As the initial shock of Donald J Trump’s election begins to subside and clarity sets upon his choice of cabinet picks, the world can start to set forth a plan on how to deal with this unexpected turn of events.
For much of the world “uncertainty” and “concern” are two words that could be used to describe a Trump administration, but for the Gulf Arab states these are the same words that are associated with the Obama administration. Obama has after all not been an ideal ally: he abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, failed to enforce the red line ultimatum in Syria, and signed, without consulting the Gulf states, an agreement with their arch rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the Gulf, the general perception is that Republican administrations are more malleable and loyal to their friends. That may historically be the case, but Trump is no true blue Republican. He has also threatened ties with much closer allies including NATO states and Japan and South Korea.
In certain matters, Trump may be more amenable to Gulf Arab states’ expectations. He is for instance unlikely to support the Muslim Brotherhood movement that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated as a “terrorist organisation”. Yet, far from “ripping up” the Iran deal, a luxury the President-elect simply does not have as it is a multilateral agreement in which the US is merely a party, Trump may come around to supporting it. At a recent conference I attended an acclaimed American journalist recounted how Trump was surprised and almost impressed by the clauses of the Iran nuclear deal when a National Security Agency official explained it to him in mid-November.
From amongst all the Gulf Arab states, several factors lead to me to believe that the UAE, the US’s largest Middle East trading partner, will have the closest ties to a Trump administration. First, their positions on two fundamental issues for the UAE – the Iran deal and the role of political Islam – are very close. Second, as a friend reminds me, Trump is the only US President to have visited the UAE as a private citizen prior to becoming a politician and enjoys extensive business ties with the country (he even praised Dubai’s airport during his campaign). The UAE also has an articulate and effective ambassador in Yousef Al Otaiba who has been in the US for eight years and has overseen the expansion of UAE consulates to Los Angeles, Houston, Boston and New York City.
That said, even for a country like the UAE which has known Trump as an investor and visitor, Trump the politician remains an unknown entity. The Gulf Arab states may be happy to see the end of an Obama administration but they should hold their celebrations for sometime after January 20th 2017.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy on November 21, 2016.