Like most of the rest of the world, including the U.S. political class (leading Republicans no exception), the Gulf Arab states awoke this morning to find that the American people have elected Donald J. Trump to be the next president of the United States. All indications leading up to the vote had been for a narrow but clear Hillary Clinton victory. But as the night unfolded it increasingly became evident that polling and other forecasting models, virtually across the board (reportedly including within the winning campaign itself), had failed to predict the uprising against the Washington establishment that Trump campaigned to represent. Like other major U.S. allies around the world, the Gulf Arab countries now face a period of relative uncertainty, given the difficulties of predicting the outlines of a Trump foreign policy. Yet some of the most obvious factors that will help shape the nature of this vital relationship over the next four years can be gleaned even at this early stage.
A Blank Slate
The first problem confronting any analysis is the paucity of evidence upon which to speculate about where a Trump foreign policy would potentially converge or diverge with traditional and consensus U.S. policies. Trump has no track record in office, elected or appointed. During his campaign he did not evince any particular knowledge of, or interest in, foreign policy, beyond his hostility to economic globalization and trade agreements. He did not lay out any detailed or coherent programs regarding foreign policy, let alone toward the Middle East. And it is unclear who his main advisors on Middle East-related matters will be, not least because most of the Republican foreign policy establishment and Trump avoided each other (at best) during the campaign. Indeed, it is precisely among Republican national security and foreign policy experts that Trump may have enjoyed some of the most meager support within his own party, and, despite his noted penchant for valuing subordinates’ “loyalty,” the small group of advisors he did assemble may not be the ones actually entrusted with crafting and implementing his administration’s policies after his inauguration.
For the Gulf states, the biggest challenge in dealing with a Trump presidency and foreign policy will not be his anti-Muslim comments or Islamophobia-tinged rhetoric from the campaign. It certainly won’t win him much affection among their leadership or in public opinion, but such issues are essentially a domestic challenge facing Muslim and Arab Americans and not other countries. Instead, the biggest challenge will be how a President Trump will approach some of the issues closest to Gulf states’ national security agendas given the jarring foreign policy contradictions that emerged from the handful of themes repeated throughout his campaign, including his sympathy for aspects of Russian foreign policy combined with his evident hostility toward Iran.
The Syria Conflict and Iran’s Relationship with Russia
From a Middle Eastern strategic perspective, this combination makes no sense, because Moscow and Tehran are increasingly finding themselves on the same page on many of the most pressing regional strategic issues, especially those that are paramount in the security files of the Gulf states, such as the regionalized civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Trump’s enthusiasm for building bridges with Moscow, and apparent sympathy for the Russian intervention in Syria (which he has, like the Kremlin, falsely characterized as being essentially an international counterterrorism operation aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), must surely be alarming. If that dominates strategic thinking in his White House, it would be an enormous boon to Iran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, Trump’s hostility toward Tehran might seem to offer interesting prospects for improved strategic cooperation with Gulf countries in regional confrontations with Iran, including via proxies in theaters such as Syria and Yemen. U.S. priorities, as defined by a Trump administration, will determine how this plays out.
Would a Trump administration regard the survival and empowerment of the Assad regime in Syria – currently a mutual Russian and Iranian goal being pursued through profound military and diplomatic cooperation – as a legitimate, if not laudable, Russian goal, and a counterterrorism project, to be tolerated and possibly even encouraged? Much of his campaign rhetoric about the Syrian conflict and the struggle against ISIL suggests it might. Or, might he, upon greater reflection, come to view the joint intervention on behalf of the Syrian regime more as an Iranian and Hezbollah project, to be countered in a more aggressive manner than President Barack Obama has attempted?
Could a Trump White House try to split Moscow from Tehran on Syrian issues in some artful diplomatic manner? A subtle and engaged foreign policy might find opportunities for exploiting genuine divergences between Moscow and Tehran regarding their long-term goals in Syria, which are not absolutely synonymous. Or might a Trump foreign policy fall back on a neo-isolationist attitude and regard the Syrian imbroglio as simply no concern of the United States, in effect perpetuating the essence of the Obama approach, albeit perhaps motivated by a different set of priorities?
