By Carnegie Endowment
Sada contributors share their take on what the extraordinary election of Donald Trump could mean for a region in turmoil.
The extraordinary election of Donald Trump is generating much uncertainty, including about the implications for the Middle East. Our regular contributors share their take on what the election could mean for a region in turmoil, covering a range of countries from Morocco to Iran and issues from refugees to energy. Join the conversation by sharing your own thoughts.
Crushing Hopes of a Two-State Solution
In a poll conducted three months before the U.S. elections, a large majority (70 percent) of Palestinians said there would be no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in achieving Palestinian interests. Nonetheless, Trump’s victory at this time could make a difference. Although it is currently difficult to gauge Trump’s policy on the Arab–Israeli conflict, in broad terms his electoral campaign raised fears among Palestinians that as president, he will carry out his threats to ratchet up support for Israel, not only crushing hopes of a two-state solution but also potentially worsening an already fragile domestic Palestinian situation. Most likely, Trump will simply turn a blind eye to Israeli practices, particularly expanding settlements, but he may decide to make good on his election promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which could trigger a new cycle of violence and instability.
Given the difficulty in predicting Trump’s policies, as he is a political newcomer and also lacks substantial international experience, all options remain on the table, including the Palestinian Authority disintegrating more quickly and even completely collapsing. Fatah is preparing to hold its seventh general congress at the end of November, which is expected to create a new leadership and political platform redefining the relationship with Israel. The likely takeaway from Trump’s election for Fatah before its congress is that there is no longer any point to pinning its hopes on a two-state solution, and it is time to explore other routes, such as jumpstarting diplomatic options within international institutions or mobilizing the Palestinian street for another round of struggle.
Status Quo in Israel
Lihi Ben Shitrit
Trump’s idiosyncrasy and unpredictability is causing mixed feelings of dread, jubilation, pessimism, and optimism along the entire spectrum of Israeli politics. The Israeli right—with its pro-settlement, anti-two state solution agenda—has considered Trump a natural ally and expressed enthusiasm about him throughout the campaign. Trump’s official position on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict might as well have been written by the current hawkish Israeli government. His style of incitement against minorities of all kinds, which has been unusual in its explicitness in the U.S. context, resonates with the rhetoric and tactics used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition allies from the right in their own election campaigns. Clearly, he displays the kind of personalistic, populist, and intolerant style perfected by majoritarian leaders with illiberal, centralizing, authoritarian tendencies—such as Erdogan and Netanyahu—in the few existing Middle Eastern democracies.
And yet, there is also uncertainty in rightist circles and a degree of counter-intuitive hope on the more radical Israeli left. If Trump indeed pursues the kind of isolationist, America-first, realist foreign policy he has declared he would follow, he might be inclined to reconsider the terms of the tremendous—and largely unconditional—support the United States provides to Israel. While such speculations have captured the imagination of some on the Israeli left, however, they are an unlikely scenario. Looking back at both Democratic and Republican administrations, we see that barring initiative by Israelis and Palestinians on the ground—such as the secret negotiations that led to the Oslo Agreement and its embrace by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat—U.S. administrations of all strides have been largely the guarantors of status quo trends in Israel and Palestine, rather than strong catalysts for any kind of change. And the current status quo entirely benefits the agenda of the Israeli right. Settlement expansion and rising intolerance toward any criticism of the Israeli occupation are not likely to be curbed with the help of a Trump presidency.
Common Ground With the Gulf on Iran
At various points along the campaign trail, Trump offered a glimpse into a few areas of concern to the Gulf states. Rebuking Clinton on the Syrian refugee crisis, Trump stated in a debate that he believes in building a free zone in Syria paid for by other people such as the “Gulf states, who are not carrying their weight, but they have nothing but money.” It is noteworthy that a low point between President Obama and Saudi Arabia in particular was when he suggested that the Gulf states were “free-riders” that need to do more. Like President Obama, president-elect Trump has also implied this same sentiment during both his September national security speech and first debate with Clinton, when he said, “Can you imagine, we’re defending Saudi Arabia? And with all of the money they have… they’re not paying?”
