When Donald Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, my editors at the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, like most Americans, shrugged it off. “This is not serious; send something very small to page eight,” I was told.
Nine months later, Trump’s rise is the story in the Middle East when it comes to the American presidential race. My work as a journalist for Al-Hayat sends me traveling frequently in the region, and when people hear I cover US politics, their first instinct has often been to ask me about Donald Trump: “Is Trump for real?” “Why is he winning?” “Is he going to be president?” and “What will happen to us if he does?”
As Trump attracts more support in America, he gets more attention in the Middle East. And there are a few reactions to Trump that I hear over and over. Almost all are negative, some are as much about the US as they are about Trump himself, and all are a revealing look at how the Middle East perceives and thinks about American politics.
Some see in Trump a reflection of their own political figures, from dictators to buffoonish and controversial entertainers. Some take him more seriously and see him, should he become president, as a nightmare for the Middle East.
For others, Trump’s mere existence confirms their worst suspicions of the United States. In a region already predisposed to anti-Americanism, Trump’s Islamophobic and racially charged message is reinforcing long-held suspicions that America is a racist, imperialist nation that wants to exploit and subjugate the Arab world.
But perhaps most striking, after eight years of reduced US engagement in the Middle East, some ultimately view Trump and the entire 2016 race as inconsequential and not relevant to their daily lives and future — which perhaps says more about President Barack Obama than it does about Trump.
Trump as a familiar character
A line I often hear from people in the region is that there’s something familiar about Trump: He seems to have a lot in common with Arab leaders. He’s a heavy-handed, vain, rich populist with a gold penthouse and a gold bike; he travels in a private Boeing 757-200 jet; and he owns a multitude of properties in the Middle East.
Egyptians on Twitter compare him to their own authoritarian leader, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. When Trump retweeted a quote widely attributed to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, one Egyptian on Twitter joked that Trump could be Sisi’s brother, as Sisi is often portrayed by his critics as having similar traits to the former Italian despot.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2016
Emad Hajjaj, a Jordanian cartoonist, merged the hair and the beard of Donald Trump and ISIS Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to imply unanimity in their hate speech and mindset. Hajjaj used the Arabic idiom “calling for violence and mayhem” over the combined Trump-Baghdadi beard-hair:
Iraqi journalist Haider Najm told me that he saw in Trump “a clown who reminds [me] of Egyptian TV presenter and entertainer Toufik Akasha.” Akasha, a pro-regime presenter, is known for weaving inane conspiracy theories about the US and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Others have called Trump racist and crazy, with one person half-joking that Trump was taking the United States back to the time of “jahiliya,” a religious term for the period of “ignorance” in pre-Islamic Arabia.
And some see in Trump’s rise an inverted lens to help Americans finally understand the Middle East:
If you’re an American confusedly watching the darkest forces of ur nation rally behind a demagogue-maybe u can understand the Mid East now.
— Hend Amry (@LibyaLiberty) February 27, 2016
Trump as a nightmare for the Middle East
Donald Trump proclaimed himself “a unifier” after his big Super Tuesday wins, and when it comes to the Middle East at least, he is correct. Many Lebanese, Iraqis, Syrians, Libyans, and Saudis who disagree on almost every political issue in the region have unified on one: Trump is bad news for the Middle East. Although, predictably, no one quite agrees on why he’s bad news for the Middle East.
“Trump seems to be a nightmare for everyone here, no matter which side of the current sectarian conflict they’re on,” says Hanin Ghaddar, managing editor of NOW, a regional English news site based in Lebanon.
A Hezbollah supporter in Beirut had a different take — that Trump is bad news because he “would destroy the progress in relations between the Shia and the United States” following the Iran nuclear deal signed last July.
Ironically, someone on the opposite side of the Syrian conflict, a Syrian Twitter user named Fares who identifies as a pro-rebel activist, shared the fear that Trump would be bad for him, though for a very different reason.
“Trump in the Middle East is like playing a game of backgammon, all depends on the roll of the dice, will we get a safe zone or will we get bombed?” Fares wrote.
Trump’s belligerence toward Muslims generally has some worried that a Trump presidency would damage the close relationship many Arab countries have with the United States. A senior Arab diplomat told me that many countries in the Middle East are already pivoting toward Russia and China because of perceptions that the US is no longer the reliable ally it once was, and predicted that this trend would accelerate if Trump were to make it to the Oval Office.
Another senior Arab diplomat in Washington told me recently, “We have done business with Mr. Trump, but we are very concerned about him becoming president.” The diplomat added that despite repeated efforts by his staff to make contact with someone on the Trump campaign, “We have not reached anywhere.”
Yet another Arab diplomat expressed similar concerns, joking, “If he wins, we have nothing to do with it.”
Even friends of Donald Trump, such as Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, have warned that Trump would be unwelcome in Muslim countries following his call for a ban on Muslim visitors to the US. Al Baker told CNN, “I didn’t expect him to be so naïve to make such statements. … He is also not realizing that he has investments in Muslim countries and he will not be welcome there anymore.”
