Arabia should “help us economically” in return for protection from Iran.
“The economic relationships are going to be quite simple: Pay me and I’ll keep Iran away,” Mannai said. “It’s a simple formula: Whatever you can give me and I’ll give you things in return.”
As one of the wealthiest per-capita regions in the world, the Gulf monarchies have much to offer. They could place new, lucrative defense deals, invest in U.S. infrastructure the president-elect has vowed to construct, or even move Gulf-based financial assets to the United States for management by American banks.
In return, Gulf leaders have a list of regional crises they want Trump to tackle.
They hope the incoming administration will keep the Iran nuclear deal but link the continued lifting of sanctions to better Iranian behavior in the region. Meanwhile, Gulf countries want to use the deal’s 15-year timeline as a grace period to bolster their own largely U.S.-purchased defense systems. “Countries in the region need to take measures to be careful enough to prepare for the day that will come after this accord,” Prince Turki said. “We need a program over the next 15 years.”
In Syria, they hope to find a sympathetic ear for proposals to simultaneously go after the Syrian government and its Iranian allies, as well as the Islamic State. “I can see at least these two areas where we could cooperate,” said Hadi al-Bahra, a former president of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.
Of course, many of Trump’s statements during the campaign and since his election victory would seem to deflate such high expectations. Trump’s admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin is the most striking contradiction. In Syria, Moscow is working directly with the government and with Iran to take back rebel-held territory. The Russian air force bombards Gulf-backed opposition forces there on a near-daily basis.
Yet some here insist on a silver lining: “Hopefully if they [the Trump administration] are closer to Russia, maybe they could bring a solution” to Syria, said Shishakly, the Syrian opposition representative. “Maybe the Americans could persuade them away from the Assad regime.”
Trump has previously questioned American support to the Syrian opposition, telling the Wall Street Journal in November, “We have no idea who these people are.” He went on to suggest the United States should align with anyone fighting the Islamic State, including Russia and the Syrian government.
“I don’t think he would make that decision [to end aid to the opposition] after he comes to office,” Bahra said. “We can judge really his strategy after he comes to office and reads all the facts and then he will be able to make wiser decisions.”
“Maybe Trump wasn’t informed enough about the situation in Syria,” Prince Turki said. “I hope he will be informed.”
Gulf leaders also want Trump to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq, where dozens of Shiite militias answer to Tehran. They also hope he will bolster support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen — or at least look the other way.
The belief that Trump is inclined to intervene so widely and decisively against Iran is “something that encourages us,” Mannai said. “To see that Trump will be making quite swift decisions that might entangle the U.S. more in the future but will resolve issues we have.”
Further military entanglement in the region could be costly and fraught for the United States, he admitted. But the Gulf could benefit, he said. “Good luck for you, but we’re happy.”
That’s not to suggest there aren’t concerns about the extent of Trump’s indulgence of Islamophobia. But at least some here are ready to overlook derision toward Islam by Trump and those in his national security cabinet — as long as the incoming president’s actions serve their own national interests, which they believe they will. The Gulf’s political leaders are more pragmatic: “They realize that a lot of it is just campaign rhetoric,” said one Gulf-based analyst who declined to be named because of political sensitivities toward the incoming administration.
Still, in whispers at the margins of the conversation, some policymakers here are also concerned. Trump is not Obama — but no one is sure exactly what kind of president he will be.
“The worries might be with Trump’s impulsiveness,” said Albadr Alshateri, a professor at the UAE National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. “Trump is surrounding himself by hawks. Worse even, many of his would-be advisors are anti-Islam and anti-Muslims. Such appointments are tantamount to appointing anti-Semites to high positions in the government.”
Yet no matter where policies do or don’t align, one thing does seem apparent: Gulf leaders are likely to get along better personally with Trump than they ever have with Obama. The art of the deal is alive and well here.
“We’re traders by nature,” Mannai said. “The Europeans won’t understand it because they’re all about human rights and egalitarian types of rule and ethical clout — and we’re practical. We’ll take what we can get.”
Photo credit: KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images