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Yousef Khalil

Arab autocrats and Trump: Cut from the same cloth

Trump and his fellow tyrants are deeply reactionary and counter-revolutionary [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 February, 2017

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Comment: Of course some Gulf monarchies support Trump's ban, they stand side-by-side with him against the aspirations of the Arab Spring, writes Yousef Khalil.

President Trump's series of executive orders halting the United States' already limited refugee resettlement programme and banning nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country, has faced fierce resistance, from strikes and demonstrations to challenges from the judiciary culminating in a stay on deportations.

What has come to be known as the Muslim Ban has also been subject to widespread condemnation from world leaders, including such close allies of the US as Germany and the United Kingdom.

But what of America's steadfast allies in the Gulf?

Far from joining the chorus of condemnation, reactions from some Gulf leaders ranged from muted to openly supportive, much to the dismay of many of their subjects. Dubai's head of security, Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, took to Twitter to declare his support for Trump's policies, and the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has claimed the ban was not targeted at Muslims, despite evidence to the contrary.

That Islamophobia was a central tenet of Trump's campaign has been clear since he declared his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the United States during the primaries.

Back then it would have been difficult to imagine that Trump would go on to win the nomination, let alone the election - and then set about implementing his agenda through a series of executive orders within a week of arriving in office.

Reactions from the Gulf leaders [to Trump's travel ban] ranged from muted to openly supportive

That early declaration was the first major victory for Trump's strategy of saying openly what Republicans had been implying for years; that Muslims are the "other" that should be excluded from the American collective. Many commentators had therefore suspected that Trump's victory would create problems for the US' relationships with allies  in the Muslim world such as Egypt, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies - but so far that has not been the case.

 
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It is unsurprising that Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would welcome Trump's presidency, Islamophobic rhetoric and all, given his political career was built upon the crippling of the Islamist movement in Egypt as well as a similarly casual approach to facts.

The Gulf states have their own reasons for supporting Trump's measures, the most obvious of which is that they have been using both formal and informal immigration restrictions and expulsions of migrants from the wider Arab world to shield themselves from political currents in the wider Arab world for decades.

  Read more: The legality and morality of Trump's #MuslimBan

Many critics have pointed out that the wealthiest Arab countries have kept their doors closed to refugees from the Syrian war, despite playing a significant role in the conflict.

The Jordanian monarchy, though hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has for years been systematically turning away Palestinians who had been living in Syria, perceiving them as a threat to its rule. Lebanon did the same.

But the Gulf's highly restrictive immigration policies are a feature of the political economy of the region, and have been used to protect a regional order since the 1970s. The oil embargo of 1973 changed the nature of the relationship between "the First World" and the major oil-exporting countries, but it also changed the relationship between the petroleum exporting states and the petroleum-importing states within the Arab world.

The Jordanian monarchy, though hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has for years been systematically turning away Palestinians who had been living in Syria

Political and economic power shifted away from a beleaguered Egypt - which was reeling from the collapse of Gamal Abdel Nasser's political and economic project - towards Saudi Arabia. The idea of industrialisation as the means to achieve economic development had run into significant problems, and the petroleum windfall emboldened the Gulf states to carry out a new economic development strategy centred on petroleum-financed mega-projects.

In the parlance of the time, it was "al fawra mahal al thawra" - the gush of oil wealth replaced the revolution of the Nasserists.

The promise of oil wealth also led to a mass migration of Egyptians, Syrians, and Yemenis to the sparsely populated Gulf, providing sorely lacking labour power and technical expertise to carry out the ambitious plans of the monarchs.

This migration also served to alleviate unemployment in the petroleum-importing states, while allowing them to capture some of the petroleum revenue in the form of remittances.

By 1980, more than three million Arabs had migrated to other states in the Arab world, mostly from the petroleum importing states to the exporting states.

At first, the Arab migrants were welcomed, after all, they shared a language and culture. But Gulf leaders soon realised that their new guests also brought their politics with them.

At first, the Arab migrants were welcomed... But Gulf leaders soon realised that their new guests also brought their politics with them

Needless to say, the spread of pan-Arabism, socialism, and populism - ideas that were popular in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq - posed a serious ideological and political threat to the host governments, as expatriates spread ideas and led strikes that shook Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.

Several monarchies responded by cracking down on political life, beginning the process of "de-Arabisation" of expatriate labour forces in the late 1970s and 1980s. According to a UN report, "the percentage of an expatriate population represented by Arabs in the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries decreased from 72 percent in 1975 to 56 percent a decade later".

In 1970, non-Arabs constituted only 12 percent of all workers in the Gulf, yet by 1980 their number had grown to 41 percent - and by 1985, Asian workers made up 63 percent of the Gulf workforce. 

The process of de-Arabisation culminated ultimately during the first Gulf War, which prompted Kuwait to expel 200,000 Palestinians - while another 200,000 who fled during the Iraqi occupation were denied return, ostensibly because the Palestine Liberation Organization endorsed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, itself ostensibly "justified" under the auspices of pan-Arabism.

The Saudi monarchy expelled more than 350,000 Yemeni workers for similar reasons. Expatriates were an easy scapegoat for these regimes and, more importantly, mass expulsions were a powerful economic weapon to use against states that came to rely on remittances as a source of income.

Given this history, it is hardly a surprise that the Arab leaders of the Gulf have not stepped up to host refugees from Syria and have remained silent on Trump's Islamophobic policies.

The Arab migrants of the 1970s and 1980s brought with them the revolution of their time; the idea that the Arab world should transcend the divisions that they inherited from European imperialism

The Arab migrants of the 1970s and 1980s brought with them the revolution of their time; the idea that the Arab world should transcend the divisions that they inherited from European imperialism, that economic and political unity was the way to achieve development and live with dignity.

Today the Arab world is in the grips of another revolution, one far more potent and deeper in its aspirations, despite the tragic setbacks it has so far experienced.

The refugees of the Syrian war are refugees of a struggle against the entrenched authoritarianism and corruption that are inherent to the Gulf monarchies, against a regional order that has enriched royal families and presidential cliques and impoverished the masses.

Of course some monarchies support Trump's ban, they stand side-by-side with Trump against the aspirations of the Arab Spring.

We must remember, as every Arab tyrant does, monarchs and presidents alike, that despite the concerted efforts to strip the Syrian and Arab struggle of its revolutionary contents, as Hamid Dabashi says, what we see in Syria is no civil war - it is a revolution.

A revolution that the Gulf monarchies are desperate to contain.


Yousef Khalil is a New York-based writer and recent graduate of The New School's Graduate Program in International Affairs interested in the Arab Spring and Palestine.

Follow him on Twitter: @YousefTAK

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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