Arab leaders hope Trump will make their new year wishes come true

Reviled by Western liberals and dismissed by foreign policy specialists, Donald Trump is being viewed with favour by leaders of the Arab world’s most powerful nations.

In an interview with the The Financial Times published today, Egypt’s President El-Sisi welcomed Trump’s election.

“President-elect Trump is tackling terrorism with more resolve and seriousness and that’s exactly what’s needed…,” he was quoted as saying.

El-Sisi’s enthusiasm reflects bitter resentment among Cairo’s rulers about President Obama’s role in deposing President Mubarak in 2011 and facilitating the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in elections the following year.

The view among government and business leaders in the GCC also appears to be positive.

Fahad Nazer, a political consultant to the Saudi embassy in Washington, told Middle East Eye that Gulf monarchies could “strengthen and deepen” US ties by finding “common ground” with Trump’s team. Gerald Feierstein, former US envoy to Yemen, told Middle East Eye that Gulf rulers are “counting down the days until” Obama hands over the presidency to Trump next month.

The enthusiasm for Trump reflects resentment about President Obama’s Middle East policy which involved prioritising détente with Iran over concerns among most Arab states about Iranian assertiveness in the Middle East. The GCC has accepted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal with the Islamic republic about its nuclear programme but want Trump to put containing Iran at the top of his regional agenda along with his stated determination to defeat Islamic radicalism.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE are delighted with the nomination of Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, as secretary of state. ExxonMobil is probably the largest foreign investor in the GCC. It has stakes in Saudi Arabia’s downstream oil industry; Qatar’s LNG sector and Abu Dhabi’s upstream operations. Tillerson is familiar with the GCC and has good personal relations with top Gulf officials.

Trump’s support for the energy industry is seen as a welcome sign of a more positive attitude to the priorities of GCC states. The production agreement between OPEC and non-OPEC states reached earlier this month in Vienna was built around a deal between Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and Russia, the world’s largest oil producer. The compact between Riyadh and Russia would have been less viable if Hillary Clinton, an advocate of a hard line towards Moscow, had been elected president.

Observers say GCC states prefer pragmatic deal-making in foreign affairs to attempts at developing a sweeping vision for the Middle East. Their priority is maintaining stability in the region even if this means implicit understandings with apparent foes. This is behind Gulf state moderation towards Israel despite its persistent failure to halt settlements in the West Bank.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar maintained constructive relations with Russia even as it escalated support for the regime of Syria’s President Assad which they want to replace.

Arab enthusiasm for Trump will be tested should he seek to fulfill promises that he’ll move America’s embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The president-elect’s aide Kellyanne Conway told radio host Hugh Hewitt earlier this week that relocating the embassy is “a very big priority”.

Arab leaders hope their willingness to work with Trump and the strong business links between the GCC and the US will persuade the new president that gestures bound to fuel Islamic radicalism should be avoided.

There’s no certainty this will work.

But there is fresh hope in some Arab hearts as the old year ends.