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The devil you don't know: Trump is not all bad news for the Middle East

A clueless populist who lacks an appreciation for regional nuances may be far less destructive than an operator who knows what makes it tick

The election of Trump today may not necessarily be the unmitigated disaster it is currently being portrayed as - at least not necessarily for the Middle East.

There may be a sigh of relief in many quarters in the Middle East precisely because Trump’s more isolationist discourse

There may even be a sigh of relief in many quarters in the Middle East precisely because Trump’s more isolationist discourse, if it were to be put into practice, would mark a sharp departure from Clinton’s hawkish, interventionist record.

Though by no means a dove himself, Trump has publicly expressed concern over the US expanding its security umbrella across the world to secure allies that Clinton would have been more willing to protect with US blood and treasure – even if that means propping up unsavoury dictatorships at the expense of the people they rule.

Rip up the playbook?

President Obama had serious problems with the Washington foreign policy playbook, whereas with Clinton, it would have been business as usual for countries like Saudi Arabia – a key pillar of US foreign policy and security order in the region.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal (R), US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Hamad Al-Sabah speak during a 2012 meeting in the Saudi capital of Riyadh (AFP)

With Trump, we’ll have to wait and see but we do know he has issues with not just the Washington playbook, but also the entire establishment.

A stinging Twitter exchange last December may be a sign of more things to come with President Trump and the Arab world.

Walid bin Talal, a Saudi business magnate and member of the royal family, slammed Trump as a “disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”. The next day, Trump responded by calling out the “dopey” prince who “wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected."

The remarks are even more prescient after it was revealed that the Clinton Foundation accepted a $1m donation from Qatar while Clinton was secretary of state.

Learning to share

However, a less interventionist US would give other rising powers like Russia – whose parliament applauded the election result – more confidence to fill the vacuum, and, even worse, encourage regional powers who are currently engaged in a zero-sum game to step up and further fuel conflicts if they think the US is no longer as relevant a stakeholder as it once was.

Whereas Obama called for regional giants Saudi Arabia and Iran to learn to “share” the region, Trump himself has called for closer cooperation with Russia – which has consolidated its military footprint after the disastrous Western intervention in Syria – and it may be time for the US to also learn how to “share” the Middle East with other international powers.

Though Trump has publicly condemned the nuclear deal with Iran, some argue that his election will be welcomed in Tehran because it will open up prospects for more secretive talks and collaboration away from the media spotlight.

Least destructive option?

That said, we might not see radical change in US Middle East policy because there are powerful institutional checks and balances in place that limit the role of the commander-in-chief at home and abroad.

As we saw with Syria, sometimes these departments work against each other and they will likely continue to do so with Trump in the White House.

Smoke billows some 50km north of Raqqa, the Islamic State group (IS)'s de facto capital, after the SDF alliance launched an offensive to retake the IS stronghold, this month (AFP)

Trump thinks the region is “one big, fat quagmire” with which the US should be wary of interfering. This caution from the president-elect will be a welcome change for many Middle Easterners who have become sick and tired of US meddling in their domestic affairs.

In the end, a clueless populist who lacks an appreciation for the nuances of the Middle East may turn out to be far less destructive to the region itself than an intelligent operator who knows what makes it tick.

- Hayder al-Khoei is Research Director of the Centre for Shia Studies in London and a Visiting Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Tweets at @Hayder_alKhoei. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump flanked by members of his family speaks to supporters during election night at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on 9 November 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.