By Tom Finn
DOHA The rich Arab monarchies of the Gulf have been conspicuously absent from the chorus of international condemnation of the U.S. ban on travel from seven mainly Muslim countries, hoping for warmer ties with Donald Trump than with his predecessor.Saudi Arabia and its wealthy neighbours, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, have traditionally been close U.S. allies, and all were left off the travel ban, which instead included their main regional rivals: Iran, Iraq and Syria.The travel ban has been sharply criticised even by close American allies in Europe. The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have denounced it.But of the five major oil monarchies, the only one to express even mild disapproval in public was Qatar, whose foreign minister was quoted during a visit to Serbia as saying he hoped Washington would reassess it.Saudi Arabia's King Salman spoke to Trump by telephone on Sunday but neither side said whether the travel ban was discussed.United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed said on Wednesday it was a "sovereign decision" for the United States and not directed at any religion.Some Gulf officials even backed it openly. Dhahi Khalfan, a senior Dubai police official, tweeted on Monday "complete support" for Trump's ban. "Every country has the right to protect its security ... Trump, what you're doing is right."
FIRMER ON IRAN
The Gulf states, ruled by Sunni Muslim monarchs and protected by the U.S. Fifth Fleet, had troubled relations with President Barack Obama, who they believed was too soft on their chief rival, Shi'ite Iran.In Trump, who repeatedly called Obama "weak" on Iran and disparaged the outgoing administration's agreement to lift sanctions in return for curbs on Tehran's nuclear programme, they hope for a leader who will take their side more robustly."The Obama administration adopted a policy of indifference ... Trump’s government says it is ready to engage in the process of stopping chaos and defeating terrorism," wrote Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a veteran columnist, in Saudi Arabia's Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
"We shouldn't be influenced by others’ positions toward Trump, his administration, and internal policies. Our vision should be formed through solutions offered by his administration for our region."Tarik Yousef, director of the Brookings Doha Centre think tank, said the Gulf countries were still "in a cautious wait and see mode given the uncertainty about the direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East under the new administration." "Isolating Iran and ultimately containing its regional ambitions will trump their reservations over the restriction of Muslim entry into the U.S.," he said.To the extent that the travel ban increases tension between the United States and the Shi'ite-led governments in Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Gulf rulers could see it as a boon. They have been waging proxy wars against Iran in Yemen and Syria.
Some of the other steps the Trump administration has discussed, such as declaring Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, would also please the Saudis, who oppose the decades-old underground movement that held power in Cairo for a year after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled.The Brotherhood advocates Islamist political parties winning power through elections, which Saudi Arabia considers a threat to its system of absolute power through inherited rule.Saudi Arabia backed Egypt's military coup to topple an elected Brotherhood member as president in 2013. Qatar in the past has backed the Brotherhood, although it has moderated its support since the group was ousted from power in Cairo. Mohammed al-Misned, a Qatari businessman writing in the Wall Street Journal in January, said respect for American leadership in the region had declined under Obama, who was perceived as being indecisive, and there was hope for a more muscular policy from Trump. "With the support of a Republican Congress, Mr. Trump can help reverse the current course in the Middle East. The regionneeds unapologetic American guidance... to help diversify and modernize our economies. Rather than react to regional events, the U.S. must set the agenda," he wrote. (Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi and William Maclean in DUBAI; Editing by Peter Graff)
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Published Date: Feb 02, 2017 12:30 am | Updated Date: Feb 02, 2017 12:30 am