While European leaders were fuming following statements made in a lengthy interview with British and German newspapers by controversial billionaire Donald Trump, who will be sworn in tomorrow as the 45th US president, most Arab governments, and Israel, were hopeful they will benefit from the departure of his predecessor Barack Obama.
In his interview with the British daily The Times, and the German newspaper Bild, published on Sunday, Trump described Britain’s exit from the European Union as a “great thing”, and predicted that “others will leave” because “countries want their own identity.”
He said, “one of the first orders I’m gonna sign … is gonna be strong borders” because “I don’t want to do what Germany did.” He said he had “great respect” for German Chancellor Angela Merkel but “she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals… from wherever they come from,” adding “we don’t want people coming in from Syria who we don’t know who they are.”
When asked whether he would carry out his election campaign promise to ban all Muslims from entering the United States he said the ban would apply to “various parts of the world that have lots of terrorism problems”.
“There will be extreme vetting. It’s not gonna be like it is now.”
To add salt to injury Trump described the NATO alliance as “obsolete”, not only because it was not doing enough to fight terrorism but because its members “aren’t paying what they’re supposed to pay”.
Europe’s leading powers responded with alarm to Trump’s comments. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande asserted that the EU did not need Washington’s support or advice to succeed.
Manuel Valls, former French prime minister running for the Socialist nomination to replace Hollande in the French presidential election in late April, called Trump’s remarks a “declaration of war on Europe”.
Unlike Europe, the mood was upbeat in several Arab capitals, not least Cairo, Riyadh and Damascus, where Trump’s presidency is being viewed as a boon, according to Mustafa Al-Sayed, political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Yet Trump did not spare Saudi Arabia and other states in the oil-rich Gulf from his criticism, saying that instead of welcoming Syrian refugees in Europe and the US Gulf countries should fund “safe havens” inside Syria.
“I think we should have built safe zones in Syria. This would have been a lot less expensive… Get the Gulf states to pay for them... I mean they’ve got money that nobody has,” Trump said.
Throughout his election campaign Trump said he would seek to change the longstanding relationships the United States has maintained with key allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia and that his administration would no longer provide security protection for such countries for free.
Neither Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, nor his extreme bias towards Israel and proposal to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, seem to worry conservative and authoritarian Arab regimes.
“What Gulf nations care for first and foremost is Iran. That’s their main fear,” says Al-Sayed. “As long as Trump continues to maintain a hard-line on Iran they will be looking forward to cooperating closely with his administration.”
Despite his tough position on Iran, Al-Sayed does not expect Trump to tear up the historic nuclear deal signed with Iran a year ago.
“He might seek to squeeze Iran by more sanctions, but he cannot stand against Europe, Russia and China and decide to tear apart the nuclear deal,” he said.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is hopeful Trump’s desire to build good relations with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, and repeated declaration that fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq was his top priority, will open the doors to direct cooperation between Washington and Moscow.
Al-Sayed also believes that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will be satisfied with the hard-line stand Trump has taken on fighting terrorism, ending once and for all any US pressure on Cairo to reach some form of compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama was extremely critical of the Egyptian army’s intervention to remove Mohamed Morsi and it took more than a year for his administration to resume annual military aid to Egypt.
“With bills proposed in Congress to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, and expectations that human rights will not be an issue of contention between the two countries once Trump gets into the White House, I believe that the Egyptian government will be happy with the change in Washington,” says Al-Sayed.
He does, however, pour cold water on speculation in Cairo that the Trump administration might agree to an Egyptian request to increase the annual $1.3 billion in military aid which has been unchanged for 35 years. “With a huge budget deficit and promises to concentrate on domestic issues to make America great again I don’t think that Trump would agree to increased aid to Egypt,” says Al-Sayed.
But perhaps it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who feels the greatest jubilation at Obama’s departure. Not only has Trump surrounded himself with hard-line American Zionists who are unlikely to put any pressure on Israel to get involved in serious negotiations over an independent Palestinian state, “but the new US president is also expected to prevent any critical resolutions of Israel coming out of the United Nations and encourage the expansion of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories,” according to Cairo University political science professor Tarek Fahmy.
Fahmy says Al-Sisi has been seeking to build a positive relation with Trump since the two first met in New York in September. “Yet, it is difficult to predict whether relations can remain positive if Trump provides unlimited support to Israel and agrees to the indefinite postponement of the two-state solution as Netanyahu wants.”
Egypt faced sharp criticism, domestically and in the Arab media, after it agreed to postpone a UN Security Council resolution it took weeks to negotiate condemning illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine. The delay followed a phone call between Al-Sisi and Trump.
In his weekend interview Trump at least appeared to acknowledge the widespread anger in the Middle East region at his promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to occupied Jerusalem.
“I don’t want to comment on that, but we’ll see what happens,” Trump responded when asked whether the move would go ahead.
World leaders who gathered in Paris on Sunday for a conference on the Middle East peace process have warned that if the move does take place it will be the death knell for any hopes of a peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestinians.
Al-Sayed notes that Trump’s candidate for secretary of defense, General James Mattis, has announced his opposition to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, fearing that angry Arab and Muslim reactions will undermine American interests in the region.
Trump was far less ambiguous when it came to criticising his predecessor’s support for an anti-settlements resolution in the Security Council.
“I think it was terrible. It should have been a veto,” Trump said in reference to the resolution adopted by the Security Council on 23 December denouncing Israeli settlements.
Trump announced this week that he was appointing his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as one of his top White House advisers. Kushner maintains very close ties with Israel. “Jared is such a good kid, and he’ll make a deal with Israel that no one else can,” Trump told the editors of The Times and Bild.