MARRAKECH, Morroco—Disappointed by the Obama administration that promised warmer relations with the Arab world, Mideast diplomats say they are looking forward to dealing with a more pragmatic—and direct—President Donald Trump, no matter what he might have said about Muslims to get elected.
“No, no, it doesn’t bother me,” said Youssef Amrani, adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI, when asked about Trump’s call for a Muslim ban and National Security Advisor nominee Mike Flynn’s tweet saying fear of Muslims is rational.
“The strategic dialogue is between two governments and it will continue,” he said, side-stepping any direct comment on Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
“They prefer someone who hates Islam to an administration that loves Iran,” said one high ranking Mideast diplomat, in a less-diplomatic comment that was echoed by many at the Atlantic Dialogues (AtlanticDialogues.org) in Marrakech, here to debate the security of African, Mideast and European nations and their ties to the U.S.
“The Arab world is more sophisticated than perhaps Americans realize. We recognize campaign rhetoric. They’ll flip when in office,” the diplomat predicted, insisting on anonymity to discuss her country’s disappointment with the Obama administration.
The comments reflected the frustration of many current and former Arab diplomats over the White House deal-making with Iran, and President Obama’s failure to make any progress on peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, and failure step in sooner or more aggressively to head off the ongoing conflagration in Syria.
The diplomats, as well as scholars and businessmen at the conference—largely Sunni Muslims—expressed a near-universal distrust of Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim government, and disappointment that the nuclear deal the Obama administration helped broker lifted sanctions and gave Tehran access to new troughs of cash, without requiring it to check its expansionist behavior throughout the region—including supporting Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels fueling an ongoing civil war in Yemen. (Morocco and Iran have had on-and-off diplomatic relations, but share an opposition to the spread of ISIS.)
Obama’s comments to The Atlantic obliquely referring to European and Mideast allies as “free riders” who rely on the U.S. for their security still sting, and resulted in a public rebuke by former Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal, entitled “Mr. Obama, we are not free riders.”
“In the past eight years, we thought we had good relations with the U.S. but really, it didn’t turn out to be positive,” said Lebanese businessman-turned-politician Fouad Makhzoumi. In remarks to the conference, he said the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran “left the rest of us in the dark.”
“Donald Trump will be good for us. Forget the anti-Islamic statements. He’s a transactional president who will be dealing with reality,” he said, to nods from many in the audience.
That may mean the Arab world swallows the bitter pill of keeping Assad in power—for now.
“He is very clear on the issue of Syria. President Obama was not,” said Lebanese businessman Makhzoumi. “Assad cannot stay, but removing Assad doesn’t deal with the ISIS problem. The fundamentalist movement is against us all. So let’s solve the bigger problem and then we go back to the dictatorship.”
The Moroccan government, which cooperates closely with the U.S. on counterterrorism, would still like to see the Trump administration drop its use of terms like “radical Islam” or “Muslim terrorist” to describe the so-called Islamic State and other militants. Amrani said that dispute won’t dent the relationship, though.
Some at the conference also expressed unease with news of Trump’s nomination of a U.S. ambassador to Israel who wants to move the U.S. embassy back to Jerusalem before Israel concludes a final peace deal with the Palestinians. (Congress long ago passed legislation to make it happen; all Trump has to do is skip signing a biannual executive waiver.)
But the potential anger in the Arab street over the symbolic U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem pales next to the fear of Iranian encroachment across the Mideast—a sentiment the diplomats and businessmen feel the Trump administration shares.
“At least this guy tells you exactly what he wants,” Makhzoumi said. The Lebanese businessman said he met advisers for the incoming Trump administration during the election. “My feeling is that his team is open to suggestions.”
“Trump is spelled D-E-A-L,” said one audience member who preferred to remain anonymous, speaking of Trump’s future trade policies as opportunities for the region. “He is interested in making a better deal for the United States… but both sides have to agree to the deal.”