Why many in the Middle East prefer Trump over Obama

Sunday 08/01/2017

It looked like it would be, in the words of Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine of Casablanca fame, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. US President Barack Obama’s overtures to the Middle East at the beginning of his presidency in 2009 not only looked set to make over the United States’ relationship with the region but also led to Obama’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
So why is it that, nearly eight years later, that “beautiful friendship” has turned sour? While Americans wonder what will happen in the next four years under the presidency of the Twitter-happy Donald Trump, many Middle Eastern leaders and diplomats say they look forward to dealing with Trump, despite his inflammatory comments about Muslims and Islam.
Boiling it down to its essentials, many of them prefer, as one said at a recent conference in Morocco, to deal with someone who hates Islam rather than an administration that “loves Iran”.
Obama’s efforts — or lack thereof — in the Middle East will go down as one of the biggest disappointments of his administration.
Despite his tough talk, he was unable to move the Israeli- Palestinian peace talks an inch; in fact, one might argue that they have gone backward.
Obama’s pro-democracy comments during the “Arab spring”, and particularly after the 2011 uprising in Egypt, angered conservative regimes in the region.
His wishy-washy stance on Syria was even worse. From the moment he did not follow through on his red-line comment about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, Obama’s lack of direction and the aggressive stance of Russian President Vladimir Putin made the American president look weak and foolish.
It was the nuclear deal with Iran, however, that was the final straw. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf countries saw the agreement as a total win for Iran, lifting the burden of sanctions, giving the Iranians access to billions of dollars and not exacting any requirements from them to stop their meddling in the affairs of neighbouring countries.
Then came the interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Obama’s distaste for the region and what he saw as its never-ending conflicts and political quagmires further pushed Middle Eastern leaders away from the United States.
Which goes a long way to explaining why many are looking forward to Trump.
They probably view the incoming US president as a blank slate on which they can project their agendas. Some are counting on his lack of interest in the region and of foreign policy experience to give them a freer hand to do as they please. (Nation-building and promoting democracy and human rights likely will be sharply reduced under Trump.) Also, his seemingly chummy relationship with Putin, who may have helped him win the US presidency, could complicate relations with Iran considering that Russia and Iran have been close for years.
Arab governments, however, probably envision Trump being more pragmatic and blunt than Obama. Trump does not do diplomacy and there is a sense that the Arab world will have a better notion of where it stands with the US government under Trump than under Obama.
There are some caveats: Trump can change his mind on a whim and the region may find his temperament more puzzling than Obama’s. If the United States is less engaged in the Middle East, count on Russia and China to be more active. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.
Surprisingly, Iran wanted Trump to win, too, not because they prefer him to Obama or Hillary Clinton, but because they see his election as a potential massive headache for what it calls “the Great Satan”.
That other great determinate of public sentiment in the region — the Arab street — probably does not care much about who won the US presidential election. One US leader is much like another to it and none offers the region very much and what is offered is frequently undesirable.
In the end, Trump will probably not seem much better than Obama but since the expectations are not as high, the disappointment will be noticeably less.