The Arab world after Obama
It may not be what US President Barack Obama wished to achieve but many leaders in the Arab world have felt abandoned by the United States in favour of mullahs in Tehran and the chaos that emerged from the “Arab spring”.
The Obama administration was seen by many of the United States’ Middle East allies to have prioritised securing and maintaining the Iran nuclear deal above all other factors. It was also regarded as too quickly abandoning long-term allies in the region for rule of the mob.
The Obama years saw Iraqi lands falling to the Islamic State (ISIS) and Tehran-backed militias; the devastating civil war in Syria plagued by Russian bombs, militia terror and mass casualties; the NATO-backed overthrowing of a tyrant in Libya but with no day-after plan, leading to the country descending into a terrorist haven; Egypt forced into political destabilisation buttressed by mass economic consequences and a lack of international efforts to bring a true peace for Israelis and Palestinians.
This policy free-for-all was coupled with an almost unbelievable refugee crisis — the worst since the second world war — with a mass exodus of people in the region fleeing to an increasingly wary Europe.
Many in the Arab world assign responsibility for the chaos to the Obama administration. The facts are far more complicated and need to be reconciled with Obama’s election mandate to withdraw US forces from the region, the lack of economic opportunities for many, lack of deeper political reforms and the absence of true policy or political engagement from Arab leaders in the United States.
If the Arab world views a Donald Trump presidency as a return to normal — that is to a more active US presidency, a more supportive United States, a more engaged military and a firmer global leadership from the White House — it will be severely mistaken.
Trump was elected on the pillars of America first in economics, counterterrorism directed operations against ISIS and the pulling back of the US military presence around the globe.
On one hand the president-elect has nominated a secretary of State — Rex Tillerson — and a secretary of Defense — former general James Mattis — who are both strategic, serious and well-informed. On the other, his inner circle and certain key officials in the incoming White House — political appointees and leaders on the National Security Council — have expressed deeply anti-Islamic and anti-Arab comments.
The Trump administration may prove to be more of the same for Arab leaders. It might even head into a more isolationistic and nationalistic direction, to the detriment of the region.
They can try to ignore this paradigm, as they did in the Obama years, but, by acknowledging the situation, by changing, by seizing key opportunities now presenting themselves, Arab leaders can change the dynamics and create a stronger, safer and more stable region.
Leaders must take wider regional social and economic reform and integration to create stronger and more stable countries. Vision 2030 out of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s promises of economic reform are vital to this.
Creating wider social and economic mobility with more diverse opportunities and, most importantly, job growth will not only help the region, it will create markets and investment opportunities of global trade. It will enable sustainable budgets in places where countries neglect the economic factors that produce terrorism and allow for more well-equipped and well-trained military forces. This will also help Trump in his promises to disengage the United States from a military role in the region.
As it concerns the malign influence of revolutionary Iran, Arab governments must take a lead to demonstrate that those actions by Tehran feed terrorists, such as ISIS and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as destabilise Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.
In this effort, leaders in the Arab world must continue to state how this is not an inter- Islam conflict, it is not Shias versus Sunnis but, rather, the imperialistic revolutionary policies of the Tehran regime that spread destabilisation throughout the region, support global terrorism and subjugate its own people. Arab leaders must not wait for White House action. They must create an international coalition to counter Iran’s actions.
Leaders in the Arab world must acknowledge they cannot only cosy up to whoever occupies the White House. They need wider and far-deeper engagement with the American people, Congress and policymakers throughout the country.
This will mean talking to ordinary Americans, through social and business groups, discussions on partnerships with Congress and a wider policy and strategic engagement. Arab leaders must show the American people how they are reforming their economies, how they are rooting out terrorism, how they are countering the actions of the Tehran regime.
Arab leaders should not expect that the end of the Obama administration will mean a return to an easy relationship with Washington. They should plan for Trump stepping back further and to take decisive action to ensure the region returns to economic and political strength and stability.