Trump's White House: What to expect if you're Middle-Eastern

Trump's White House: What to expect if you're Middle-Eastern
Trump's campaign has courted controversy and included outbursts of Islamaphobic rhetoric, admiration for Vladimir Putin, and calls to dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran. What comes next?
5 min read
09 November, 2016
Political leaders across the Middle East will be wondering what comes next? [AFP]
In the wake of Donald Trump’s shock presidential victory thoughts have turned to what the Republican candidate and outsider mogul’s ascension to the White House could mean for the US’ role in the Middle East. 

Trump’s election campaign has re-written the rule book, and often pinpointing potential, future policy outlooks is complicated by the fact the billionaire tycoon has relied on a rambunctious, prickly rhetoric that has sought to court controversy and included outlandish calls to construct a wall to prevent immigration from Mexico, outbursts of Islamophobia, and a tendency to flip-flop and change positions towards key issues at different stages.

Such realities mean that the Trump that will become 45th US President on January 25 may well be a different Trump to the one seen on the campaign trail.

However, Trump previously dropped hints at how the US geopolitical role in the Middle East could be reshaped under his presidency. 

Warming ties with Russia - implications for Syria

While Trump’s campaign pointed towards increasing isolationism, at times questioning historical relationships with European and Asian states, and agreements such as NATO, a certain warming of ties with Russia is predicted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his ascension to the White House. On the campaign trail, Trump had praised Putin as a “stronger leader” than current President Barack Obama.

US intelligence officials are also said to have probed possible links between one of Donald Trump’s advisors and the Kremlin following reports of alleged meetings between Trump campaign staff and “high sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer. 

A warming of ties between the Kremlin and the White House is unlikely to be bode well for Syrian rebels, with funding of their ongoing war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad already repeatedly questioned in American corridors of power under the Obama administration. 

Trump’s stance towards refugees and immigrants, particularly Muslims, at the time aroused widespread criticism. His running mate Indiana Governor Mike Pence has even campaigned for a legal ruling, later thrown out of court, to block Syrian refugees from settling in his home state.

In order to prevent the movement of refugees from Syria Trump has called for the establishment of “safe zones” within the country to accommodate displaced persons.

Taken together, such dynamics could see Trump more amenable to a future settlement in Syria that favours the Syrian regime, negotiated through Moscow, and less critical of a major Russian-led assault on rebel-held Aleppo.

An old friend in Israel, but an enemy in Iran

But, in an example of inconsistencies and quirks in Trump’s foreign policy outlook during his campaign, the president elect has criticised Moscow's close ally Iran scathingly, even calling for the dismantling of the landmark nuclear deal signed by the US, Iran, and five other states in late 2015, as his “number one priority.”

“I have been in business a long time…this deal is catastrophic for Israel – for America, for the whole of the Middle East. We have rewarded the world’s leading state sponsor of terror with $150 billion and we received absolutely nothing in return,” said Trump, speaking in March this year.

How such a stance will sit with Moscow, if continued, is something that will have to wait to be seen. 

As for the US relationship with Israel; while Trump’s election campaign, and the slapdash theatricality of many of his speeches, have re-written the rule book even he has not questioned the US’ professed, unshakable bond with the Israeli state. Recently Trump signed a petition calling for the movement of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In a statement shortly after Trump’s victory, in one development likely to be perceived with worry by Palestinians, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that Trump’s victory presented Israel with the opportunity to “immediately retract the notion of a Palestinian state,” adding that “this is the position of the President-elect, as written in his platform, and it should be our policy, plain and simple.

“The era of a Palestinian state is over.”

A predeliction for strong men

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Trump’s Islamaphobic rhetoric has alienated many within the Gulf Cooperation Council, while numerous Gulf businessmen have publicly criticised the President-elect, hazarding that they would withdraw investment from US markets if he became president.

Some have predicted that Trump’s love of a good “strong man”, evident in his admiration for Putin, could lead to improved relations with Cairo, whose relationship with Washington has remained in a state of awkward flux since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Abdel Fattah al Sisi has been among the first Middle East leaders to congratulate Trump on his victory, and with Egypt currently in the midst of dire economic straits and economic assistance, having recently alienated Riyadh, Cairo is certainly in search of a helping hand. 

It has similarly been suggested that Trump will seek stronger ties with Turkey, currently angered by the Obama administration’s refusal to extradite opposition leader Fethullah Gulen, wanted by the Turkish state in connection with the failed July 15 coup.

At times Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has appeared bemused by the Trump phenomenon. He has criticised remarks made by Trump calling on Muslims to be barred from entering the US, as the words of an “unsuccesful politician” and even criticised the use of “foreign words” in the naming of the “Trump Towers” in Istanbul. However, while anti-government media in Turkey have mostly been appalled by Trump, newspapers in the country — heavily censored, and controlled by the government — contain a surprising level of support for Trump.

Trump’s campaign has flown in the face of convention, and left the US’ future, both internally, and in terms of foreign policy, uncertain. Many, like Erdogan, predicted that Trump would prove an “unsuccesful politician” but, to date, the republican nominee, and now President-elect, has proved otherwise. 

Many politicians and analysts, in the Middle East and throughout the world, have been forced to eat their words. Now, they are wondering what will come next.