Arab citizens across the Middle East are understandably furious about President Donald Trump’s January 27 Executive Order restricting immigration from seven Middle Eastern countries and stopping all entry for Syrian refugees. Their anger contrasted sharply with the silence toward, or even endorsement of, the immigration order by almost every Arab leader.
The immigration order immediately affected nationals of seven specific Arab countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. It pointedly left out the citizens of key Arab allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, and favored countries such as Morocco and Tunisia, despite the prevalence of jihadists from those countries fighting in foreign conflicts. The chaotic and inconsistent implementation of the order raised fears among other nationalities that they may be targeted in the future. Some holders of American green cards were also affected, as were Arabs of other nationalities.
Commentators warned that the ban would undermine the willingness of anyone to cooperate with the United States and would empower extremists. Iraqis raged about being barred from the United States after suffering invasion and occupation, and in many cases having fought alongside American troops. Syrians who already blamed the U.S. for failing to intervene on their behalf in their war against the Assad regime were stunned by the blanket ban on those fleeing the brutality. Few outside of the royal palaces were convinced that Trump had not declared a war against Islam.
Those responses were tempered by local political divides, of course. In Egypt, many anti-Islamists and regime sympathizers applauded reports that Trump might designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Sectarian Sunni voices were delighted to see Iranian Shia banned. But the capriciousness evident in the Executive Order gave pause even to those who found some pleasure in the misery of others. With Trump administration officials speculating on television that the ban might be extended to more countries, such as Saudi Arabia, and with reports of individuals from non-named countries such as Jordan being deported, few Arabs or Muslims could be confident that they would not be directly affected.
It was shocking, then, to see how utterly silent most Arab leaders remained. Trump’s telephone calls on January 29 with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi focused entirely upon Iran, Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither American nor Arab readouts indicated any discussion of the immigration ban. Jordan’s King Abdullah visited Washington in the midst of the furor, but reportedly limited his advocacy to opposing any effort to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi declined to act on a parliamentary initiative to retaliate by banning American citizens. Emirati leaders and pro-regime Saudi pundits went the furthest, actively defending Trump’s executive order as appropriate and as not a “Muslim ban.”
The silence of Arab leaders is easily understood as a classic form of realpolitik. Almost all Arab leaders view Trump as a welcome change from Barack Obama, at least for now. They share Trump’s hostility towards Iran, focus on a very broadly defined Islamist menace, and have little concern for democracy or human rights. Like King Abdullah, they worry that Trump’s outrageously pro-Israel positioning could embarrass them, but show no sign of wanting to allow this to interfere with cooperation against common enemies. Arab regimes will almost certainly clash with Trump soon over everything from Syria and Iran to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, but none sees the immigration issue as a fight worth picking.
Such behavior takes us back a decade, when Arab leaders tended to dismiss the preferences of their populations. Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak happily enforced the blockade of Gaza and maintained strong relations with Israel against the wishes of a vast majority of Egyptians. Most Arab leaders took special pleasure in using state-controlled media to fuel anti-American anger, which would then be used to justify to Washington the need to maintain their strict autocratic rule.
But the Arab uprisings momentarily broke that comfortably unpopular approach to foreign policy, as suddenly frightened regimes had to more seriously weigh the potential costs of popular challenges. The renewed disregard for public anger against Trump is a potent example of how many Arab leaders now believe that the threat of popular revolts has passed and that they can revert to pre-uprising practices. It is no accident, then, that the regional order has begun to resemble that of the 2000s, when most Arab regimes cooperated with the Bush administration on counter-terrorism and confronting Iran, despite public displeasure over the war on terror, the occupation of Iraq, and U.S. support for Israel.
That pre-uprisings foreign policy had costs, though. Protests against the Iraq war and in favor of the second Palestinian intifada laid the foundations for the domestic protest movements that would evolve during the first decade of the century into domestic challenges. Contempt for official Arab impotence contributed to the broader crisis of legitimacy afflicting most Arab regimes.
Anger over the Trump immigration order will not alone spark new uprisings, but the return to traditional Arab foreign policy patterns will contribute to ever-growing popular anger. The security of most regimes is largely illusory in the face of rapidly accumulating economic and political discontent and the diminishing returns of repression. The new autocracies are still on high alert, ruthlessly policing dissent and forcefully repressing any signs of protest. Trump is counting on the ability of these regimes to keep their publics under control, but is likely to only to make their problems worse.
There is one other element of the immigration order worth considering. The anger over Trump’s order was offset somewhat by the considerable attention to the anti-Trump airport protests. The protests were widely described as the best face of America, offering a potent counterpoint to a hostile White House. To be sure, pro-regime voices echoed conspiracy theories familiar from American conservative circles, such as questioning whether the airport protests were organized by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the size, diversity, and empathy of the airport demonstrations, the volunteer legal support offered to threatened immigrants, and the outpouring of critical commentary elicited perhaps the most positive views of America in a long time. That, if nothing else, offers some hope.