But what has consistently worried leaders in the Gulf and Muslim countries more generally is Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric on Muslims and his insistence on using the term “radical Islamic terrorism,” claiming it is “the only language they will understand.” While his contentious proposed “ban” on Muslims entering the United States is understood as less realistic and just campaign talk, rhetoric matters at a time when the Saudi government especially is in a narrative competition with extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). IS and other extremist groups have tried to discredit and delegitimize conservative regimes in the eyes of Muslims by highlighting the close relations Gulf monarchies have with a United States that is, they claim, at war with Islam. Trump has already featured in propaganda material by extremist groups to shore up their point, and should the president-elect continue down this path in the oval office, Gulf countries might, at least at a public relations level, feel compelled to dissociate themselves—carrying over the downhill trajectory in U.S.–Gulf relations that will be inherited from the Obama administration.
Despite all the caution, there is plenty of room for optimism from the Gulf states on the issue they care most about: Iran. Trump’s uncompromising position on Iran throughout the campaign perhaps brought a sense of nostalgia from Gulf leaders to the pre-Obama days. Trump has repeatedly denounced the deal and threatened to “dismantle” it should he win the election. Though he offered no ideas on how this could be achieved given the deal’s multilateral nature, the Gulf states nevertheless recognize and most certainly would welcome the shift in attitude. Another point came during the final debate with Clinton, when he elaborated on Iran, claiming—clearly contemptuously—that Iranians are taking over Iraq before adding that “we’ve made it easy for them” and that they would be the “beneficiary” of an eventual liberation of Mosul from IS—a position that could not more closely reflect how the Gulf states feel.
In his victory speech, a more humbled and subdued president-elect Trump claimed that though he will always place U.S. interests first, “we will seek common ground” with other nations. For now, the common denominator appears to be Iran.
Trumping the Global Oil Markets
Trump’s win just added more fuel to the fire that is devastating the energy markets globally. Already oil prices have been extremely volatile over the past year; with the geopolitical and regulatory uncertainties of Trump’s win and the Republican sweep of Congress, the volatility will increase. First, his position on repealing the Iran nuclear deal will certainly delay Iran’s comeback to international oil markets and scare off any new investments in the oil industry in Iran. This may please some regional rivals in the Middle East, but it will add only more volatility to markets that lift prices to all-time highs.
However, the Republican stance on deregulating the energy markets in the United States and their long-standing opposition to any climate change agreement—and Trump’s campaign promises of pulling out of the Paris climate accord, extending full support for increasing shale oil and gas production, lifting restrictions on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic, and building up American energy independence and energy exports—will only result in more hydrocarbons flowing to the international markets. This will only add to the global oil glut and will potentially depress oil prices in the long term. This will be distressing to OPEC members, especially Saudi and GCC countries, which have been pushing for a global moratorium on oil production in order to rebalance supply and demand and push prices up.
During the campaign, Trump issued predatory comments on bombing and controlling oil fields in the Middle East. Still taken at face value, Trump’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Arab oil-producing countries, the Syria and Iraq crises, Iran, and Russia will only add more political risk to an already jittery oil market.
Neither Clout Nor Focus for a UN Deal in Yemen
Before being elected, Donald Trump talked tough on national military expenditure and on the Islamic State (IS), but rejected U.S. interventionism. It is hard to imagine that as president he will want to authorize a major air assault or deploy ground troops in a bid to determine the outcome of Yemeni civil war. However, before he and his team can get their feet under the table in January, there will probably be more U.S. warship and drone attacks on perceived threats to U.S. national security in Yemen. If a major U.S. intervention isn’t taking place in Syria, then why would it in the Saudi backyard, where U.S. refueling and intelligence (and U.K. targeting assistance) is already aiding the Saudi-led campaign?
