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HomeNewsboxA President Trump Excites, and Worries, Persian Gulf Leaders

A President Trump Excites, and Worries, Persian Gulf Leaders

MANAMA, Bahrain — The political shock waves from the American presidential election are being felt here in the Persian Gulf, where diplomats, military commanders and other senior leaders say they are both fearful and excited about which Donald J. Trump shows up after he is sworn in as president on Jan. 20.

Will it be, they ask, the President Trump who has vowed to cut off American aid to the Syrian rebel groups that many Gulf states support in the fight against the Syrian government? Or the President Trump who is promising to get tougher with Iran, the great Shia scourge of the Sunni Arab monarchies here?

As commander-in-chief, will President Trump beef up American military might in the Gulf or avoid sinking more American treasure into a region where the candidate questioned whether nations were paying their fair share of security costs (echoing his critique of many NATO allies, as well)?

One regional policy expert who summed up the concern of many is Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’s Middle East office in this tiny Gulf kingdom.

“Trump is either going to be a minimalist with no comprehensive vision or understanding of Middle East complexities, or he risks being provocative and going in hard over a crisis that should be managed or de-escalated,” Mr. Hokayem said. “Trump seems prone to say something outrageous and then try to walk it back, still damaging U.S. standing, credibility and relations with Middle Easterners.”

These worries — as well as more positive views of Mr. Trump — were aired in formal speeches and casual conversations last weekend during the Manama Dialogue, a conference sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

“We are facing a lot of problems in the region,” Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister of Iraq who is now the country’s vice president, said in an interview. “We hope the Trump administration will take a proactive stance.”

Striking a more upbeat note, Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, said after his speech, “We’re expecting continuity of this long-term friendship and alliance” with the United States.

Bahrain’s embassy in Washington held its annual National Day celebration last week at Mr. Trump’s new luxury hotel in the American capital. The hotel has come under scrutiny by American government ethics experts who worry that foreign governments, special interest groups and others will book rooms and events there to curry favor with the president-elect.

“The region here is taking a wait-and-see approach,” said Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, who commands the Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is based here. “They’re very anxious to see, ‘Does it signal a change in some area?’”

If Mr. Trump is stirring anxiety, or at least uncertainty, his picks and potential selections for senior national security positions are calming some jittery nerves. Those choices for important members of the Trump inner circle include former Army lieutenant general and war veteran Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser; James N. Mattis, a retired Marine general and former head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, as defense secretary; and Rex W. Tillerson, the president and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, as a possible secretary of state.

Like his prospective new boss, Mr. Tillerson is viewed here as more likely to cut deals than crack down on human rights violations, a sore spot for Bahrain, where the Obama administration has criticized the government for jailing political dissidents.

Exxon Mobil also has close connections with Qatar’s national oil company, and has joined with the Qataris in building a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Gulf of Mexico coast that is designed for importing gas and possibly for exporting it as well.

General Mattis drew even more fulsome praise from diplomats, military commanders and intelligence officials in the region. “If I ever went into a fight, I would want General Mattis next to me,” Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, said in an email. “He will be a great partner for his allies.”

Although he was so hawkish on Iran that the White House cut short his Central Command tour in 2013, General Mattis is no warmonger — he led some of the bloodiest battles in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and knows the human costs of conflict. He has since said that tearing up the Iran nuclear agreement, as Mr. Trump has vowed to do, would hurt the United States.

Mr. Trump’s election has clearly put the Iranians on edge. Iran’s defense minister, Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, warned on Sunday that any confrontation with the United States and its Gulf allies would end disastrously for the small Arab states as well as for Israel.

“Considering Trump’s character and that he measures the cost of everything in dollars, it does not seem likely that he would take strong action against our country,” said General Dehghan, according to Iran’s semiofficial Mehr news agency.

Whatever concerns Gulf leaders have about Mr. Trump, the departure of President Obama — whom regional leaders say abandoned Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring and negotiated the secret nuclear deal with archenemy Iran — cannot come soon enough, they say.

The bitter feelings toward the Obama administration were sealed with Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s parting shot at regional leaders at the security conference here. Mr. Carter essentially told them to stop whining that the United States was not doing enough to fight terrorism — and do much more themselves.

“I would ask you to imagine what U.S. military and defense leaders think when they have to listen to complaints sometimes that we should do more, when it’s plain to see that all too often, the ones complaining aren’t doing enough themselves,” said Mr. Carter, who was in the midst of a two-week, round-the-world farewell tour.

In the end, the regional leaders say there may be less mystery to Mr. Trump than feared.

“Trump will be Trump,” said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister. “He was elected as the change candidate, which will be reflected in his policies, alliances becoming more transactional, and more burden-sharing.”

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