Election 2020

Why the Middle East’s Strongmen Are Rooting for Trump

On substance and style, authoritarians see an ally in the White House—and hope to keep him there.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales to Saudi Arabia as he meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales to Saudi Arabia as he meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018. Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Over the past few weeks, there has been a fair amount of speculation about what the U.S. presidential election means for the Middle East. I’ve chatted with American, Turkish, and Egyptian journalists about this, and no matter how you slice it, it seems clear that a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump would be good for the region’s leaders and their supporters. Not so much for Iran, the Palestinians, or the democratic opposition in the rest of the region.

The Middle East’s pro-U.S. strongmen and their backers seem to know it. Saudi social media, which has become one immense propaganda campaign for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sought to reinforce the Hunter Biden laptop story. Many Israelis also openly favor four more years of Trump. And a pro-regime Egyptian singer, Wissam Magdy, has taken an old ode to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and turned it into a paean to Trump.

None of this should be surprising. Just look at Trump’s record: He is tough on Iran, doesn’t care about human rights, has moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has shielded regional authoritarians from congressional criticism and legal jeopardy, has produced a plan to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that reads as though it was written in the Israeli prime minister’s office, and wants to transfer more high-tech weapons to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a list that should make nearly all the Middle East's kings, presidents, and prime ministers happy. The exceptions being, of course, the people in the Middle East who dare to resist.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a fair amount of speculation about what the U.S. presidential election means for the Middle East. I’ve chatted with American, Turkish, and Egyptian journalists about this, and no matter how you slice it, it seems clear that a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump would be good for the region’s leaders and their supporters. Not so much for Iran, the Palestinians, or the democratic opposition in the rest of the region.

The Middle East’s pro-U.S. strongmen and their backers seem to know it. Saudi social media, which has become one immense propaganda campaign for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has sought to reinforce the Hunter Biden laptop story. Many Israelis also openly favor four more years of Trump. And a pro-regime Egyptian singer, Wissam Magdy, has taken an old ode to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and turned it into a paean to Trump.

None of this should be surprising. Just look at Trump’s record: He is tough on Iran, doesn’t care about human rights, has moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has shielded regional authoritarians from congressional criticism and legal jeopardy, has produced a plan to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that reads as though it was written in the Israeli prime minister’s office, and wants to transfer more high-tech weapons to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a list that should make nearly all the Middle East’s kings, presidents, and prime ministers happy. The exceptions being, of course, the people in the Middle East who dare to resist.

There is also the issue of style. In many ways, Trump conducts U.S. foreign policy in the same way the Middle East’s leaders do—informally and based on personal ties. It is easy to pull an end run around the U.S. State Department when a prince or minister can just WhatsApp the U.S. president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

If Trump plans to run his second administration like he ran his first one, the worst thing Middle Eastern potentates and leaders for life can expect from Washington is to make them really sick of winning.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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