When Donald Trump was first elected, I warned Arab friends to be careful not to put all of their eggs in a basket that I had every reason to believe would soon unravel. Back then, many Arabs, having felt let down by the initial hope they had in the promise of the Obama Administration, were keen to believe that Trump would develop a firm policy on Syria and Iran and deliver on his pledge to craft the “Deal of the Century,” bringing a just end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In fact, in polling we conducted in the fall of 2017, we found that Arab respondents in some countries – including at least a third of those in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – had at least some expectation that positive change might be forthcoming from the administration on some of these concerns. Two and a half years later, these hopes have come crashing down.
Trump did end the Iran nuclear deal and impose new tough sanctions on Iran – which our polling showed Arabs hoped might rein in Iran’s regional ambitions. But Tehran, despite the economic hardships that resulted from these sanctions, has appeared to become further emboldened and aggressive. Their position in Iraq was somewhat strengthened by the role their allied militias played in the war against the “Islamic State.” Iran remains deeply entrenched in Syria, supported by sectarian armed units from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan they brought in, armed, and trained. And their support for the Houthi’s rebellion in Yemen has continued to consume the Saudi-led coalition’s resources and attention. In response to the US sanctions, Iran has demonstrated its capacity to respond by creating mischief in the Gulf, including a tit for tat threat to interrupt oil tanker traffic and a “mysterious” devastating attack on Saudi oil fields.
In Syria, as in Iraq, President Trump’s policy did not significantly deviate from Obama‘s approach. He provided tactical and material support, as well as air power, to an American-trained, largely Kurdish army, in the effort to defeat the “Islamic State.”
As for the “Deal of the Century,” two-and-a-half years later, the region is still waiting for its release. In spite of the continued delay, Trump Administration policies have made clear its outlines. They have, in essence, “given away the store” to Israel. Trump famously “took Jerusalem off the table,” and followed by making it clear that they were taking away the rights of refugees (they no longer consider them as refugees) and the status of Israeli settlements (these remained uncontested).
Despite tough talk about Iran, the US showed that its bark was bigger than its bite. The best they could do to respond to the attack on Saudi oil fields was to offer to send an additional 1,000 troops to the kingdom. The US Ambassador to Israel, in public remarks, made clear that the US had no intention to see any Israeli settlements removed from occupied Palestinian lands. And, for many, the coup de grace was the President’s decision to pull American forces back from Syria’s northern border, abandoning its Kurdish allies.
The sad truth is that the US role in the region has been in a tailspin since the George W Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein’s regime. The US found itself ground down in a long war it could not win, Iraq descended into bloody sectarian civil conflict, Iran was emboldened and unleashed, finding a foothold not only in Iraq, but across the region, and the US emerged less respected with its military weakened and demoralised.
When the Arab Spring erupted, the Obama Administration was unsure how to respond. This forced Arabs to take matters into their own hands in an effort to restore the old order. Conflicts in Syria, then Libya, and then Yemen followed soon after – each in turn involving a number of competing regional and global powers seeking to shape the outcome and secure their advantage. In each, the US role was reduced to a supportive one, at best.
It was this sad state of affairs that led some Arabs to find hope in Trump’s pledge to work more closely with their governments and to provide leadership to help resolve some of the region’s pressing concerns.
Two and one-half years later, as the dust settles on the broken promises, realisation is dawning that the region will be left to its own to solve its pressing problems.