Trump hostility has Arab business, political leaders on edge
© Getty Images

Donald Trump’s surprising ascension to the White House has generated mixed emotions across the Middle East. The Arab Gulf nations that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the new U.S. administration.  

Indeed, across the Middle East, the prevailing sentiment vis-à-vis Trump is “uncertainty,” observes Nidal Abou Zaki, the managing director of Orient Planet, a communications consulting group headquartered in the region.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Arab political leaders were quick to send congratulatory notes to the new U.S. president. But given Trump’s dearth of diplomatic experience, his unfamiliarity with the Middle East’s political and military exigencies, his impolitic remarks about Islam, and his hastily-conceived Muslim travel ban, regional leaders remain apprehensive about a Trump presidency,” Abou Zaki said.

 

The volatile area continues to be plagued by instability. Violent civil strife haunts Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, while the global glut in oil production has hamstrung Arab Gulf economies, complicating their efforts to modernize.

Iran’s Jan. 29 ballistic missile test, though a failure, nevertheless drew a sharp rebuke from the Trump administration, which imposed additional economic sanctions and refused to take military retaliation off the table. Put all these factors together and the "Trump administration is a serious concern for the whole Middle East region,” Abou Zaki said.

Given the Middle East’s ongoing tensions, as well as the U.S.-led coalition’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran that Trump repeatedly assailed during the campaign, the Trump administration has no choice but to engage in the region.

“Had Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonJuan Williams: Mueller, one year on Biden tops Trump by 9 points in Fox News poll With VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world MORE won, the expectation is that her administration would have maintained long-established regional alliances and economic partnerships. Now the onus is on Donald Trump to allay concerns by clarifying his administration’s approach to these important relationships, especially in the wake of his abrupt attempt to impose the Muslim travel restriction,” Abou Zaki said.

Call it what you like, but there is little question that this is how the Middle East views Trump’s actions on the travel ban. A lesson for the new president is clear — had he gone through the Departments of State and Justice, he could have gotten what he wanted without drawing such uniform resistance. Such opposition has only served to make business interests more sensitive.

Although Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stock markets initially dipped over fears surrounding Trump’s impulsive behavior, they have since recovered. Industry analysts worry that, over the long haul, Trump’s protectionist views could have an adverse effect on open-sky policies.

The region’s burgeoning aviation sector, which has made significant investments in the U.S., could be undermined if Trump persists in pursuing narrow economic policies. 

Since President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE has had substantial business interests in the Middle East stretching over a number of years, such protectionist policies would surprise his long-time regional partners. Still, Middle Eastern business leaders are preparing for all scenarios, good and bad.

To be sure, certain regional leaders have been open in their praise of Trump. Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal, the head of Kingdom Holding, clearly sent conciliatory signals to Trump after engaging in a 2016 Twitter quarrel with him.

“President elect @realDonaldTrump whatever the past differences, America has spoken, congratulations & best wishes for your presidency,” he tweeted.

Sabahat Khan, a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, has expressed confidence in Trump’s presidency, maintaining that deep ties between the United Arab Emirates and the U.S. will not be affected and will continue to “flourish.”

Businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor was less effusive, dismissing Trump’s Muslim barbs as “for elections only” and volunteering that GCC leaders would be willing to offer a clean slate if Trump is forthright. 

Overall, as Abou Zaki has noted, there is at least a modicum of confidence that Donald Trump’s win will not sever the deep ties between GCC nations and the U.S. Indeed, many view Trump’s win as a new opportunity to reengage the U.S. in its global role to maintain stability in the region 

“Rarely has it been more important for a new administration to articulate clear goals and principles,” maintain Middle East scholars James Jeffrey and Dennis Ross in a recent paper released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“With 30 percent of the world's hydrocarbons still flowing from the Middle East, safeguarding that supply remains a critical U.S. national security interest, along with preventing nuclear proliferation, countering terrorism, and preserving stability,” write Jeffrey and Ross.

Jeffrey served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Ross served as U.S. point man on the Middle East peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations. 

Abou Zaki calls the Middle East’s reaction to a Trump presidency a “tug of war between faith and skepticism.” Given Trump’s rhetoric and actions in his first three weeks in office, that tug of war is going to be spirited. 

 

Richard Levick is chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global communications and public affairs agency specializing in risk, crisis and reputation management. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.