by Giorgio Cafiero
Throughout this year’s unprecedented U.S. presidential election, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials mostly favored Hillary Clinton as the business-as-usual candidate. They were supportive of the Democratic Party candidate based on personal ties dating back to her husband’s administration and a perception that she saw the GCC states as vital allies in Washington’s multifront struggle against Islamic extremism rather than just oil-rich “cash cows.” They were optimistic that her presidency would more closely align the U.S. with the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula.
This was particularly true with respect to Syria, where many Arab Gulf officials hoped that she would take military action to punish Bashar al-Assad following almost six years of futile Saudi/Qatari efforts to overthrow his regime. Donald Trump’s position in favor of severing support for Syria’s rebels, insistence that the GCC states pay more for the defense shield provided by the U.S. military, his anti-Muslim bigotry, and the wild-card nature of the real estate mogul’s candidacy have been the source of much concern in Arab Gulf capitals.
One GCC member, however, is likely to see a silver living in Trump’s triumph. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), having invested in a lobbying campaign in Washington to bring the U.S. on board with Abu Dhabi’s global campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, may have reason to look forward to working with a US president who labels the Brotherhood a “radical” organization. For CIA director Trump picked Rep. Mike Pompeo, who co-sponsored legislation to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Frank Gaffney, a member of Trump’s national security inner team, the Muslim Brotherhood is set on “destroying Western civilization from within” and “its penetration and manipulation of the Republican Party and the conservative movement in America” was one of its “most successful influence operations.”
Lack of Experience
The president-elect has no record in government or foreign policy experience, so it is difficult to forecast how he will address challenges in the Middle East. Nonetheless, if his campaign rhetoric is any guide, neither democracy promotion nor human rights is likely to factor in Trump’s approach to Arab governments. Trump’s view of the “Arab Spring” uprisings as negative and destabilizing events of modern history, which led to Islamists usurping power, parallels the thinking of Abu Dhabi officials.
The UAE leadership reacted to the Arab world’s revolutions and revolts of 2011 by pursuing an increasingly militarized, active, and muscular anti-Islamist foreign policy. Emirati officials fear that if Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood fill power vacuums across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the movement’s local branch—al-Islah, which for decades has been the most influential non-state actor in the UAE—will pose a more serious threat to the Emirati rulers’ legitimacy.
Although the UAE has a tolerant and progressive society by Middle Eastern standards, it is not immune to forces of violent and radical Islam. Two 9/11 hijackers hailed from the Emirates, and the authorities have uncovered several Salafist-jihadist terror cells. The UAE was also home to the “Reem Island Killer,” a radicalized Emirati female who murdered a Western expatriate and planted a bomb outside the apartment of an Egyptian-American doctor in Abu Dhabi in 2014. Al-Islah, which maintains that it is a peaceful movement committed to “democratic” reforms in the Emirates, takes pains to distinguish itself from groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and al-Qaeda. Yet, the Emirati leadership has arrested many of al-Islah’s members and maintains that its crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activism in the northern Emirates (where the local Muslim Brotherhood enjoys virtually all of its domestic popularity) aligns with the West’s fight against global terrorism and radical Islam, rather than conflicts with Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts.
The UAE has invested heavily to sway the outcome of ongoing political and ideological battles in Egypt and Libya. In both countries, Abu Dhabi is likely to find itself benefiting the most from a US president who shares the UAE’s staunch opposition to political Islam and seems likely to disregard human rights issues and “democracy promotion”.
In Egypt, the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has rejoiced in Trump’s victory. When Obama was in the Oval Office with Clinton serving as his first secretary of state, some of Hosni Mubarak’s allies in the GCC along with many Egyptians believed that Washington abandoned a close US ally. Some went as far as alleging that the Obama administration’s refusal to stand by Mubarak factored into a pro-Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Such voices will likely find much sympathy in the incoming administration.
After all, in December 2012, the president-elect declared: “Egypt is a total mess. We should have backed Mubarak instead of dropping him like a dog.” In April, Trump alleged that Obama “supported the ouster of a friendly regime in Egypt that had a longstanding peace treaty with Israel, and then helped bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power in its place.”
In September, Sisi said that he had “no doubt” that the New York mogul would be a strong president and after the election he was one of the first world leaders to congratulate him. Emad Gad, a member of Egypt’s Parliament, declared that the billionaire’s win serves “Egypt’s interest as it spells the end of the U.S. administration’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.” Gehan Sadat, Egypt’s former first lady, praised Trump’s view of Muslim Brotherhood members as “terrorists” and condescendingly urged movement loyalists to “hold a funeral procession for Hillary.”
In Tobruk, a de facto government led by secular-learning Libyans backing General Khalifa Haftar has been fighting against an Islamist-dominated government—the General National Assembly (GNA)—in Tripoli and other Islamist militias in Benghazi since mid-2014. Here, too, Trump received effusive praise. One figure in Tobruk, Tarek al-Jaroushi, announced: “I strongly support Trump because of his and the Republicans’ resolute and decisive attitudes… The Republican Party, which understands the truth about [ISIS] and the positions and the victories of the Libyan army, will support us.” If Trump backs off US support for the GNA, which has failed to thrive since the international community recognized the Tripoli-based government in December 2015, can Haftar’s anti-Islamist forces make more decisive gains on the ground next year? Given Russia’s unofficial support for Tobruk, can Haftar benefit from Trump successfully developing a deeper partnership between with the Kremlin?
The UAE has heavily involved itself in Libya, having carried out military strikes against Haftar’s Islamist enemies in tandem with Egyptian forces. This GCC state has high stakes in the Mediterranean country’s post-revolutionary development because of Abu Dhabi’s concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups shaping Libya’s future. Not only IS and other Salafist-jihadist forces in Libya worry Emirati officials. The Emirati leadership is also unsettled by the possibility of Libyans resolving their ongoing civil war in a way that brings together secularists and Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in a national unity government similar to what Tunisia has established since 2011.
As Haftar’s forces make gains on the ground and capture more land and oil fields, the UAE and Egypt (for the same reason) are most determined to continue backing the “renegade general” in an effort to cement a secular political order in Libya that excludes the Muslim Brotherhood from any position of power. In other words, the UAE would like to see Libya become more like Egypt than Tunisia in this respect.
Obama administration officials and UAE leaders have not been on the same page. The outgoing administration praised Tunisia as an “Arab Spring” success story. Although Washington and Cairo maintained their alliance over the past eight years and three Egyptian presidents, the Obama administration did temporarily suspend aid to Egypt’s military on human rights grounds following Mohammed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013. From the UAE’s perspective, Washington’s praise of revolutions that resulted in Islamists acquiring power at the ballot box and punishment of regimes for their crackdowns on Muslim Brotherhood activism had a destabilizing effect on Egypt and the entire region.
Despite concerns Emiratis may have about the uncertainties of Trump’s presidency, the incoming administration is likely to place less emphasis on the principles of human rights and democracy promotion than the Obama administration did in its cautious and selective manner. Instead, a new administration that views the Muslim Brotherhood as a radical Islamist terrorist organization will sit far better with officials in the Emirates.
Photo: Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces