Gulf Arab states and the Trump Administration

Gulf Arab states and the Trump Administration
6 min read
27 Dec, 2016
Comment: Trump has shown little enthusiasm for America's commitment to security in the Middle East. Roxanne Perugino asks how US relations with Gulf states may be set to change.
Donald Trump speaks against President Obama's nuclear agreement with Iran, September 2015 [Andalou]

The Gulf states may be experiencing some apprehension about the impending Trump presidency.

Behind regularities of diplomatic courtesy, leaders of the Gulf states are likely less than enthusiastic about a candidate who wants a negotiated transition in Syria that involves Assad in power and has shown little enthusiasm for America's commitment to regional security in the Middle East.

At the GCC Summit in Bahrain earlier this month, where Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE convened to discuss oil prices and Iran's support for Yemen and Syria, there were also quiet discussions about the incoming Trump Administration and the future direction of US Middle East policy.

During his campaign Trump leveled some harsh criticisms against the Gulf States. He was highly critical of Saudi Arabia by repeatedly saying that the US should no longer import any oil from the world's largest producer.

Saudi Arabia is also the primary backer of the Islamic Coalition, a group of Syrian rebels that are committed to overthrowing the Assad regime that Trump wants to cooperate with.

Trump has also claimed that countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia should provide more compensation for any protection that the US gives, saying that Kuwait "never paid us" for US action in the 1991 Gulf War.

Gulf states are wondering how the Trump Administration will deal with Syria

Trump's campaign was tinged with anti-Muslim and Islamophobic rhetoric which caused widespread alarm among Muslims, Arab Americans and others. But, for the Gulf states, this will matter less than the shape of the incoming Trump Administration's foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the Gulf states' national security concerns. 

Gulf states are wondering how the Trump Administration will deal with Syria; what the consequences of closer US-Russia cooperation on Syria and IS will be for the region; and whether Trump will abrogate or renegotiate the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

What are the prospects for improved strategic cooperation with the Gulf countries, particularly in light of growing Iranian influence in the region? The appointment of former CENTCOM Commander James Mattis as Secretary of Defense may quell some of the apprehension, given his role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and his statement that Iran is the greatest threat to peace in the region.

More important for these Gulf states, Mattis understands the importance of the GCC states for US strategic interests. It remains to be seen, however, how much influence Mattis will have over US policy in the Arabian Gulf. 

Syria: One serious concern for Arab Gulf states, is Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar have invested heavily in opposition forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The upcoming Trump presidency does not bode well for regime change in Damascus, a goal of the opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The upcoming Trump presidency does not bode well for regime change in Damascus

While the Obama Administration has provided limited logistical and financial assistance to certain elements of the Syrian opposition, Trump has said he does not support the Syrian opposition, so this group is not likely to get any further assistance from the US.

Islamic State (IS): Trump also is likely to accept Russia's role in Syria as a positive one, and support the Assad regime as the lesser of two evils, the greater evil being IS. He may seek Russia's help in combatting IS, but like President Obama may be reluctant to put boots on the ground.

That would mean the US and Russia would depend on the Assad government in the fight against IS. But, are Syrian troops able to fight both IS and the opposition? Syrian troops have only been able to fight IS with the help of Iranian troops and Hizballah fighters. 

Iran: Trump has shown little endearment to the Iranian government and as such, shares the sentiments of the Gulf states if not their priorities. He believes the Iran Nuclear Agreement is a deeply flawed one and has said he would "tear it up", but it is more likely he will want to renegotiate the agreement.

Secondly, given that Iran and Russia are Assad's main supporters, does Trump want to risk antagonising Iran while seeking rapprochement with Syria?

Saudi Arabia: Trump's statements on Saudi Arabia are laced with inconsistencies. In a speech last June, he claimed to "love" the Saudis, with whom he has had lucrative business dealings, and then later said that without the US, the Kingdom is "gone". Clearly, Trump does not grasp the importance of the US-Saudi strategic relationship, despite current tensions.

Trump's statements on Saudi Arabia are laced with inconsistencies

The recent enactment into law of the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which allows Americans to sue Saudi Arabia and its officials for its alleged complicity in the 9/11 attacks, has exacerbated tensions in the bilateral relationship.

There is concern, even among those senators who voted for the bill, that it must now be fixed to limit the impact on US diplomacy.

This legislation changes long-standing international sovereign immunity law by allowing US district courts to hear cases related to attacks carried out by designated "terrorist organisations" on US soil with support from other countries.

Currently only countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism – Iran, Sudan and Syria – can be sued in US courts by US victims of terrorist attacks.The bill potentially could lead to retaliatory legislation against US citisens. For example, lawsuits could be filed by family members of civilians killed by US drone strikes in local courts in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. 

may have less to feel apprehensive about than some of the other Gulf states. Trump and his campaign advisors have shown no apprehension about continuing to maintain the US Fifth Fleet's base in Manama, a key strategic point for the US Navy's containment of Iran.

A Trump administration would also be more willing to overlook human rights abuses in Bahrain, (as well as Saudi Arabia) which has seen civil strife and demonstrations by the country's Shia majority. (Bahrain's decision to hold its National Day at the Trump's Washington DC Hotel in December 2016 appeared to be a blatant move to curry favor with the new President-elect.)

The US relationship with the Gulf states has been a pillar of US policy in the region for decades and has contributed to regional stability.

Over the years, however, there has been a weakening in the relationship due to differing views on a number of national security issues. President-elect Trump would be wise to review this relationship and undertake a policy that will ensure regional cooperation as both the US and GCC states confront continued upheaval in the region.

Roxanne Perugino is a Legislative Policy Analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.