Sat, Apr 15, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Middle Eastern leaders lend silent support to Trump, for now

Many Muslim leaders appear quite content with the reality of the new US government’s policies, but increased interventionist behavior might change that

By Barak Barfi

Up until recently, US President Donald Trump’s effort to bar citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries provided the main barometer of how his administration is viewed in the Islamic world. Now, Trump’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, in response to the latest chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, is likely to provide another — perhaps more revealing — indication of who stands where.

To former US government officials and many Muslims, Trump’s proposed travel ban represents a betrayal of liberal values and offers a recruiting gift to extremists.

However, among Washington’s oldest allies in the Middle East — those with the most to gain from a partisan president leaning their way — the response has largely been silence. After eight years of being told what to do by the White House, Trump is seen as a welcome — if potentially unsettling — change of pace.

Saudi Arabia may be the Trump administration’s greatest (albeit silent) cheerleader. The Saudis were never comfortable with former US president Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran, and were particularly startled when he told The Atlantic magazine that the Iranians and Saudis “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

The Saudis, bogged down in a proxy war with Iran in neighboring Yemen, are elated that Trump is contemplating an increase in assistance to repel Iranian encroachment from their strategic backyard.

It is a similar story for the Saudis in neighboring Bahrain, the Kingdom’s closest regional ally — and one that it supports with free oil. Ever since Sunni-Shiite strife first erupted there in the 1990s, Bahrain’s leaders have accused Iran of meddling in its affairs (despite offering flimsy evidence). When Saudi-led forces crushed Shiite protests on the island in 2011, the Obama administration rebuked Bahrain’s leaders and curtailed arms sales.

However, the Trump administration, eager to generate manufacturing jobs, has lifted Obama-era restrictions, announcing that it will sell US$5 billion worth of fighter jets to Bahrain.

Even in Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy, the Shiite Hezbollah militia, is the dominant political force, the Saudis view Trump as a possible savior, whose emerging anti-Iranian policy could strengthen the Kingdom’s surrogates.

As Saudi Arabia focuses on Iran, Egypt and the UAE are taking aim at the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, too, Trump represents an attractive alternative for these countries’ leaders. The Egyptian government in particular blames the Brotherhood — which it overthrew in a 2013 military coup — for all of the country’s ills, from an Islamic State insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula to the country’s economic hardships.

Understandably, Trump’s push to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and prevent it from fundraising in the US resonates strongly with Egypt’s government.

Democracy has made few inroads in an Arab world dominated by authoritarian leaders, but that does not concern Trump, who has shown little interest in liberal democratic norms and the institutions that sustain them.

After meeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in September, Trump gushed that al-Sisi was “a fantastic guy” who “took control of Egypt … really took control of it.”

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