Uncertain times in the Middle East

Uncertainty is the one word that sums up Middle Eastern reactions to the election of Mr Donald Trump to the United States presidency. Leaders in the region are trying to discern how the President-elect will deal with the many crises facing the region. Despite America's apparent retreat from the Middle East, there are some who seriously believe that the US still plays a central role, despite the setbacks of the last decade.

Republicans under President George W. Bush believed that heavy direct American military intervention - the last in Iraq in 2003 - would resolve problems in at least one country, with the hope that democracy would spread to others. This was a serious miscalculation.

Democratic President Barack Obama preferred to retreat from direct military engagement in the Middle East and manage the chaos through diplomacy and proxies. He pulled American troops from Iraq, resisted direct intervention in Syria to topple Mr Bashar al-Assad's regime, secretly negotiated the Iran nuclear deal that shocked its longstanding oil-rich Gulf allies, and opted for drone attacks against terrorists and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates across the region from Iraq to Yemen. By the end of Mr Obama's time in the White House, Saudi Arabia, the US' closest and most important ally, was seriously alienated from its historical partner.

Today, many Arab leaders are asking whether President-elect Trump will change US' Middle East policy to re-engage in the region in ways that either foster peace or precipitate further wars. For the moment, uncertainty reigns.

Trump is unlikely to offer Saudi Arabia the opportunity to become the undisputed leader not only of the Arab world but also the Muslim world.

In Iraq, the US is engaged in supporting the Baghdad central government in its military campaign against ISIS. During his campaign, Mr Trump pledged to pursue terrorists, seize oil fields and eliminate ISIS. Will his policy involve direct military intervention or will he simply continue Obama's strategy of conducting war from afar? Again, uncertainty reigns here.

When it comes to the most important US allies, namely the Gulf countries, and above all, Saudi Arabia, it is also uncertain whether Mr Trump will succeed in healing the rift after his predecessor alienated them when he failed to respond to their plea to bomb Iran and destroy its nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia has struggled to come to terms with the feeling of being abandoned by the superpower that had guaranteed its security for more than six decades. The Saudi leadership has yet to accept that the US is no longer satisfied with having all its eggs in the Saudi basket.

Mr Trump is unlikely to offer Saudi Arabia the opportunity to become the undisputed leader not only of the Arab world but also the Muslim world. He is more likely to continue to approve arm sales to the country, draining its dwindling revenues after the collapse of the oil prices, but may prefer to diversify the number of countries the US engages with in the Middle East. The Saudis will have to navigate a difficult relationship with Mr Trump and go beyond his inflammatory rhetoric about banning Muslims from entering the US and making Saudis pay for continuous American assistance - which they do anyway.

The Saudi war in Yemen since last year has led to the destruction of the country. Saudi Arabia is mired in a war impossible to win. The US supported the Saudis but the atrocities and the human tragedy in Yemen are beginning to change public opinion in the US itself, in addition to Europe. The Saudis expect unequivocal American support but the new US President will have to prove it.

There is also the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the latter awaiting the success of the two-state solution or at least the return to the Arab Peace Initiative as a blueprint for peace. Mr Trump promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, thus confirming the city as the permanent capital of Israel. This will alienate many Arabs but will be a symbolic gesture to mend relations with the Israelis, after the rift between Mr Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hailed Mr Trump a "true friend of Israel" afer his election. But Mr Trump has not expressed any serious interest in resolving this conflict.

The Middle East is no longer considered a region within the sole US sphere of influence. Russia under President Vladimir Putin returned to the region with force. Russia had built bridges with Iran, and mended relations with Turkey.

So where does Mr Trump stand in this new era? He will have to recognise that the US is not the only power that can influence the course of events in a boiling Middle East.

• The writer is a visiting research professor at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. She specialises in the politics of Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Uncertain times in the Middle East'. Subscribe