As objectionable as it may seem to many, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. It is also no longer a remote possibility for Trump to become the 45th president of the United States come next January. What would a Trump presidency mean for the oil-rich Gulf Arab states?
Leaders in Gulf capitals, as elsewhere around the world, are keenly following the U.S. presidential primaries. After all, these six states rely heavily on the United States for protection and are keen on maintaining their ties with America. Last May, President Barack Obama, with whom the states differ, assured visiting Gulf leaders of America’s “ironclad” commitment to their security, a promise they would like to see continue with the next occupant of the White House.
Trump’s comments about the Gulf states have been less than reassuring. In extensive remarks on Saudi Arabia, Trump stated in August 2015 that he “wasn’t a big fan” of the country and that the United States had paid too much to “back them up.” Trump predicted that Saudi Arabia “is going to be in big trouble pretty soon and they’re going to need help … We get nothing for it and they’re making a billion dollars a day.” He added that “the primary reason we’re with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil. Now we don’t need the oil so much.”
Following Trump’s controversial call last December to ban Muslims from entering the United States, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a statement expressing “deep concern at the increase of hostile, racist and inhumane rhetoric against refugees in general and Muslims in particular.” A number of Gulf businessmen, including Saudi Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal and Dubai real estate developer Khalaf Al Habtoor, recently publicly criticized Trump, warning that a Trump presidency would lead to the GCC withdrawing their investments from the United States.
Despite their alarm, there may be some convergence between the positions of the Gulf states and Trump on Iran. Although publicly welcoming it, the GCC, save for Oman, has serious reservations about neighboring Iran’s nuclear deal that was negotiated without seeking their counsel. For Gulf leaders, the nuclear negotiations were a missed opportunity to commit Iran to refrain from interfering in the affairs of Arab states. To that extent. Trump and GCC leaders may see eye-to-eye. In a radio interview last September, Trump criticized the Iran nuclear deal as “horrible and laughable,” saying, “it’s one of the most incompetent contracts I’ve even seen,” and adding, “I’ve never seen more of a one-sided deal, I think, in my life.”
In the same interview, Trump regarded the meeting of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and perhaps the GCC’s number one arch-nemesis, with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “not good for us. And what it shows is a total lack of respect (for the United States).” However, campaign Trump may differ significantly from President Trump. Despite Trump’s criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, it would not be too unfathomable for him to change his mind if Putin, whom he said he’d “probably get along with … very well,” can demonstrate its merits.
Trump has changed his tune on Saudi a number of times. In a speech last June, he said, “I love the Saudis … whenever they have problems, we send over the ships.” Trump continued, “Saudi Arabia without us is gone. They’re gone.” Trump’s capriciousness is one reason why the Gulf states may prefer someone more predictable, a Hillary Clinton for instance, whom they’ve known and worked with for years.
Another concern for the GCC is Trump’s complete lack of even basic knowledge of regional players. Trump’s candor was on full display when he admitted to Hugh Hewitt that he knew little about Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, al-Qaeda’s Ayman Zawahiri, Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, and ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The reason, he contended, was, “I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed,” despite the fact that many of them have been around for decades.
Trump’s position on Syria is also unclear for the GCC. Last October, Trump called on the Gulf states to “take a big piece of land in Syria” and “build a safe zone.” In February, Trump changed his position on the matter, saying, “I will build a safe zone (in Syria). I will get the Gulf states to pay for it.” Trump’s position on Egypt, another major regional policy issue, has been more steady and largely in line with that of the Gulf. Even in 2011, Trump’s position on Egypt, which “is turning into a hot bed of radical Islam” was not too different from that of some Gulf capitals. In 2012, Trump tweeted “Egypt is a total mess. We should have backed Mubarak instead of dropping him like a dog.”
Trump’s call for surveillance of mosques in America and for the banning of Muslim entry was met more with intrigue than shock in the Gulf ruling circles. As the Gulf governments grapple with a rising wave of extremism and militant attacks, the prospect of ’the world’s greatest democracy‘ banning a religion means that their own ’anti-terror‘ steps can no longer be criticized.
A Trump presidency would deny the United States the so-called moral high ground from which to preach to other countries. After all, it would be ironic for a nation whose leader is publicly calling for an immigration ban on followers of a certain religion to rebuke other countries for their human rights record. The six states of the GCC have themselves recently taken a number of contentious steps to tighten their own internal security. For them, finding a sympathetic ear to their actions and positions in Washington on January 20, 2017, would not be an unwelcome change.
This article was originally published in Middle East Institute on February 25, 2016.