Trump victory shocks the GCC
LONDON - With many of its media, analysts and public figures predicting and endorsing a landslide US presidential victory for Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, the upset win by Republican and former reality TV star Donald Trump shocked Gulf Arab countries.
Trump, a Washington outsider with unpredictable with unconventional views on regional issues, left many wondering what is in store for the six Arab countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly what will happen to the Iran nuclear deal and the recently passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
As protocol demands, Gulf leaders congratulated the president-elect, starting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who sent a congratulatory cable and personally called Trump. The Saudi Press agency said King Salman emphasised Saudi Arabia’s keenness to work with the United States on bringing peace and stability to the Middle East. Trump stressed an eagerness to “develop the distinctive bilateral relations between the two friendly countries”, the statement added.
UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan congratulated Trump on being elected the 45th president of the United States and expressed his country’s interest in boosting relations further. Other GCC leaders expressed similar sentiments.
The Gulf Arab media were more apprehensive. The majority conveyed shock and some called for pragmatism. Writing in the UAE’s Al-Bayan newspaper, columnist Mohammed Youssef described Trump’s electoral win as an “earthquake that shook the world and shattered hopes and wishes”.
In Bahrain’s Akhbar al-Khaleej, Sayed Abdul Qader compared Trump’s victory to one of the biggest tragedies in America’s history. “November 9th has become an unforgettable day for millions of Americans, exactly like September 11th,” he wrote in the pro-government daily.
Some GCC publications were more optimistic. The Saudi daily Okaz led with a headline carrying King Salman’s message to Trump, saying: “We look forward to consolidating our relations and achieving stability in the Middle East.”
In the Saudi Al-Jazirah newspaper, analyst Khalid al-Malik described the New York businessman as the “miracle president”, writing: “We hope that the new US president will stand responsibly against the challenges facing the world, whether terrorism, wars in different countries, economic recession or the position of the Palestinians and their anticipated state with occupied Jerusalem as its capital.”
Relations between the GCC and the United States were tested during the US President Barack Obama administration, with many Gulf leaders seeing Obama as having pivoted towards Iran, a move considered by some to be a slight at more traditional Gulf allies. The passing of JASTA gives families of 9/11 victims the right to sue the Saudi government for liability despite a US government investigation clearing the kingdom.
But where the relationship goes is unclear, an analyst said.
Besides the nuclear deal with Iran, “there are several other grave concerns that the GCC countries led by Saudi Arabia will have to address”, said Joseph A. Kechichian, senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies (KFCRIS) in Riyadh.
“Obviously, the president-elect and several of his senior advisers have repeatedly expressed very anti-Saudi and even anti-Qatari sentiments,” Kechichian said, adding that Trump and his people have very little knowledge of the kingdom or the GCC.
According to Kechichian, the Iran deal will not be torn up quickly, no matter what Trump said during the campaign but will likely be used as a tool to deal with what the Trump camp views as a major problem that needs to be resolved: The Arab Sunni world.
Whether seasoned members of the Republican Party might rein Trump in remains unclear. However, the most important change is that Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries have lost their open door in policy-making circles within the US government.
“With Obama and even (George W.) Bush they had access; they could discuss policy with Clinton but now with Trump the doors are shut and will be difficult to crack, unless we see a huge change in Trump’s positions,” Kechichian said. “So it is incumbent of the GCC to double their efforts in Washington now more than ever.”
On a lighter note, Saudi business mogul Prince Alwaleed bin Talal ended his long-standing Twitter feud with Trump by congratulating him on his election victory.
“President elect @realDonaldTrump whatever the past differences, America has spoken, congratulations & best wishes for your presidency,” the prince wrote on his Twitter page.