By Neil Halligan
How will this week’s US presidential election affect politics in the GCC region?
Racist, bigot, liar and crooked are hardly terms you would typically associate with the next president of the United States. But in the lead-up to the November 8 election, they are exactly the words the two main party candidates are using to describe each other.
Either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will take the presidential oath in January, and many who tuned into the three TV debates held over the past six weeks could be forgiven for still being confused about what they actually stand for.
US-UAE Business Council president Danny Sebright is a veritable veteran of US politics, having voted in his first election in the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era (1980), and worked in government as a career professional. He describes the 2016 vote as “the most bizarre election cycle I have seen in my life, and not just at the presidential level, also at the Congressional and state level”.
“In many cases, this is unprecedented,” he says. “We’ve had elections in our country in the past — during World War II and during the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln — that were critical elections where the stakes were high, but we’ve never had an election that I can think of in our history… that has been this devoid of dealing with the problems and issues, and coming up with viable solutions.”
There’s an incredulity in Sebright’s voice as he talks about the election, and it’s a tone similar to those on television and radio shows across the US. He says the election has been dominated by what he describes as a “gladiator fight between two candidates in the boxing ring”, with attacks on each other rather than debates about the substantive issues facing not only the US, but also the world.
“I watched both conventions from start to finish, Republican and Democrats, and I thought I was watching two parallel visions of America and the world, like some science fiction novel. The two conventions were so different in tone, tenor and substance,” Sebright recalls.
“Speaking from the standpoint of what Middle East leaders and government leaders have told me, I think they’re horrified and hugely sceptical of what his [Trump] policies might turn out to be with regard to America’s engagement with the Middle East going forward,” he adds.
Trump’s policies, both domestic and foreign, have been thin on detail, but Dr Steven Anderson, UAE chairman of Republicans Overseas, says they are largely based on boosting business.
“Trump is pro-business. He simply wants a two-way street that is fair,” Anderson says. “Internationally, [he wants to] get out of being everyone’s babysitter militarily, unless they pay for our involvement. Trump is for quick and decisive action, whereas Hillary’s history is to have backed the Iraq invasion, support continued involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and be directly involved in Libya’s failed state disaster.”
Democrats Abroad-UAE chairperson Orlando Vidal disagrees. He says there is a misconception about Clinton’s role in the region.
“Her centrist and pragmatic approach to the Middle East will continue to be beneficial for the region. As former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton signed onto the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, initiated negotiations with Iran, helped broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, drove the NATO air intervention in Libya, and led people-to-people initiatives across the region,” he says.
“In addition, her opposition to ground troops in Syria and Libya also dismantles the often common misconception that she is a warmonger in the Middle East, but rather, in reality, [she] is a pragmatist, which is very beneficial for the region. Hillary knows this region very well and works well with all our partners.”
He believes Clinton will have a “hands-on approach in the Middle East in a positive way”.
“It is likely her policies will also pay more emphasis on personal relations with the Middle East leaders and a focus on issues related to human rights and press freedoms in the region,” he says.
Anderson says Trump is committed to removing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires banks around the world to report on the bank holdings of Americans overseas.
“This… methodology of invasion of privacy is horrendous coming from a country claiming to be ‘home of the free’,” Anderson says.
Trump, too, has challenged the notion of ‘home of the free’ when he proposed that a wall should be built between the US and Mexico, and that all Muslims should be banned from entering the US. The Muslim ban proposal, Anderson argues, is part of addressing a security issue in the US that he claims has a broader appeal than many would believe.
“I noticed as chairman that when this comes up as an issue with diplomats from Muslim countries, as well as local leaders of companies that are Muslim, they have been very supportive,” Anderson says.
“The general thought is that America is far too lax on its vetting process of everyone, including Muslims. I think that Trump needs to make clear that business and political leaders from the countries in question actually agree with him.”
Based on his travels in the region, Sebright says government and business leaders are “very concerned about how the role of the US has diminished in importance as a result of our election process, which has not focussed on issues”.
