By Bernd Debusmann Jr. and Sarakshi Rai
You’d be forgiven if you presumed that the vast majority — if not all — Arabs loathe and fear U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
He has, after all, called for a ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States and a database for Muslims, including U.S. citizens, already in the country.
He has vowed to send back Syrian refugees in the United States, and his campaign rhetoric conflated “Muslim” and “terrorist.”
But the reaction to all this in the Arab world has been nuanced and mixed, ranging from indifference on the one hand, to unabashed support for him and hostility towards Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the other.
For large swathes of the Arab World, the legacy of the Obama administration is one of destruction and ineptitude.
His hands-off approach to the conflict in Syria is widely seen in the region as a failure of the world’s superpower to come to the aid of millions of people in desperate need of help. The U.S. administration’s failure in 2013 to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using the nerve gas sarin — crossing Obama’s much-vaunted “red line” — was largely seen as weakness.
Many Arabs hope Trump will be harder on Iran.
For many here in the Gulf states — particularly in Saudi Arabia — Obama’s legacy will forever be colored through the lens of what is widely perceived as American reconciliation with bitter rival Iran and the release of frozen funds to the Tehran government.
As the Guardian newspaper has noted, many Arabs hope that the tough-talking Republican Trump will be harder on Iran, and some have reacted with optimism to Trump’s comments on the nuclear deal, which he has called a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated.”
Many see the Obama administration as having turned its back on longtime allies such as Saudi Arabia. Last March, Obama said the Saudi government was eager to drag the United States into regional disputes which are not in America’s interest.
So it’s little wonder that some in the Gulf have expressed optimism about the Trump administration’s plans for the region and are hoping that the billionaire businessman-turned-politician will unwind Obama’s policies on Iran.
The leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt were among the first to congratulate Trump on his electoral triumph, with the UAE and others not far behind.
“Trump promised that he would re-examine international treaties signed between the U.S. and other countries, chiefly Iran, whose foreign minister yesterday asked the new American president to honor past agreements,” Al Watan, an official Saudi daily, wrote recently.
“Perhaps Trump will (re-acknowledge the existence of) the global axis of evil declared by George Bush Jr., which Obama abandoned when he negotiated (with Iran on the nuclear deal),” the daily said, referring to the expression the former president used to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
“I don’t think Trump is an idiot. He’s a clever man.”
Notably, Trump’s electoral victory is also being considered a “win” by senior members of Syria’s government who believe that Trump will accept Russia’s role in the war-torn state as a positive influence and will consider supporting the Assad regime as a lesser evil when compared to Islamic State militants.
“A Trump victory is better than a Clinton victory,” said Syrian parliamentarian Muhammed Kheir Al-Akam, who has represented the Syrian government in talks with the opposition. If Clinton had won, “the situation in the region would have been far worse,” he said.
While many Arabs have expressed concern over Trump’s disparaging comments about Muslims, a significant number also believe that the things he said on the campaign trial amounted to electoral bluster.
“Being against Muslims involved in terrorism and in extremism should in no way be seen as racist,” senior Saudi journalist ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
“This is also the Muslims’ position…. We must not blame Washington (for our troubles) and ignore the fact that most of our problems stem from our own decisions and actions.”
Here in the United Arab Emirates, outspoken billionaire developer Khalaf Al Habtoor put a good face on Trump’s victory, telling Arabian Business magazine that he believes Trump’s comments “were for the election only” and that he ”has no choice but to build great relations.”
“I don’t think Trump is an idiot. He’s a clever man and knows how to do things,” Al Habtoor said, adding: “I think we can work together well.”
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is chief reporter for the Khaleej Times newspaper in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Previously he worked as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington, as a Reuters text reporter in New York and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.
Sarakshi Rai is the online editor for a business publication in the Middle East. She has been in journalism since she was 16, first writing extensively on Formula One and fashion, and then working on breaking news and political reporting in London and India. She received recognition for her work on the Paris attacks in 2015, including interviews with the BBC.