Under President Trump, Russia and the United States seem more liable to work together against IS- and AQ-related groups in Syria, empowering Assad in the process. However, it doesn’t follow that this will embolden the Russians to play a military role in Yemen, where their role pretty much ended in 1990 aside from some widely disbursed Soviet arms. Having Trump in the White House, though, might encourage Iran to get more involved in the Yemeni conflict. That is, if it calculates that, under Trump, this wouldn’t destroy a nuclear deal yet to see many of the assumed economic benefits.
Between now and January, Secretary John Kerry’s efforts to encourage Yemeni and regional players’ acceptance of the UN Yemeni power-sharing plan will no doubt continue. A compromise that the Saudis and Iranians might conceivably be cajoled into backing isn’t one that an outgoing Obama or an incoming Trump administration would disrupt. Alongside this, southern Yemeni secessionist pressures will continue. However, a southern unilateral declaration of independence—whether amid further state disintegration or as an unintended outcome of regional power sharing compromises—is not something that Trump can affect one way or another.
The Saudis cautiously back the UN deal, as does their old ally (and current enemy), Yemen’s ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. That said, Riyadh wants to see the full disarmament of the Houthi and Saleh forces. A complicating factor (among many) is what to do about Saudi/Qatari ally Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, an ostensible Hadi military man and Saleh’s former right hand. The Yemeni general needs to be accommodated, in the interest of his allies, local and regional. The Saudis and their current Yemeni allies need to accept, in word and deed, the UN plan to give the Iran-backed Houthis, pro-Saleh forces, and southern secessionists major stakes in running Yemen, while UN-led disarmament of Houthi and Saleh forces is first attempted in three key cities, not the whole country.
For any actor to pull this off would require both strategic clout and an intense focus on the multiplicity of differing Yemeni and regional components. It’s not clear that President Trump will give the United States this clout, and neither the outgoing or incoming U.S. administrations will have the focus.
Reinforcing Conspiratorial Beliefs in Iraq
Kirk H. Sowell
While American politics necessarily has a greater impact on Iraq than it does on most foreign countries, Iraqis are, relatively speaking, paying less attention to it, mostly for reasons that are obvious. Not only is there the internal war on their own territory, but the external crisis with Turkey has taken up much time that might have been spent on something else. Except for those at the top of the scale who know English and are following the election directly from the U.S. media, the campaign has mainly intruded into the Iraqi media cycle in bursts, mostly through Trump’s statements—about seizing Iraqi oil, his “Muslim ban,” and claims about President Obama being the “founder of ISIS” or somehow tied to the group. While Trump may not have intended these statements with full seriousness, this reinforces a preexisting belief among Iraqis—and also other populations in the region—that the United States backs terrorist groups like Islamic State. But it is precisely this conspiratorial belief that makes reactions to the result hard to predict.
Doubts Among Maghreb Allies
Transparency over interlocutors is the major challenge faced by North Africa, a secondary region for U.S. foreign policy. Leaders in Algiers, Rabat, and Tunis will spend the coming weeks figuring whether to orient their efforts toward the Trump administration and accommodate its principles of withdrawal, outsourcing, and rationalization of spending; or continue to interact with traditional institutions such as the State Department and Senate committees, albeit under Republican leadership.
In terms of security and regional alliances, Morocco presents itself as the main American ally, for which it obtains precious support on the Western Sahara issue. Morocco hosts large numbers of Peace Corps volunteers every year, collaborates on intelligence matters, houses advanced military exercises, and is even being considered as a replacement for Germany to host AFRICOM. Yet the Trump administration could roll back this American presence and turn to Algeria, Morocco’s regional competitor, as a partner in the region closer to its ideological preferences. The Algerians were suspicious of Hillary Clinton, insisting they work better with Republican administrations and underlining their army and security services’ precious expertise against jihadi terrorism from the 1990s. While the Algerians could play an essential geostrategic role to maintain security in the Sahel and Libya, this proved difficult in 2012 in Mali and during the 2013 In Amenas hostage crisis, due to their suspicions over American designs and pro-sovereignty line.