These are some of the key questions that the Gulf Arab countries will seek to evaluate as soon as possible. Since these states view their national security primarily, although not exclusively, through their rivalry with Tehran, the U.S. attitude towards Iran’s regional ambitions and policies will go a long way to determining their relationship to U.S. policy. Under Obama, they viewed Washington as increasingly unresponsive to their anxieties vis-à-vis Iran. They worried that the nuclear agreement might herald a broader rapprochement with Tehran, although that didn’t happen. They were dismayed at the lack of U.S. engagement regarding Syria. And they decided to take action on their own in Yemen, when they believed the Houthi rebels and their Iranian supporters posed an intolerable threat to their vulnerable underbelly.
The Gulf states will be hoping that Trump’s voluble antipathy toward Iran on the campaign trail will, once he is in office, prompt him to reevaluate his attitude toward some of Russia’s current policies and strategies in the Middle East, particularly Moscow’s intervention in Syria. He is going to have to reconcile these two positions, and the Gulf states have every incentive to advocate at an early stage that a Trump White House view Syria and other regional conflicts primarily through the lens of Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East, and not see them as aspects of “legitimate” Russian international relations and counterterrorism initiatives. And they will certainly hope that, given his strong statements condemning Iran’s regional role, Trump’s new brand of “nationalism” will not simply be nativism but can be translated into a substantive international agenda.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement
Trump has been strongly critical of the nuclear agreement with Iran, calling it “catastrophic,” and one of the worst deals ever made. Yet he is unlikely to simply abrogate the agreement. However, insofar as the Gulf Arab states continue to view the agreement with suspicion, they will find a much more sympathetic ear in a Trump White House. The Gulf states may have somewhat reconsidered their strong initial objections to the agreement, given that it has apparently succeeded in mothballing Iran’s nuclear program for at least the next decade, and has not led to a broader rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. But if they still yearn to see the agreement collapse, there is renewed hope. At a minimum, Trump is likely to greatly intensify U.S. demands regarding implementation and hold back on rewards for Iranian compliance when possible.
It’s actually hard to imagine that the implementation phase can continue to go relatively smoothly unless Trump’s foreign policy bears no resemblance whatsoever to his campaign rhetoric. That’s possible, but it’s more likely that Tehran will find itself dealing with a completely different attitude on the part of its U.S. interlocutors within a few weeks. The lifespan of the agreement may be in serious jeopardy because of bitter disputes over the rights and responsibilities of both sides during the forthcoming, and more difficult, parts of the implementation phase. In the long run, Iran’s regional adversaries might regret the downfall of the agreement; though in the short run they might welcome it. And, of course, that would only end up empowering the most hard-line forces in the Iranian government.
Financial and Military “Burden-Sharing”
The two clearest themes in Trump’s campaign rhetoric on foreign policy have been at the heart of his populist vision: a neo-isolationist, “America-first” set of priorities that effectively devalues long-standing formal alliances such as NATO, and anti-trade and anti-globalization imperatives that would introduce new levels of economic protectionism into U.S. trade relations with the whole world. Regarding trade, the Gulf states have little to fear. Their relationship with the United States has always been based, first and foremost, on their role as energy suppliers to the global marketplace, not just to the United States, but especially to Washington’s crucial trading partners in East and South Asia. Trump’s apparently mercantile, instrumental, and ledger-sheet approach to relations should allow the Gulf states to present a good case as important U.S. allies.
During the campaign Trump frequently cited Saudi Arabia, along with Germany and Japan, as countries that he implied were not paying their fair share for their own defense and, implicitly, owed the United States more money. Unless he drastically alters his values and priorities, a President Trump is likely to be pleased by the actual balance of payments with the Gulf states. In 2010, Saudi Arabia, for example, agreed to purchase $60 billion in U.S. military aircraft, as well as countless other military and nonmilitary purchases. In 2015, the United States sold an estimated $33 billion in weapons to the Gulf states. Added to that are the myriad in-kind, value-added, facilities, services, and other arrangements that typically characterize U.S. basing in the Gulf region, especially the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain. If campaign priorities about burden sharing and financial contributions to defense are imported into the next White House’s foreign policy, the Gulf states are well-positioned to present themselves as key allies in very good standing.
