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Mideast ponders how to deal with Trump

What does Donald Trump’s election mean for the Middle East? A group of prominent foreign ministers and policy experts gathered here last weekend to explore the election’s implications for the world’s most volatile region.

The gathering, known as the “Sir Bani Yas” forum, is hosted each year by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s foreign minister. Comments here weren’t attributable, so I can’t identify the participants by name. But it included representatives from nearly every Arab country, as well as America, Europe, Russia, China and the United Nations.

Change itself was welcomed by the Gulf Arabs, who grew to dislike many aspects of President Obama’s Middle East policy. But so little is certain about Trump’s positions that even those urging support cautioned that “nobody knows” where he stands.

Given Trump’s sparse record, several speakers focused on his obvious personality traits. One argued that Trump is clearly a vain man, so flatter him – as many world leaders have done in their contacts since Nov. 8. Another cautioned that Trump is a volatile man, so don’t corner him. A third argued that he’s transactional – a self-proclaimed “deal-maker” – so look for the deals that will serve the region’s interests.

Trump’s rhetorical volleys against trade drew surprisingly little comment, given that the UAE is a symbol of globalization. Nor did his anti-Muslim remarks draw any rebuke. One prominent attendee said at least Trump would be anti-Shiite (hard on Iran) as well as anti-Sunni, which he claimed Obama has been.

Perhaps in these mercantile city-states, people doubt that Trump could reverse the momentum of diverse, multicultural global commerce even if he wanted. The build-out is just moving too fast: At a backyard dinner in Dubai hosted by Afghan media mogul Saad Mohseni, I met young entrepreneurs investing in East African logistics networks, Saudi supermarkets, South Asian power grids and a raft of other projects.

Two issues facing Trump garnered special focus at the Sir Bani Yas discussions.

The Iran nuclear deal is the first conundrum. Throughout the campaign, Trump suggested he would scrap the agreement or renegotiate it. But there was near-unanimity here that Trump should accept the agreement as a done deal, and focus instead on curbing Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region. This consensus included even officials who had been among the agreement’s strident critics.

“Only someone who wants to send us into the unknown world would tear it up,” said one prominent Gulf Arab official. “Nobody is really against the deal,” said another, after sharply criticizing the way it was negotiated.

Many in this group hoped that Trump would be tougher in challenging Iranian provocations. Trump said during the campaign that if Iranian gunboats harassed U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf, he would blow them out of the water. That’s the kind of anti-Iran pushback the Gulf Arabs want to see (albeit with someone else’s ships at risk).

Trump’s willingness to consider allying with Russia in Syria was the second big, overarching issue. Many Arab officials here backed the Syrian opposition against President Bashar Assad, so you might think that any hint that Trump would partner with Moscow would be anathema. But in the Middle East, political support tends to go with a winner, and Russia looks like the strong player in Syria these days.

Representatives of the Syrian opposition spoke movingly of the human cost of Russia’s intervention, and argued that the fall of Aleppo would mean permanent war.

Russian speakers made some of the most provocative comments at the conference. Hillary Clinton’s intervention policies would have driven America toward “an abyss” and a “kinetic collision in Syria,” said one. “Now, with Trump, we have at least taken a step back.”

Could a new U.S.-Russian dialogue – which draws in Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Middle East players – stabilize this region and calm its fratricidal sectarian wars? Several speakers explored that possibility.

A Gulf Arab suggested such a concert of nations, including the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus the regional powers. An American expert recalled the Madrid peacemaking conference in 1991, after the end of the Cold War. A Russian recalled the 1815 Congress of Vienna that brought peace to a fractured Europe.

As Don Corleone convened the “five families” in “The Godfather,” so, too, perhaps, might Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin gather America, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But experts warn against “Yalta II” – a new Russian-American attempt to designate “spheres of influence” that carve up the region.

There were no answers here about life in the new world of Donald Trump, but so many intriguing questions.

David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 25, 2016, on page 7.

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