Al Baker may have a point: Trump’s call to ban Muslims prompted Middle Easterners on Twitter to call for a ban on Trump from visiting the Middle East. Saudi prince and businessman Alwaleed bin Talal, who bought the candidate’s Trump’s Princess superyacht in 1991 and a stake in Trump’s Plaza hotel in 1995, called him a “disgrace to America”:
You are a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America.
Withdraw from the U.S presidential race as you will never win.
— الوليد بن طلال (@Alwaleed_Talal) December 11, 2015
Trump’s response to bin Talal did not exactly assuage concerns about how he might conduct diplomacy in the region as president:
But while some worry that Trump won’t be as friendly toward traditional US allies in the Middle East, others fear the exact opposite: Egyptian journalist Khaled Abdelkareem sees in Trump “a close friend of Arab despots, and corrupt monarchies in the Muslim world.”
If elected president, Abdelkareem says, “Trump will provide enough fuel to extremists and violence mongers in the Middle East while not advocating the causes of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”
Trump as representative of “real America”
For some in the Middle East — where the US has long been viewed suspiciously and portrayed negatively by friends and foes alike — Trump’s political success confirms their worst suspicions of the United States.
“Finally, the racism is in the public eye, this is what they [America] exported to us for a long time, and now it’s winning in the United States,” a Libyan commentator and colleague told me.
Alaa Al-Lakta, a political cartoonist with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, a Qatari-funded English- and Arabic-language media outlet, has depicted Trump as “the face of America with no embellishment” — in other words, America in its truest form:
Bassam Jaara, a Syrian activist and columnist in exile, tweeted, “If a Muslim instead of Trump had made the daily racist comments, American drones would target him based on the charge of terrorism.” Terrorist organizations have also used Trump’s racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric in their propaganda, as evidence of their claims that the US is itself racist, unjust, and waging a war on Islam. Al-Shabaab, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia, used the clip of Trump calling for a ban on Muslims in one of its videos.
Ali Zein, a Lebanese businessman I spoke with, sees Trump’s “racist and extreme” policies toward Muslims and the Middle East not as extreme outliers but as a “representation of an American mindset that wants to fight terrorism the way it chooses” — in other words, that Trump represents an American disdain for the region’s inhabitants that leads it to act often without regard for their interests.
Trump’s policy statements about the Middle East also reinforce the view — commonly held in the Middle East — that America is an imperialist nation that seeks to exploit and subjugate the Arab world.
In an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump said that Saudi Arabia “should pay us” for supporting the country. “Like it or don’t like it, people have backed Saudi Arabia. What I really mind, though, is we back it at tremendous expense. We get nothing for it.”
His strategy for fighting ISIS, he said, is to “take back the oil” the group seized in Iraq and use the money (presumably from selling the oil ourselves) to take care of the families of US troops who died in Iraq.
An Egyptian Twitter commentator, Ahmed Mashal, said in response to Trump’s call to take back Iraq’s oil, “This animal [Trump] says everything the Americans are thinking. … The only difference is he is more explicit.”
This reaction came through as well on social media. An Egyptian nationalist Twitter user responded to Trump’s oil-stealing plan by calling the United States “colonialists and thieves, God damn you.”
Trump as unimportant?
You can also hear, in the reactions to Trump, implicit reactions to Obama, who is viewed as having withdrawn from the region. Some people in the Middle East simply shrug at Trump, in ways that seem to suggest a growing feeling of indifference to and disenchantment with American power.
Arab columnists from many points along the political spectrum have criticized what they view as the Obama administration’s minimalist approach in the region. In an article published in Al-Hayat, columnist Abdul Wahab Badrakhan asked if Obama is now just an “arms salesman” to the Gulf states, and criticized the Obama administration for having “no policy in Syria,” “ignoring Iran,” and acting as “a spectator” in the Yemen conflict.
Pro-Iranian voices have also expressed the idea that American power is waning. Ibrahim Amin of Al-Akhbar, an Arabic-language newspaper based in Beirut, Lebanon, warned those still waiting for action from the US that “it’s a delusion that America still leads the world. … The time has come to be self reliant more than anytime before, and this includes in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and even the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.”
This view of Obama is influencing how some Middle East observers think about a possible President Trump.
Hanin Ghaddar, the managing editor of NOW, told me that “people are distrustful of the US; they don’t really believe that any president would have a better foreign policy than the current one.”
She added that Washington, under the Obama administration, “has distanced itself from the troubles of the Middle East, and I don’t think anyone believes the next president would be able to bring serious change. Too much has happened.”
Because of this sentiment, she said, “the US presidential elections is not such a big deal here as it used to be,” in part because the crises in the region are dominating people’s attention, and “because Washington has distanced itself in the last few years.”
Joyce Karam is the Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat newspaper, a leading international Arabic daily.