President Trump is flying off to the Middle East — and I'll bet, as far as the Arab Gulf states are concerned, straight into a warm bath of esteem and approval.
This assumption dates from my own, now-ancient stint in the region (2001-2004). But it has been only strengthened by a lunch I recently had with a very smart, very well-connected friend from the United Arab Emirates.
When I asked my friend — who is, as you might expect, Muslim — how Trump was viewed by the powers that be back home, he responded at length and in detail. But basically, his take boiled down to three words:
They love him.
The Gulf states love Secretary of State Rex Tillerson because he really understands the oil business. They love General Jim Mattis and feel hopeful that the likes of him will help resolve what they view as their number one problem: the raging civil war on their doorstep in Yemen. They hate Iran, they double-hate the Obama-brokered nuclear deal with Iran, and are thus delighted with the advent of an American administration that hates and double-hates those, too.
What about the Muslim ban — or, okay, the Trump administration’s proposed temporary moratorium on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries? Surely it is one thing to be vigilant about oil riches and regional realpolitik, another to have one’s religion tarred with what Trump never tires of calling “radical Islamic terrorism?” How can that label, and the executive order clearly born of it, be felt as anything other than a stinging slap to the nations that constitute the cradle of Islam and pride themselves as its chief stewards? “We do that stuff all the time,” my old pal shrugged, at the practice of denying or revoking visas from a given place or group, often including subgroups of Muslims. “We just don’t announce it.” No matter how abruptly taken, the thinking goes, such actions fall into the category of any sovereign government’s absolute right to secure its borders in any way that that sovereign government sees fit. They do it, they see no reason to fault Trump for doing it.
Admittedly moving down a few rungs on the ladder of outrages, I wondered about the other ban, announced in March, on laptops and other electronic devices on flights to the U.S. from ten airports, including those in Riyadh, Qatar and Dubai. Given the tremendous degree to which the business of the Gulf is business, doesn’t that, at least, earn a few demerits for The Donald?
“Nah, the airlines are already offering laptops to passengers to use for the duration of their flights,” my lunch companion said. “Bring your own data stick, you’re fine.”
Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of our current president, nor of his foreign policy — to the extent that he has one. Nor do I consider glowing reviews from the masters of the Gulf to be any great recommendation for the leader of the free world. But even — no, especially — for those of us who are experiencing this presidency as one cataclysm after another, it is important to remember that there is a whole world out there. And Donald Trump is by no means hated by everyone in it.
Recent though it was, this lunch took place before the FBI director was fired, the special counsel was hired, and key Republicans in Congress were starting to shift uncomfortably in their boots and distance themselves from the president in a way that could, in theory, mess with his mojo in heretofore-supportive capitals. So as I was typing this post, I texted my friend: “Scale of one to ten, how much do you think anyone in the UAE cares about the Russia investigation?”
He’s just texted back: