What does a Trump victory mean for the Middle East?

Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric has sparked anger and disbelief among Middle Easterners who are trying to figure out what his approach to the region as the next U.S. president will mean for them, the CBC's Derek Stoffel writes from Jerusalem.

U.S. president-elect's talk about volatile area has been vague and contradictory, leaving region scrambling

People dine at a coffee shop as an image of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump is displayed on a monitor in Tel Aviv on Nov. 9, 2016. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States sent waves of uncertainty and worry across the volatile Middle East Wednesday, as governments and ordinary citizens tried to figure out what the upset win by the Republican candidate means for a chaotic region where war and poverty run rampant. 

Trump's anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign sparked fear and anger throughout the Middle East, where Islam is by far the dominant religion. 

"I think it is a disgrace that the United States of America is no longer compassionate, no longer fair to itself and the world," said Nasser al-Hadi, a Palestinian who owns a pizza shop in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Hadi organized his own protest of the election, mockingly selling pizza slices in the shape of Trump's hair outside his shop.

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Official reaction, as you'd expect, was more diplomatic, with governments from Turkey to Egypt and beyond wishing Trump well and expressing hope of good relations with his administration. 

Trump is a wild card, however, on various pressing Middle Eastern problems. Behind the scenes, foreign affairs ministries across the region are scrambling to figure out what his presidency will mean, given the vague and sometimes contradictory references to the region during the campaign.

'The worst deal ever'

One issue where Trump was clear was Iran — specifically the deal negotiated by U.S. President Barack Obama to limit Tehran's nuclear program. Trump called it "the worst deal ever negotiated" and promised to scrap the agreement, which he said could lead to a "nuclear holocaust."

West Bank businessman Nasser al-Hadi created a pizza protest against Donald Trump. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

His election sent the Tehran stock exchange tumbling on Wednesday, as Iranians — and officials in Iran's government — worried that the country's economy could be battered once again if the deal dies.

Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, took a significant political risk by negotiating with Washington, deciding that a deal that ended sanctions and could boost Iran's economy was worth the vehement criticism he faced from anti-American hardliners. 

If the deal collapses, the hardliners are very likely to take to the streets with their "death to America" chants, saying that it's a waste of time to negotiate with the United States.

Israel vs. Iran

A tough-on-Iran approach will be welcomed in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been the loudest international voice against the nuclear agreement. 

Trump will "be more watchful … that the Iranians live up to their so-called unwritten commitments, namely with regards to stopping the support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah," Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, told CBC News from Tel Aviv.

When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of candidate Trump's first statements — that he would be "sort of neutral" when brokering peace between the two sides — didn't sit well with official Israel and a good deal of its people.

We think he's good for America and good for us here in Israel.- Chanah Stillman

So Trump shifted, saying he'd move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel's capital. He also encouraged Israel to "keep going" to build more Jewish settlements in the West Bank. 

Palestinians reacted with anger and disappointment, but today expressed hope that Trump can help usher in what the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, called a "just and comprehensive" peace with the Israelis during his administration. 

After eight years of a tense relationship between Obama and Israel's leader, Netanyahu today called Trump a "a true friend of the state of Israel," adding that he was looking "forward to working with him to advance security, stability and peace in our region."

Chanah Stillman, shopping in Jerusalem's main market on Wednesday, cheered Donald Trump's victory in the U.S. presidential election: 'He will be able to work well with Israel.' (CBC)

In Jerusalem's main Jewish market, where conservative politics are as common as the fresh pomegranates and warm bread, Trump's victory was celebrated.

"We're very excited," said Chanah Stillman, who was born in Ohio but has resided in Jerusalem for nearly 30 years. "We think he's good for America and good for us here in Israel."

Bomb ISIS, but what about Syria?

On one of the biggest threats to Middle East security, the jihadist group ISIS, Trump has promised to "bomb the hell out of them."

But he's said little about the civil war in Syria that has lasted for 5½ years and left an estimated 400,000 people dead.

One Syrian woman who spoke to CBC News from a refugee camp in Jordan a week before the election expressed hope that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would take a more muscular approach to ending the war. 

"She is strong and will insist on protecting the people of Syria," said Maisoon Dairi, adding that she was unsure what — if anything — Trump would do for the Syrian people. 

A Palestinian man reads the Al-Quds newspaper depicting images of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem's Old City on Nov. 9, 2016. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

Middle East analyst Labib Kamhawi expects a "hands-off" approach from Trump on Syria, concluding that "the man is more interested in building the U.S., and not really in solving the problems of the Middle East."

Kamhawi expects that the incoming American administration will put pressure on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to take a larger role in trying to end the Syrian conflict.

For Trump, human rights are a trivial issue.- Labib Kamhawi

Trump's talk on torture ("Torture works. OK, folks?") is likely to ally concerns by Middle Eastern strongmen who have grown tired of U.S. warnings on human rights.

"For Trump, human rights are a trivial issue," Kahmawi told CBC News from Amman, Jordan. "So it's good for the regimes involved who are violating human rights: [Egypt's president] el-Sisi, the Saudis and [Syria's president Bashar] al-Assad."

Some in the region turned to dark humour as the Middle East deciphers what a Trump presidency might mean.

A widely shared Twitter post from Royal Jordanian Airlines joked: "Just in case he wins.… Travel to the U.S. while you're still allowed to!"


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.