It isn’t the first time a new U.S. President has promised a fresh start in American-Arab relations. Eight years ago Barack Obama promised a beneficial reset in a speech delivered in Cairo entitled “A New Beginning.”
The speech honored a campaign pledge Obama made to give a major address to Muslims from a Muslim capital during his first few weeks in office.
Obama hoped it would mark the start of “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” The speech raised expectations of a new era in U.S.-Arab relations, but disappointment quickly followed with the Arab world increasingly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria conflict.
Frustration deepened also with the lack of tangible progress on a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal.And for Arab leaders in the Gulf, the Iranian nuclear deal heralded a dangerous shift, as far as they were concerned, in the balance of power in the region, away from the Sunni monarchies and in favor of their diehard foes, the Shi’ite mullahs in Tehran.
Some Arabs praise for Trump
Now Donald Trump, who a few weeks ago was being blasted for his proposed travel restrictions on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, is receiving gushing reviews in much, although not all, of the Arab media, as well as praise from many of the region’s leaders. First for his enforcement of a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as his tough criticism of Iran, and then for picking Saudi Arabia to be the first stopover on his maiden international trip as U.S. president, before visiting the Vatican and Israel.
Saudi leaders have dubbed Trump’s scheduled visit “historic.” And hopes are high among them that Trump and they will continue to track each other when it comes to confronting Iran and restraining Iranian expansionism.
“It’s a clear and powerful message that the U.S. harbors no ill will toward the Arab and Muslim world,” Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said after last week’s trip announcement.
Earlier this year Arab and Muslim reaction to Trump’s proposed travel ban was fierce. The 57-nation and Saudi-based Organization of Islamic Conference denounced the ban, warning it would embolden extremists.
In the Emirates-based National newspaper in February, James Zogby, Arab American Institute president, cautioned, “It would be a grave error for this administration to fail to understand the connection between how it treats, and is perceived to treat, Arab and Muslim people and its ability to achieve its broader policy objectives in the Middle East,” he cautioned.
But the leaders of the Gulf states noticeably muted their criticism of the travel restrictions as public outrage swept the region, the Saudi government didn’t even comment officially on the ban.
And that reticence appears to have paid off. Not only with a presidential visit, but a likely a multi-billion dollar arms deal, which could include the sale of four multi-mission surface combatant ships suspended by the Obama administration because of Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen.
For the Saudis and other Arab Gulf leaders there’s relief the Trump administration appears as determined as them to clip Iranian wings. In March, Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince described Trump as a “true friend of Muslims,” dismissing the argument his controversial immigration ban targeted Islam.
Arab youth not convinced
While Saudi leaders have repeatedly said they do not view Trump as being anti-Muslim, that isn’t the view of most Arabs, who, especially the young, remain wary of Trump.
Almost half of young Arab men and women view the United States as a foe, according to a poll released last week, which surveyed 3,000 Arabs in 16 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the annual Arab Youth Survey, 49 percent of those polled said they think of the United States as somewhat of an enemy or a strong enemy, up from 32 percent in the same poll last year.The number who view the United States as an ally has fallen from 63 percent last year to 46 percent.
Eighty-three percent of 18 to 24 year olds told pollsters they viewed Trump unfavorably, far worse than Barack Obama, who scored a 52 percent unfavorable rating and George W. Bush at 77 percent.
Overall, 70 percent of young Arabs said Trump is anti-Muslim.Arab public opinion over time will impact how the region’s governments interact with the Trump administration.The honeymoon with the region’s leaders could also end quickly, if there’s not some progress towards an accommodation between the Israelis and Palestinians.