If a Trump administration deprioritizes U.S. engagement, and possibly even military presence, in the Middle East, that would be a double-edged sword from a Gulf perspective. On the one hand, the Gulf states want the assurance of fundamental U.S. protection, particularly in the case of a direct confrontation with, and even more specifically an attack on them by, Iran. The prospect of the United States turning even more deeply inward could be alarming in that context. However, a more attenuated application of the principle of neo-isolationism could extend significant leeway to the Gulf states to continue to chart an independent national security, and even military, agenda for dealing with regional crises, with the expectation of U.S. weapons supplies and logistical support.
By the time of their intervention in Yemen in March 2015, the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, had long since reconciled themselves to the need for greater “burden sharing” on their part and, when need be, taking unilateral military action to secure their own interests independent of U.S. participation or guidance. As long as they can continue to pursue and expand this agenda without risking the basis of their relationship with the United States, and the fundamental guarantees of U.S. protection and access to U.S. weapons and technology, a more hands-off approach by a Trump administration could have some positive consequences for independent Gulf national security decision making.
Islam and Terrorism
Finally, while Muslim-bashing and the Islamophobic nature of some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric is primarily a domestic political issue, President Trump and Arab leaders will need to find mutually respectful language, something they had already developed, for the most part, with Hillary Clinton. In short, overt Muslim-bashing rhetoric, entry bans based on national origin (let alone religious orientation), and words and deeds that seem to equate Islam in general with terrorism could cause serious harm to both sides of the U.S.-Gulf relationship in a Trump era. Having already secured victory, there is no longer a need for the new president to pander in such a manner, and his new responsibilities could and should put an end to any such talk.
Trump has emphasized his determination to destroy ISIL in vivid language. As long as he is not perceived as effectively playing into Iran’s regional agenda with such a focus, he will find enthusiastic partners in that campaign among the Gulf states. It is very much in the interests of both sides to forge a strong anti-terrorism and counter-extremist agenda. Such a relationship should also serve as the ultimate guarantee against additional loose talk that seems to promote anti-Muslim bigotry. Such a partnership would also have to avoid some of Trump’s wilder campaign comments about introducing forms of torture for terrorism suspects including “waterboarding and much worse,” the killing of terrorists’ families, and other extreme and extraordinary measures that not only violate international norms, but probably U.S. law as well. Yet even during the course of the campaign he distanced himself from some of the more extreme of these earlier remarks. That process is likely to continue. Such growth will be crucial for the development of an effective anti-terrorism and counter-extremism partnership with the Gulf states and many others around the world.
The outgoing Obama administration can help by working with Gulf countries even before the Trump inauguration to find a legislative “fix” for the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would allow Americans to sue Saudi Arabia and its officials, among others, for alleged complicity in deadly terrorist attacks in the United States. The veto override that allowed JASTA to become law immediately after the 15th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and right before the election was the source of a great deal of regret in Congress on the very day it passed. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are concerned about the potential impact of the law on bilateral relations with the United States. But informed and serious Americans are also concerned about the potential impact on U.S. diplomacy and military actions if the U.S. government and its officials could be sued around the world in turn.
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s new brand of “nationalism” and populist rhetoric would allow him to openly be party to correcting this mistake, so it is preferable that the law is corrected in some mutually satisfactory manner in the coming weeks with the explicit cooperation of the Obama administration and congressional leaders, and, hopefully, the implicit support of the incoming Trump administration (which can overtly hold the matter at some arm’s length until the inauguration). For all those who value both the efficacy of U.S. diplomacy and military strategy, and the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, a JASTA “fix” is an important step, and the Trump team should at least step back and allow for such a vital correction.