Although economic ties with the United States are weak, North African countries may see a change in the terms of aid and support, starting with Tunisia. Its leaders have been praised by the U.S. Senate for its political transition, and the country secured aid initiatives such as the Tunisian–American Enterprise Fund thanks to lobbying efforts by the Tunisian Association for Young Professionals (TAYP). Such initiatives and broader American commitments for aid could be revisited and rationalized by the Trump administration, despite Tunisia’s uncertain economic and security situation. Meanwhile, a Trump administration may well lessen the Obama administration’s human rights scrutiny of Morocco and Algeria in favor of collaborating to fight terror-related threats around the Mediterranean.
Normalizing Xenophobic Attitudes to Refugees
There are many outstanding questions when it comes to assessing what Trump’s foreign policy would look like, especially in the Middle East. Yet it is reasonable to speculate that the 2016 U.S. elections will have a significant impact on both the global forced displacement crisis in general and on Syrian refugees in particular. First, the newly elected president largely campaigned on an anti-immigration platform full of xenophobic and Islamophobic undertones. It is emblematic to remember that Mr. Trump’s sentiments with respect to resettling Syrian refugees were at some point in the campaign expressed with a comparison to poisonous snakes. It is hence legitimate to expect a further hardening of policies with respect to refugees—a move that could also embolden similar anti-refugee, anti-immigration platforms elsewhere in the world, chiefly within the European Union.
Beyond the new president’s policies and his focus on “closing borders,” this election could also very well contribute to normalizing and mainstreaming xenophobic attitudes within society at large, a trend that would certainly negatively impact issues such as refugee resettlement, among others. In addition, based on Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and seemingly new isolationist orientation, it is reasonable to wonder whether the United States is going to scale back its international role and, more specifically, cut back both its external development assistance and humanitarian aid budget—which would in turn further complicate the global challenges linked to forced displacement.
A Boost for Haftar in Libya
Donald Trump’s seismic victory elicited reactions in Libya that were as deeply divided as in the United States. Interestingly, these reactions were indicative of Libya’s own factions and the path each faction sees toward success in Libya’s zero-sum civil war. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his associates and supporters are buoyed by this result. Having attempted his best impression of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for the last two years, he believes this result can only strengthen his position and ambitions to rule Libya. Although Trump’s campaign was light on policy, he repeatedly asserted his affinity with Vladimir Putin and suggested openness to cooperating with his Middle Eastern vision. This Russian vision focuses on empowering military “strongmen” to ruthlessly assert national control while combating any apparition of Islam that carries a sociopolitical guise—as evidenced by Putin’s alliance with Bashar al-Assad and ever-closer ties with Sisi.
Libya’s political Islamists, and the considerably more vocal and powerful cadres loyal to extremist Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, are correspondingly reinforcing their siege mentality. Knowing that a President Trump is unlikely to entertain them, they are hoping that the president-elect veers closer to isolationism and a hinted-at withdrawal from the region. This would allow their sponsors like Turkey and Qatar to continue supporting them freely. Those lamenting Trump’s victory the loudest are Libya’s democrats. Already fragmented, embattled, and increasingly marginalized, they were banking on a Clinton victory. Trump’s shallow understanding and preference for decisiveness over long-term solutions means they are unlikely to be afforded the protection and support they require so desperately. Moreover, the centrality of Libya to Trump’s criticisms of Clinton suggests he is unlikely to risk deep involvement and would prefer a “quick win” he can show off—regardless of how shallow that “win” may be.
The Trump–Sisi Alliance
A Trump presidency could signal a significant shift in American–Egyptian relations, which have cooled since the 2013 coup. For example, in 2013, the United States partially suspended military aid, later to be restored in March 2015, citing a need to combat the Islamic State. However, even though the United States restored aid, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi still has not been invited to the White House, a public snub to a close American ally. Trump, however, seems to have another policy regarding Egypt. In a meeting between Trump and Sisi in New York in September 2016, Trump praised Sisis’ efforts in his war on terror and stated that, if he were elected, the United States would be a friend to Egypt, not simply an ally. This was followed by a promise to invite Sisi on an official state visit. Sisi was quick to return the praise, stating that Trump would be a strong president, one of the key points that Trump was using in his electoral platform.
