Trump’s travel ban, for all the controversy and protests in the West, drew very little criticism within the Arab World. Bar a single protest in the heart of Tunis organised by former presidential candidate Dr Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, the mood appeared to be one of indifference, almost acceptance, exemplified by the UAE Foreign Minister who seconded Trump’s right to impose the ban.
There was no emergency meeting of the Arab League, nor a summoning of any of the US ambassadors in any of the Arab countries. The reaction was reminiscent of the deafening silence of the Arab countries over the Gaza war that served to encourage Israel in its decimation of the Palestinians.
The reaction, or lack of, to Trump’s travel ban should be taken in context first and foremost. Arab governments do not represent their people nor do they ever seek to. Many have their power rooted in agreements between centres of power, whether that is between powerful tribes as in the case of the Gulf States, or powerful post-colonial state institutions in the case of some North African countries. The approach of Arab leaders is therefore primarily one of reluctant appeasement, providing what is required to prevent unmanageable popular resistance, and applying heavy-handed tactics to stamp out any political sparks that could become an uncontrollable mass movement. It is often the practice of many Gulf states to increase public sector pay when there is a threat of protests in order to dampen popular fervour, or to provide free housing and extremely cheap loans in the case of some North African countries.
In other words, there is no real connection between the people and the state, nor does the travel ban affect any personal or economic interests of the ruling elite that would demand a scramble to condemn the ban.
The question is therefore, why the secondment as opposed to simply remaining silent?
The answer here is simple: Trump is seen as a breath of fresh air.
General Sisi in Egypt was so keen to ensure warm relations with the businessman after being ignored publicly by Obama that he preferred the scathing ire of the Arab public to Trump’s displeasure, withdrawing a UN resolution to condemn Israeli settlements within 24 hours of voting after a personal phone call from Trump himself.
For the Gulf, their greatest gripe with Obama was his favouring of warmer ties with Iran, insisting that the onus was on the Arabs to take steps to better relations with Iran, seemingly ignoring Arab complaints of Iran’s transgressions in Iraq and Syria. Obama believed that the ideology espoused by state-backed clerics in the Gulf were the main reason behind regional instability as opposed to Iran’s backing of sectarian militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Trump is anti-Iran, believes in using military muscle, and has numerous investments that provide a guarantee of a continued incentive to maintain warm ties. What seemed a meteoric rise for Iran in the region under Obama’s watch, which provided unlimited military support to Assad in Syria against Gulf-backed rebels, backed ultra vires militias in Iraq, and diplomatic and logistical support to Houthi in Yemen, now seems to have slowed down as Tehran adopts a more cautious approach in the face of an impending gung-ho US foreign policy.
Iran’s problems are compounded by its souring relations with Russia as Erdogan and Putin develop warmer ties. As Iran, lured by Obama’s overtures and his personal dislike of the Gulf States, drifted from Russia, Turkey emerged as a vital strategic ally for Putin who sees the new-found relationship with a key NATO member as nothing short of an incredible PR coup.
In other words, with Trump in the White House, Iran no longer looks as powerful as it did during the Obama administration and the Gulf States sense an opportunity to push back against an encroaching and aggressive Iranian foreign policy. The extent of Gulf optimism is such that although Assad looks set to stay in Syria, Iran’s growing isolation from Assad and Putin makes any solution appealing to the Arabs whose gripe has always been with Iran’s influence as opposed to any real problem with Assad himself.
All this is testament to the alienation of the Gulf States that became a hallmark of Obama’s legacy. Obama was the first US president in the relatively short history of Arab-US relations not to be swayed by large donations to entities with opaque links to the White House and rebuffed attempts at developing warm personal ties as King Abdullah had done with George W Bush, and King Fahad had done with President Clinton before him.
With Trump in power, money and lucrative contracts have returned as the main currency in currying favour with the US administration. And the Arabs have much more to offer in that regard than Iran.