Donald Trump’s possible return to the presidency could bring a sense of unpredictability and volatility to the Middle East.
As the U.S. presidential elections loom later this year, current polls point to the possibility of another term for Donald Trump. Given the tumultuous impact of Trump’s previous presidency, this prospect raises significant concerns for the Middle East. His signature approach, characterized by unorthodox personal diplomacy and off-the-cuff statements, has contributed to regional instability. Despite the changes in the region during his absence, Trump’s possible return poses unique challenges. The “Trump Effect” on diplomatic relations is further complicated by the escalating U.S.-China rivalry. Trump’s direct and provocative tone could force Middle Eastern states to choose sides and potentially exacerbate conflicts. Fortunately, regional actors are more accustomed to Trump’s unique style and have better diplomatic relations. Nevertheless, Trump’s return could have significant repercussions for the Middle East, as the United States is still the most powerful actor in the region.
In certain respects, Trump’s approach to the Middle East was not much different from Obama’s or Biden’s. The U.S. military presence in the region, counter-terrorism policies, and support for regional allies are issues on which all three presidents have pursued similar policies. Where Trump differed was on Iran, on which he sought economic and diplomatic containment, unlike Obama and Biden, who tried to reach a diplomatic agreement with Tehran regarding its nuclear program. However, even with this exception, all three presidents aimed, at least notionally, to reduce the U.S. imprint in the region.
Nevertheless, Trump’s handling of the region’s problems problems was radically different. Most issues in the Middle East require skillful statecraft that maintains a delicate balance of interests with no clear, definitive solutions. Trump was a bull in a china shop. He conducted personal diplomacy, the content of which was unknown to American diplomats and sometimes even to his own inner circle. He made conflicting promises to different leaders. He made erratic statements and took unexpected and radical steps. And with his indifference to issues not directly related to U.S. economic interests, he gave the impression that U.S. leadership in the region was in free fall. In this way, Trump fanned the flames of the Qatar crisis in 2017, Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy, the Turkish-UAE rivalry, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Trump’s re-election in November 2024 will not turn back the clock in the Middle East. The region has changed a lot without him in Washington. Middle Eastern leaders have grown more accustomed to his unique character and style. Nevertheless, this may not be enough.
The Trump Effect
When Donald Trump came to the White House in 2017, the region was already plagued by terrorism, civil wars, and middle-power rivalries. While he did not greatly alter U.S. policies, his “unique and disruptive style” had a gasoline effect on the region.
Trump conducts diplomatic relations through personal contacts, often keeping the State Department and his aides in the dark. Of course, this appeals to Middle Eastern leaders, who like to conduct business through personal contacts. However, personal diplomacy can lead to policy inconsistencies. More importantly, someone as mercurial as Trump can intentionally or unintentionally give confusing impressions or vague promises. During the 2017 Qatar crisis, Saudi and Emirati leaders thought they had Trump’s blessing on sanctions against Doha. Similarly, in 2019, President Erdoğan exchanged messages with Trump and received a partial green light for a new military operation against the Kurds—an operation at odds with stated U.S. policies. Believing they had convinced Trump of their cases, Middle Eastern leaders took risky and destabilizing steps.
Trump’s impromptu statements can be extremely dangerous for stability and diplomacy. His tweeted support for sanctions during the three-year-long Qatar crisis further complicated the crisis. His threats to cripple the Turkish economy have also had a devastating effect on Turkey. He could tweet an unsubstantiated idea that Saudi Arabia would fund the reconstruction of Syria as if it had been agreed upon. This may be his way of negotiating, but it rarely had the effect he intended.
With little attention to the details of any policy issue and overconfidence in his instincts, Trump can make major decisions without much planning, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its claim over the Golan Heights. Likewise, he can easily break his own promises and policy statements. In the first months of his presidency, Trump bombed Bashar al-Assad despite having previously expressed sympathy for the Syrian leader. He even asked his aides to assassinate Assad, as he later ordered the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Great Power Rivalry
The intensification of the U.S.-China rivalry could draw Trump’s attention in a very dangerous way. Whether in the nineteenth century or during the Cold War, rivalry between the great powers has always had hazardous repercussions in the Middle East. As China’s political influence in the region grows, Trump may adopt a “you are either with us or against us” approach. This rivalry could polarize the region, create new blocs, and turn frozen conflicts into armed confrontations.
For years, Beijing was only an economic partner and not interested in the region’s political problems. More recently, China has increased its political activism in the region. China imports more than half of its crude oil from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Chinese firms have also undertaken $126 billion worth of construction projects in the region. China is also investing in Egyptian ports and the Suez Canal. Chinese investments in Egypt from 2017–2022 increased by 317 percent. But compared to the sheer scale of economic ties, China has been a political dwarf in the Middle East. It seems that Beijing has recently decided that political influence is necessary to protect its economic interests. More importantly, regional actors are welcoming China, known for its commitment to stability and the status quo, as an alternative great power. While hedging their bets in the struggle for global hegemony between the United States and China, regional powers also use their burgeoning relationship with China as leverage in their relations with the United States.
China’s mediating role in the Iran-Saudi normalization last year was an important event that demonstrated China’s political capacity. But, China’s activism in the region did not start in 2023. Chinese warships visit ports in the region. The Chinese military has even conducted exercises with the Egyptian army. Strengthening economic ties are also intensifying diplomatic contacts between China and the region. Chinese leaders and delegations now visit Middle Eastern capitals and fairgrounds more frequently.
In response to China’s activism, the Biden administration aims to consolidate its traditional influence in the region through diplomatic engagement and political-economic projects. President Biden is putting diplomatic pressure on Abu Dhabi to abandon China’s 5G technology and stop the construction of the secret Chinese port in the UAE. Biden has actively supported normalization between Israel and Arab countries as a way to strengthen U.S. influence in the region. As a landmark project, the India-Middle-East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) is expected to facilitate the region’s integration into the Western economic-political system. Although the October 7 attack and the Israel-Hamas war have shelved Biden’s Middle East policies, he has mostly emphasized diplomacy and economic incentives to balance the growing Chinese influence in the region.
But Trump’s style could be much more direct and provocative. Through open threats, blackmail, and gunboat diplomacy, he could force Middle Eastern states to choose sides. An intensified great power rivalry could create new fault lines and new blocs. Even if Biden is re-elected, the U.S.-China rivalry will likely grow in the Middle East. But under Trump’s leadership, this rivalry may be much more difficult to contain and manage.
The Devil We Know
By now, regional actors will be more accustomed to Trump and his style. Middle Eastern leaders can, therefore, act more wisely in a second Trump era. First, they have realized that Trump may not back up his words with action. This may make them think twice before jumping on Trump’s tail. Indeed, in response to U.S. inaction against Iran’s harassment of maritime traffic in the Gulf, the UAE opened a dialogue with Iran while Trump was still in the White House. Similarly, regional actors may be more cautious before escalating tensions, as in the Qatar crisis.
Second, the regional actors have now better experience in regional diplomacy and negotiation since Trump left power. Hence, even if a second Trump presidency causes a lack of leadership in the Middle East, the regional actors might establish regional mechanisms to maintain stability. The intensification of regional diplomacy after the October 7 Hamas attacks and the Gaza war also indicates that there is an inclination for dialogue and cooperation. As the tensions escalated, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman talked with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan,visited Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterpart. For an Organization of Islamic Countries Summit over the Israel-Hamas crisis, Raisi traveled to Riyadh and met with Prince Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. All these indicate that the regional actors want to maintain the status quo by containing and managing regional instabilities through diplomacy. In this respect, compared to Trump’s first term, the region might act more responsibly in a second era.