In terms of policy, this warming of relations can have a number of implications. First, Trump’s brand of right-wing populism is likely to strengthen Sisi’s position internationally and domestically, since it is likely to create support for his continued repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition under the rubric of the War in Terror. Sisi was already praised by various leaders in the GOP, including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, signaling the affinity between the Egyptian regime and Republican Party at a time when repression was rampant in Egypt. Moreover, any pressure from Washington to reduce levels of repression and allow civil society to operate, which Clinton was more willing to exert, is not likely to materialize under a Trump presidency. Finally, the isolationist approach that Trump is likely to follow in the Middle East, as well as his apparent willingness to cooperate with Russia, can facilitate increased cooperation between Egypt and Russia—a process already under way—in a manner that would increase Russian influence over Egypt.
Turkish Sympathy for Trump
Turkey has long taken for granted that its geography will ensure that its Western allies, and chiefly the United States, cannot afford to turn their backs on their strategic partnership. Regardless of its human rights record, the slow erosion of checks and balances, and limits on fair political representation, Turkey has sensed—and not without reason—that its military alliance with the United States cannot falter. If the Trump administration favors isolationism, the fate of stumbling democracies far from its shores will matter little and Ankara may be proven right again.
Pro-government media and political pundits in Turkey have been openly sympathetic toward Trump. A less interventionist United States that stays out of Turkey’s backyard in the Middle East is seen as a welcome departure. It may mean greater free rein for Turkey’s ill-defined ambitions in the region and even make its responsibilities as a NATO member more fluid and permissive. There is a high level of uncertainty at the moment about what the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward the Middle East will look like, but what is clear is that Turkey will likely pursue a more hybrid set of relations that may at times contradict those of the United States. The challenge will be if and when such contradictions become the new normal.
Turkey’s government is no stranger to the brand of bombastic right-wing populism that rewarded Trump with the presidency. And its people are familiar with the resulting corrosive and divisive implications for those who dare to dissent. The resilience of populist politics in Turkey, the Brexit vote, and now Trump’s triumph, are not unrelated events. They point to fragmentation in the global system, driven in part by a growing sense of inequality between the haves and have-nots, while progressive opposition movements rely on worn-out tropes that no longer appear to resonate.
Rouhani’s Next Move
In Iran, the slightly Trump-tilting ultra-conservative elite cautiously welcomed the U.S. election’s results. It goes without saying that the results of this election might affect the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump dubbed a “disaster.” Nevertheless, following the results, Ali Motahari, the Second Deputy of Iran’s Parliament, confidently said that Trump’s opposition to the JCPOA benefits Iran but they [Americans] cannot practically do anything.
The fall of Tehran’s stock exchange could be a good barometer of Iranian investors’ initial response to Trump’s victory. In the post-sanctions era, Iran has been facing some hurdles in attracting foreign investment, as many banks across the globe are still afraid of doing business with the country. Although paradoxically Trump earlier criticized the enduring sanctions that prevent American firms from doing business in Iran, these dramatic developments send mixed signals to global investors who might wait longer to navigate the new waters. But with France’s Total asserting Trump’s victory will not impact its clinching of a gas agreement in Tehran, positive signals could help Iran bring in other foreign investors.
Although a U-turn in U.S.–Iranian relations following the elections is far-fetched, a dramatic shift is not impossible. The question here is: How will Hassan Rouhani manage such a scenario? How will his policy choices impact his chances in the next elections? Although a second Rouhani presidency seems to be approved by the high echelons of the Iranian regime, a swift win might not be secured easily if a foreign policy setback looms in the horizon. However, Rouhani’s administration will likely cope with the new challenges if a canny foreign policy develops in consent with the Supreme Leader’s inner circles.