Trump is risking long-term friendships in Arab world

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Trump is risking long-term friendships in Arab world
President Donald Trump needs to build bridges in the Arab world. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg News

 As American president Donald Trump and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei trade barbs, a nervous Arab world is caught in the middle. Last week, Iran’s supreme leader made headlines thanking Mr Trump for “revealing the true face of America”. While much of Mr Khamenei’s criticism was directed at the administration’s hardline policy and threat to “put Iran on notice”, he zeroed in on the disastrous White House executive order and its impact on refugees, immigrants and visitors from seven Muslim countries.

 Mr Khamenei said of Mr Trump: “Now with everything he is doing – handcuffing a child as young as 5 at an airport – he is showing the reality of American human rights.” (A five-year-old child was detained after Mr Trump’s executive order, but he was not handcuffed).

This news item and the war of words between Iran’s religious leader and the president of the United States brought home the intimate connection between America’s domestic and foreign policies and encapsulated the dilemma that will now be faced by America’s Arab allies. It reminded me of two stories from the first George W Bush administration – both involving Saudi Arabia’s then crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

 Mr Bush’s disregard for the rights of the Palestinians, his administration’s policies that trampled on the rights of Arabs and Muslims in the US, and his disastrous invasion of Iraq all severely strained US-Saudi relations. The kingdom, ever cognisant of the important role the US played in providing a security umbrella protecting the Gulf Arab states from the threat of the revolutionary Iran, was at its wits’ end. At one point, Prince Abdullah told Mr Bush that if the US persisted in ignoring Arab concerns, Saudi Arabia might feel compelled to go its own way. It was not a step he was eager to take, but it was one born of frustration with US policies and the increasingly high cost they incurred at home.

 To make his point, Prince Abdullah liked to tell a story about a sheep herder who was losing a sheep a night to aggressive wolves. To protect his flock, the herder hired guards. They kept the wolves at bay, but the herder had to kill two sheep daily to feed his newly acquire protectors. The price he was forced to pay, he noted, was greater than the benefit received.

Then on US presidential election night in 2004, I received a call from a friend who was an adviser to the crown prince. He asked me excitedly whether the news stories he was hearing were correct – that Democratic challenger John Kerry was in a position to beat incumbent George Bush. I was surprised and asked why he would be supportive of Mr Kerry. I said: “Kerry has been very critical of Saudi Arabia, while Bush claims to be our friend.” He responded (and he made clear that he was speaking for himself, not his boss): “I think it is better for us to have a US president who hates us, than to have a US president hated by our people”.

 During the past 16 years, US-Gulf relations have been on a dizzying roller-coaster ride. First there was the adventurism of the Bush administration, which went from neglect to destabilising war to misguided democracy promotion based more on ideology than reality. The Obama administration only compounded Arab frustration. It began with great promise but the failure to deliver coupled with many miscues led to it being judged an enormous disappointment.

Source:The national/UAE