WASHINGTON – US President Donald Trump’s effort to bar citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries has provided, up until now, the main barometer of how his administration is viewed in the Islamic world. But Trump’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase, in response to the latest chemical weapons attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, is likely to provide another – perhaps more revealing – indication of who stands where.
To former US government officials and many Muslims, Trump’s proposed travel ban represents a betrayal of liberal values and offers a recruiting gift to extremists. But, among Washington’s oldest allies in the Middle East – those with the most to gain from a partisan president leaning their way – the response has largely been silence. After eight years of being told what to do by the White House, Trump is seen as a welcome – if potentially unsettling – change of pace.
Saudi Arabia may be the Trump administration’s greatest (albeit silent) cheerleader. The Saudis were never comfortable with President Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran, and were particularly startled when he told The Atlantic magazine that the Iranians and Saudis “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” The Saudis, bogged down in a proxy war with Iran in neighboring Yemen, are elated that Trump is contemplating an increase in assistance to repel Iranian encroachment from their strategic backyard.
It’s a similar story for the Saudis in neighboring Bahrain, the Kingdom’s closest regional ally (and one that it supports with free oil). Ever since Sunni-Shia strife first erupted there in the 1990s, Bahrain’s leaders have accused Iran of meddling in its affairs (despite offering flimsy evidence). When Saudi-led forces crushed Shia protests on the island in 2011, the Obama administration rebuked Bahrain’s leaders and curtailed arms sales. But the Trump administration, eager to generate manufacturing jobs, has lifted Obama-era restrictions, announcing that it will sell $5 billion worth of fighter jets to Bahrain.