“The huge concern in the region is that our role and influence and ability to make a difference, as we traditionally have, has been diminished. Who is best suited to try to fix that?”
Taking a bipartisan approach, Sebright says that those same leaders believe that Clinton is “the most experienced and has the best track record to be able to come into office and hit the ground running”.
“Based on his [Trump] prior experience and statements, there is no sense of what he could or would do as a president in this regard, based on what folks I've spoken to in the region think,” he adds.
While some may have seen Barack Obama as a good president on home soil, the international story in certain regions can be altogether different, particularly in the Middle East.
Vidal, naturally, says Obama “leaves behind a great legacy in the region”, which he explains are closely tied to his goals of combatting nuclear proliferation and terrorism, as well as strengthening allies in the Middle East.
“President Obama will go down in history as one of the greatest presidents ever. He has done everything he could to earn the Nobel Peace Prize he, perhaps somewhat prematurely, was awarded,” Vidal says.
It is not a view widely shared in the region, however.
Recent decisions have been less than favourable towards Gulf countries, and have left many concerned as to the future direction of US policy in the region.
Billionaire businessman Khalaf Al Habtoor said in a recent speech at the annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference in Washington, DC that the US government was leaning “in favour of Iran” at the expense of its long-time ally Saudi Arabia.
Al Habtoor was also critical of the recent decision by US Congress to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which indirectly targets Saudi Arabia, saying it is “another nail in the coffin of US-GCC relations”.
Obama is vehemently opposed to the bill but his veto was overridden by Congress, souring relations in the region, with all GCC countries collectively voicing serious concerns over the bill.
David Hamod, President and CEO of National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce, concedes Obama’s legacy will be mixed.
“He largely kept his commitment to the American people to minimise the presence of US troops in regional conflicts, but by ‘leading from the rear’, reactively, the Obama administration allowed vacuums to be created in such places as Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hamod says. “These vacuums were filled very quickly by regional players and proxies whose visions for the region are not aligned with those of the United States.”
And so given the “interesting” relationship with Middle East countries, the new president could have more issues to deal with in the region than possibly any other in history.
“For the first time in memory, MENA regional leaders and proxies are taking bold steps — proactively, without waiting for the United States — to safeguard their respective interests,” Hamod observes.
“It will be very difficult for the next president of the United States to manage all of these complicated relationships, some of which are evolving on a daily basis. There is a growing expectation that the new president will have to be more activist than Obama, and that means the USA, if called upon to do so, must be prepared to go toe-to-toe with certain players in the region, such as Russia, Iran and others.”
Security remains the biggest concern for US citizens living in the region, particularly in countries where the potential for violence and bomb attacks remains.
“Terrorism will continue to raise its ugly head across the MENA region and, sadly, extremism is not going away anytime soon,” Hamod says. “For example, [ISIL] may be losing some of its footholds in the Levant and North Africa, but what will happen when its fighters stealthily return to their homelands? Governments may not be prepared for this influx, which could get out of hand very quickly.
“Security and stability are essential for every country in the region. Without those, economic development will be hampered, and there will be little foreign direct investment.”
Sebright agrees, and says from a business standpoint, Americans like the rule of law.
“They appreciate the bankruptcy law that has been put in place and the tribunal and arbitration courts that have been set up,” he says. “We appreciate that the companies’ law is being changed. All of these changes are, quite frankly, what's keeping the UAE at the forefront in competition with its GCC neighbours for new business.”
While economic growth may be dampened, which may undercut certain projects, Hamod says there is a ‘silver lining’ with the many reforms taking place.
“The current downturn is providing leaders in the region with an opportunity to launch market-oriented reforms that would have been unthinkable when oil was $125 per barrel: like cutting subsidies, overhauling investment codes, eliminating inefficiencies and cracking down on corruption,” he says.
“These reforms, in turn, are already paving the way for unprecedented investment in MENA’s knowledge-based economies: in R&D [research and development], education, healthcare, environmental technologies, entrepreneurship and other economic drivers that will create and sustain jobs. This transition won’t be easy, of course, but I am quite optimistic over the long run.”