The Arab world has, along with the rest of the world, experienced significant shock from President Trump’s initial weeks in office. While some have been angered by the executive order temporarily banning the entry of citizens from several Islamic nations to the U.S., other regional players view Trump’s ascension as a strategic opportunity. In a region that saw key relationships cool under Obama, and existential threats in the form of a potential U.S. strategic reorientation into a partnership with Iran, many Arab leaders are breathing a sigh of relief at the potential reset in relations being offered by America’s new leader.
It is not unusual for an American leader to generate controversy in the Middle East. Trump has exceeded tradition in this regard through his executive order temporarily banning the entry of citizens from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen to the U.S. In response to the ban, Tehran has said that it will introduce a reciprocal ban for U.S. citizens attempting to enter Iran, criticising the ban as “an obvious insult to the Islamic world and in particular to the great nation of Iran”. Although the Iraqi parliament also voted in favour of a similar reciprocal ban, given the central role that approximately 5,000 U.S. troops are playing in the fight against the Islamic State in the north of the country, it is unlikely that such a measure will see real traction. In addition to a muted response from Baghdad, neither of the rival Libyan governments seem to have noticeably reacted to the ban, which is unsurprising given the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord’s dependence on U.S. support, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives’ strategic alignment with Russia. In Sudan, although the U.S. ambassador was summoned to Khartoum in protest, sanctions are due to be lifted by the U.S. this year, and it is therefore unlikely that Khartoum will seek to draw Trump’s ire by pressing the issue particularly firmly.
On the Arabian peninsula however, the situation looks rather more positive. A call between Trump and King Salman of Saudi Arabia appears to have been a resounding success, reaffirming the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership. The Saudi Press Agency, in an initial readout of the call, said that the two leaders had affirmed the “depth and durability of the strategic relationship”. A senior Saudi source claimed that the two leaders spoke for more than an hour and agreed to step up counter-terrorism and military cooperation, in addition to enhancing economic cooperation. A White House statement also said that the two leaders had agreed on the need to address “Iran’s destabilizing regional activities.”
Trump’s relationships with the Gulf states are likely to experience a “diplomatic reset”, improving from the uncomfortable tension experienced under the Obama administration, driven primarily by Obama’s criticisms of the Saudi Arabian government. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also maintained major concerns that Obama was reorienting the U.S. towards closer relations with Iran and away from them, which was seen as a potentially existential threat. The U.S.’ GCC allies, who blame the Obama administration for Iran’s now-expanded regional powers, appear to relish the prospect of a more confrontational U.S. approach to Tehran.
Any concerns that Arab leaders may have initially had, given Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, have likely been eclipsed by their enthusiasm for a hawkish U.S. Iran policy. Tensions between Tehran and the Trump administration rose rapidly following a recent medium-range ballistic missile test by Iran on January 29. Although the test is technically considered exempt from the P5+1 deal and UN reprimand due to the missile’s payload sitting below the threshold required to carry a nuclear warhead, the Trump administration claims that the test is part of a wider nuclear weapons development program and has announced new sanctions in response. Such claims are unsurprising given the Iran-hawks filling Trump’s cabinet.
Despite the hopes of many regional leaders that relations are set to improve under the Trump administration, there remains significant potential for a relapse into strained diplomatic ties.
Trump also spoke with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is believed by many to be the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates in Sheikh Khalifa’s mysterious prolonged absence. The Sheikh and Trump are reported to have spoken at length about the Muslim Brotherhood, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and is npw under similar considerations by the Trump administration. The Crown Prince likely shared Saudi Arabian concerns around Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran, despite the UAE’s anticipation of a trade windfall off the back of a reinvigorated Iranian economy.
Iranian-U.S. relations are likely to continue to decline as hawkish figures make gains in Tehran. Renewed sanctions are likely to damage reformist Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s upcoming ambitions in the May elections, as the promised economic benefits of diplomatic reintegration and sanctions relief remain a cornerstone of his campaign. The increasingly hostile rhetoric of the Trump administration will also play into the hands of Iran’s hardline bloc, who have long preached wariness of treating with America. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in his first speech since the inauguration, has described Trump as showing “the real face of America”, and that the president had exposed the “political, economic, moral and social corruption” of the United States.
Along with the GCC, Egypt also appears to be looking forward to closer relations with a Trump White House. President Abdul Fattah al Sisi was the first Arab leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory. Sisi appears to be looking forward to a similar reset in relations, and in particular a visit to the White House; something the Obama administration had long denied him. Egypt is the second biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, receiving approximately $1.3bn a year, and Trump has promised more support for the Egyptian counterinsurgency campaign in the Northern Sinai.
U.S. relations with Turkey are also likely to improve under Trump, given the similar cooling of relations seen under Obama, driven by human rights and democratic freedom concerns, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s disappointment at the Western world’s collective response to the 2016 coup attempt. The Obama administration had also clashed with Erdogan over Washington’s cooperation with Syrian Kurds. Despite potential hopes of a rekindled relationship under Trump, Turkey may be facing disappointment should Ankara expect increased U.S. support in its long-running battle against Kurdish nationalism. Trump’s incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, testified at his confirmation hearings that the Syrian Kurdish “People’s Protection Units”, which Ankara considers to be a close affiliate of domestic Kurdish militant groups, are Washington’s “greatest ally” against the Islamic State.
Despite the hopes of many regional leaders that relations are set to improve under the Trump administration, there remains significant potential for a relapse. Trump has filled his cabinet with hawkish figures, espoused anti-Muslim sentiment, and has shown high levels of support for long-term Arab adversary, Israel. In particular, his only-recently shelved plans to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem drew significant criticism across the Arab world, and should Israel continue on its current aggressive course of settlement expansion under the right wing Likud and Jewish Home parties, Trump’s support may begin to gather more attention and condemnation from regional leaders.
It should be noted that, as is likely the case with many of Trump’s policies, this “Arabian reset” is probably not driven by geostrategic insight or diplomatic brilliance, and is more likely to simply be a chance encounter of geopolitical opportunities. Whether Trump is able to exploit the benefits of these opportunities is unknown; as ever, Mr Trump likes to keep us guessing.
Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with several years experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region in geopolitical, armed conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently provides MENA-region geopolitical intelligence support to a leading U.S. investment bank.
Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States C.C 2.0.