Trump and the MENA region: between Realpolitik and identity politics

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Trump and the MENA region: between Realpolitik and identity politics

Trump and the MENA region: between Realpolitik and identity politics

Ana Soage Africa, Middle East, The United States and North America 10/12/2016 Comments

The end of the Cold War plunged the world into a state of flux and uncertainty which has only increased over the last twenty-five years. The left-right yardstick of political identity is becoming less relevant as neoliberalism and globalisation leave many fearful of their prospects and weary of political establishments. The emergence of forces such as Podemos in Spain and the Five Stars Movement in Italy; the growth of xenophobic parties which used to be marginal and even disreputable, like Le Pen’s Front National and Geert Wilders’s PVV; the vote in favour of Brexit in the UK; the election of Donald Trump in the US… They have all been attributed to a feeling among many in Western democracies that the system is letting them down, combined with the hunger for easy solutions – and often, the need for scapegoats. In countries where democracy is still young and liberal values, relatively weak, like Poland and Hungary, xenophobia is rampant. Elsewhere, nationalist populists have taken over or strengthened their position from Russia to Turkey to Israel to the Philippines.

Populist, anti-liberal and xenophobic impulses are also behind much of the violence we see in the Middle East, where the pan-Arabist ideals of the past have been largely forgotten and many align themselves with their religious (or sectarian) identity. It could be argued that both the Islamist parties mobilising electorates and the Jihadi groups perpetrating atrocities are part of the global response to feelings of uncertainty and reflect the human tendency to look for easy explanations, be seduced by comprehensive solutions, and find someone to blame. In spite of the many justified criticisms it has attracted over the years, the Huntingtonian theory of international relations makes sense to those unable or uninterested to take into account the impact of historical and socioeconomic factors in the configuration of cultures and the fact that the latter are constantly evolving. And the latest manifestation of the global malaise, Trump’s victory in the US elections, can only undermine the voices of compromise and multilateralism and embolden the advocates of identity politics.

Predictably, Islamophobia has emerged as one of the distinguishing features of right-wing populism, and Trump is no exception. In December 2015 and in response to the San Bernardino massacre, he stated that he would ban the entry of Muslims into the US. Last summer he insulted the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq who had reproached him his attitude during the Democratic convention. He has made disturbing remarks about lack of integration among Muslim communities in Europe and Merkel’s “naiveté… or worse.” His campaign is said to have had anti-Semitic undertones but he is expected to be as pro-Israel as any of his predecessors: his son-in-law is an Orthodox Jew and a vocal supporter of the Jewish state, and widely seen as destined for a prominent post in the new administration. Furthermore, Trump enjoys a warm relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu – in marked contrast to Barak Obama – and has promised him to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He has also said that the settlements are not an obstacle to peace, which will only be achieved when the Palestinian Authority recognises Israel’s right to exist (in fact, the PLO did just that almost three decades ago). For his part, Netanyahu rushed to congratulate Trump on his election victory, calling him a “true friend” of Israel.

Nonetheless, not all Muslims were so displeased by Trump’s victory as his words and behaviour would seem to warrant. Few Middle Eastern leaders among the traditional US allies will be sad to see the back of Barak Obama, who after the Bush years opted for a hands-off approach to the region: He abandoned long-term allies like Mubarak and was prepared to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, whom several conservative monarchies have come to regard as dangerous political rivals. He refused to throw his wholehearted support behind the Syrian opposition, opting for a piecemeal approach which could only attract criticism from all sides. Worst of all, oblivious to the fight for supremacy opposing Iran to Saudi Arabia, he negotiated a nuclear deal with Teheran, which granted the Iranian regime international respectability and the chance to return to the global oil markets. It is not a stretch to say that the Obama Administration will not be missed in the region’s palaces.

However, the Gulf states saw their candidate lose the election. The Saudi royal family and others have made significant contributions to the Clintons over the years and they were looking forward to a more interventionist stance along the classical lines of American foreign policy. They could only put a brave face on Trump’s victory and send the usual telegrams of congratulations alluding to the “historic friendship” between the US and their own countries. In any case, the Saudi regime had already been adjusting to a less reliable American ally by becoming one of the top weapons importers in the world and adopting a more aggressive foreign policy aimed at countering Iranian influence. It has provided substantial support to the rebels fighting the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad almost since the beginning of that conflict, turning the bloody repression of a pro-democracy movement into a messy sectarian conflict which attracts Jihadis from around the world. And nearly two years ago, it bullied as many of its allies as it could muster into taking part in the ongoing military campaign against the Houthis in neighbouring Yemen.

For now, Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners have chosen to find solace in other pronouncements Trump made during the election campaign, when he described Iran as “the world largest state sponsor of terrorism” and the nuclear deal as “disastrous,” and promised that dismantling that deal would be his “number one priority.” The Saudi-owned, London based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat and other Gulf publications filled with columns celebrating the victory of an American president who will bring Iran into line. Similarly, both the Syrian regime and the opposition expressed hope that Trump’s victory would play in their favour: Assad declared that he would be a “natural ally” if he was willing to fight terrorism, while some rebels claimed that the new president would put an end to Obama’s hesitation and offer them more support – which sounds rather optimistic, considering his assertion that “we have no idea who these people are.” It is clear who has more reasons to be cheerful: During the campaign Trump reiterated that he was against regime change and attacked Clinton with references to the NATO intervention in Libya. And he made it clear that his priority is to defeat Daesh (Isis), which the Syrian president is also trying to do, stressing that it is “idiocy” to fight them both.


Apart from Assad, two other regional strongmen celebrated Trump’s victory: Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The case of Erdogan may seem counterintuitive, given that he is the leader of an Islamist party and for years has supported the armed rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad, but Trump respects him as a strong leader confronting his own Islamist threat. Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, recently told the Turkish press that he considered Turkey the US’s closest ally in the region, while his top advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has compared US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen to Ayatollah Khomeini. Ankara accuses Gulen of being behind the bloody coup in Turkey last July and Erdogan has been scathing about the lack of support from Western capitals, which moreover have criticised him for ordering the arrest of tens of thousands of people. For his part, Sisi is a political enemy of Erdogan, who welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership with open arms after they fled Egypt. Since his July 2013 coup the former general has exploited the Islamist bogeyman to rule his country with an iron fist, brutally suppressing any dissent. His human rights record has been widely condemned, including by the Obama administration, but he is now hoping for a more understanding ear in Washington.

Trump’s statements are contradictory and it is unlikely that he will be able to do much of what he has promised, but his mere presence has changed the mood. It looks like Assad will stay in power in Syria – or possibly a reduced version of it, what is known as “useful Syria.” In addition, Trump has insisted on a more proactive strategy to destroy Daesh (Isis), which would apparently involve forcing the Gulf states to put boots on the ground and going after the banking channels through which the group is financed. Such a military intervention is unlikely, but relations with traditional allies in the region will be put under further strain. On the other hand, blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on “ingrained hatred” towards the Jews will only encourage those who espouse such hatred, while acquiescence to colonisation policies will embolden the settlers and their supporters. Finally, the unravelling of the nuclear deal with Iran will strengthen hardliners in time for the next presidential election, less than six months away. The prospect of the country resuming its nuclear programme and Israel taking unilateral measures against it is not out of the realm of possibility. We can only hope those who are telling us that Trump will become more sensible in office are not victims of wishful thinking.

Ana Soage


Photo 1 (Don Emmert): Donald Trump, James Mattis and Mike Pence, 02/12/2016.

Photo 2: Salman bin Abdulaziz, King of Saudi Arabia, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, 12/04/2016.