The election of Donald Trump as the next American president has added a major new element of uncertainty to a Middle Eastern picture that had already achieved its highest state of confusion, violence, and uncertainty in its modern history. The factors that will determine the policies Trump will pursue there are many, and they are all moving in unknown directions at the same time. Trying to predict the implications of the Trump presidency for the Middle East is a fascinating game that involves numerous Middle Eastern players and foreign powers, is mostly anchored in guesswork, wishful thinking, and conspiracy theories, and mostly ends up reflecting a lot of wild speculation.
It may be more useful to try to identify some key arenas, principles, and actors to watch in order to glimpse what may happen in our region in the years ahead. Maybe the key underlying point here is to note that most Arab states are broadly seen as dispensable entities whose condition, or even disappearance, make little difference to the rest of the world.
Energy-producing countries are the exception to this idea, of course, because the world economy would stumble badly if gas and oil flows from the Middle East were to be disrupted — though even this idea is not pervasive, given the disruption to oil exports from Iraq, Syria, and Libya in recent years, with little reaction from the region or the world other than to pour more money and arms into the wars there that disrupted the energy flows in the first place.
Arab countries matter little to the world or to each other, it seems, because they have little to offer the world in strategic terms — and strategic self-interest, rather than any romantic notions of shared values or friendship, are the cold, hard currency that drives the global system. As long as oil and gas exports keep flowing and Israel is safe — two realities that prevail these days — then little else in the Arab countries matters to the world, which watches our region degenerate into multiple civil wars and proxy wars in broken and fragmenting countries.
The Arab condition is embarrassing, and will only improve over time when more competent leaders assume office and more democratic systems allow citizens to participate in state-building in a more meaningful way than visiting gigantic shopping malls and choosing from half a dozen brands of fried chicken. Once powerful and pivotal states like Syria and Iraq are in deep distress and active warfare. Large and consequential Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are frantically trying to assert themselves across the region in any way that would gain them some credibility, but mostly unsuccessfully. Others like Algeria and Sudan are busy trying to hold their societies together in the face of serious internal stresses; and the many smaller Arab states are all seeking niches that offer them protection courtesy of any available regional or global power.
This is a distinctly Arab weakness and problem, because the non-Arab countries in the region — Iran, Turkey, and Israel — are doing fine in the business of statehood. The degree to which each of them interferes in internal Arab affairs is a sign of Arab weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and we should keep an eye on improving relations among them. The other important non-Arab actors that play significant roles in the Middle East are Russia, which is steadily improving its strategic links in the region; the United States, which is continuing to engage in assorted wars while saying it wants to disengage from the region; and assorted groups of Kurds, in Syria and Iraq mainly, that valiantly continue to fight for their safety and national rights. The European Union could play a more decisive role, but chooses not to, and individual countries like Great Britain or France make occasional cameo appearances with their fighter jets, but mostly they seek commercial contracts rather than strategic leverage in the Middle East.
All these Arab and non-Arab actors keep a close eye on, or actively make war against, assorted Islamist militant groups like Al-Qaeda, Islamic State (ISIS), and dozens of smaller and less vicious ones that are busy in many lands.
The Trump presidency will only add more uncertainty to this wild picture, for several reasons that we can identify today. Trump himself has no clear policy ideas for the region, and will be heavily influenced by the advisers and officials he names, but they and their policies are not known yet. The United States will act in the Middle East largely in response to what other, more decisive, countries do there, including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey. The balance between Trump’s focus on domestic and foreign policies remains unclear, and he may swing wildly between the two.