Aides to President Donald Trump suggest he is wary about the first overseas travel of his presidency, which begins this weekend with stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Having endured many such trips with former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State John F. Kerry, I can attest that they are often grueling, with meetings packed from dawn until after dark. It’s harder to sleep, to eat familiar foods, to get (and tweet) information. Crises back home and around the world continue unabated. Presidential travel requires an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time — which will pose a particular challenge for a White House that has struggled just to do the former without tripping.
But when Trump arrives in the Middle East, he may well feel more at home than he has in his four months in Washington. Start with Trump’s clear personal affinity for exactly the sort of strongmen (and they are almost all men) who have governed the Arab Middle East undemocratically throughout its modern history. Trump has praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader”; said it would be “an honor” to meet North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un; invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House; and rolled out the red carpet for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. That is a modern day autocratic all-star team, with a few Hall of Fame candidates in the mix.
Trump, moreover, has made no secret of his aversion to a free and vibrant press, which has led him to label the Fourth Estate “enemies of the people,” muse about amending libel laws and reportedly urge former FBI Director James Comey to prosecute journalists who published leaked material. While repugnant to many Americans, such attacks against the press are commonplace in the Middle East. In 2016 the region was home to six of the 10 countries that imprison the most journalists and two of the three where the greatest number of journalists were killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Both Trump and his Middle Eastern hosts have struck bargains with religious conservative constituencies with whom they share few personal beliefs. The legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s rulers depends on a delicate understanding between the ruling Al Saud family and hard-line Wahabbi clerics with enormous sway over the populace. Democratically elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition depends on the support of ultraorthodox political parties who drive an agenda of continued settlement growth. Trump, too, depended on the support of white, evangelical Christians, 81 percent of whom backed him in 2016 — more than supported Mitt Romney, John McCain or George W. Bush. His visit next week to some of the holiest places in the three Abrahamic faiths (he will also stop at the Vatican) may play well with his base.
Then there’s Trump’s propensity to keep the most sensitive policy portfolios “in the family.” The high profile jobs and responsibilities doled out to Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner violate many Americans’ belief in meritocracy and fair play. In the Middle East, however, Trump’s nepotism is easily understood. Like most Gulf states, the Saudi Kingdom is almost literally a family business — Al Saud Inc. — with virtually every senior position held by a member of the royal family. Egyptian President el-Sisi’s son is reportedly a senior intelligence official. The brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad commands the country’s most important army division. That Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have leveraged the family’s increased prominence to advance its business will come as no shock to Turkey’s strongman, Erdogan, whose sons are prominent Turkish chief executives.
In myriad other ways, Trump’s presidency reflects the political traditions of the Middle East more than our own: a preference for military advisers and military power over diplomatic counsel and soft power; an aversion to “values-based” policies like the promotion of democracy and human rights; an intolerance for dissent; a less-than-rigorous approach to pesky ethics rules and alleged conflicts of interest; demonization of “outsiders” and suspicion of other ethnic and religious groups; Trump’s teetotaling; Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to dine alone with women.
And on, and on.
The analogy is not perfect: Trump, to be fair, has not come close to adopting some of the region’s most nefarious practices, like torture or refusing to be bound by court rulings (though he has spoken somewhat wistfully of both.) Middle Eastern rulers tend to love (and tightly control) their intelligence services and law enforcement agencies; Trump, not so much. And with some exceptions, leaders in the Middle East rule for quite some time—even those toppled during the Arab Spring had been in charge for decades. Even Netanyahu, who was democratically elected, has led Israel on and off since 1996, with no end in sight. While the duration of Trump’s presidency is also an open question, at least we know he could be out of office in four years — more or less.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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