Analysis

Middle East Leaders Await U.S. Election Results With Bated Breath

The regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria all have good reason to be losing sleep as they monitor the polls.

Egypt President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, August 26, 2015.
Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP

At least two leaders aren’t chewing their nails in advance of the United States election. One is Benjamin Netanyahu, while the other is Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu isn’t scared of Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump has already made pleasant noises about moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. If he survived Barack Obama, Netanyahu is certain he can handle Clinton. And Trump can be trusted not only because of his warm embrace, but because of the huge amount of money Sheldon Adelson invested in his fellow billionaire’s campaign.

But if Bibi is confident, Abbas can also relax. No new peace process will arise in the coming years. No flags of hope are flying on the American horizon.

Several other Mideast leaders, in contrast, have good reason to be losing sleep as they monitor the polls. The first is Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who desperately needs strong American backing to extricate his country from its economic crisis. Obama, who was very tardy in giving Sissi his stamp of approval after the latter seized power in July 2013, later reversed course and became a strong supporter of the Egyptian president, mainly because he was fighting Islamist terror in his own country.

That, however, isn’t the only reason. Sissi’s relations with Russia have grown closer over the past year, inter alia producing an agreement to build a nuclear plant to generate electricity, and the White House has been watching this rapprochement suspiciously. So if Trump wins, and if the pro-Putin signals he has sent prove real, Sissi may obtain new backing from him – this time, not as part of a battle for influence between East and West, but as a mutual friend of both Putin and Trump.

As for Clinton, Egyptians believe she won’t let their country collapse. But she is liable to view it as a country of marginal importance, whose strategic value has been steadily waning.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on as PM Benjamin Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in 2010.
J. Scott Applewhite, AP

Moreover, Clinton supported the nuclear deal with Iran and will try to promote diplomatic dialogue with it, which could change the balance of power in the Middle East. Sissi is already taking this possibility into account: Last month, he supported the Russian-Iranian position on Syria at the United Nations Security Council by voting for a Russian resolution on the subject and against a French one. That vote infuriated the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia has suffered several harsh diplomatic blows over the last two years. The worst of these, in its view, was the nuclear deal with Iran, followed by Obama’s Syria policy, which effectively handed control of the country over to Moscow, Tehran and Bashar Assad.

The kingdom is also embroiled in a war in Yemen. It had thought it could defeat the Houthi rebels relatively easily, but instead, it is bogged down in a battle against forces backed by Iran.

Saudi Arabia has had it with Obama, and the Saudi media, with considerable justice, view Clinton as more of the same in terms of foreign policy. Thus in theory, it would be bad news for Riyadh if Clinton wins.

But Saudi Arabia has always invested for the long term, and if reports by WikiLeaks are correct, it was one of the largest donors to the Clinton Foundation during the years when Hillary was secretary of state. Riyadh also made a massive, $80-billion arms purchase during Obama’s term. Thus it could be that money, rather than policy, would drive ties between Clinton’s Washington and Riyadh.

Trump, in contrast, has played the card of Saudi Arabia’s good relationship with the Clintons for all it’s worth, depicting it as a moral stain that obligates Clinton to return the money. Yet in January 2016, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal tweeted a painful reminder to Trump that he once saved the American businessman from collapse. The prince was evidently referring to his purchase of Trump’s yacht and the Trump Plaza Hotel, which helped reduce Trump’s enormous debt, estimated at $900 million.

Granted, these are petty concerns compared to the strategic calculations that worry the Saudis, who always had excellent ties with Republican presidents, and especially with the Bush family. But this time, what matters is Trump, not his party. Thus Riyadh’s past ties with the Republicans might not be enough.

Iran, meanwhile, continues to feign apathy toward the outcome of the election. According to pro-regime columnists there, Clinton and Trump are identical in terms of the West’s plans to take over Iran or undermine its regime.

But for President Hassan Rohani, who will run for reelection in June 2017, there’s a major difference between a Democratic president who supports the nuclear agreement, and may therefore be willing to compromise over commercial ties with Iran, and a Republican president who is seen as an enthusiastic supporter of Israel and is liable to make it hard for Rohani to realize his plans for Iran’s economic rehabilitation.

It’s not completely clear what Trump’s policy toward Iran will be. But all his talk against it will play into the hands of Rohani’s opponents, bolster the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and undermine the basis for trust created by the nuclear deal. In January, Trump declared that he opposes the deal and will seek to reopen negotiations on the signed agreement.

The most immediate regional dilemmas relate to the conduct of the war against the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria and an eventual diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Obama can only hope that the war to liberate Mosul ends when his term does, and that coalition forces together with the Syrian rebels will also manage to oust Islamic State from Raqqa. Both Clinton and Trump share this hope; they’d be happy to be spared this difficult, tragic inheritance.

Nevertheless, Obama leaves office in less than three months. That may be enough time to make military gains in Mosul and Raqqa, but the Syrian crisis will certainly await a new American president. And that president is liable to find himself or herself without any diplomatic cards to play, because they have all been taken by Russia.