The New York Times even recently quoted an American psychologist as coining a new phrase:
Vast wealth and the promise of dramatic change make for cautious optimism concerning Saudi Arabia, the chief executive…813 Views | the publication reaches you by | Saudi Arabia Today
“One of the great things about President Trump is that he is an ‘emotive’ person,” American expat Tony Graham tells us, a hint of disgust clear in his voice. “He is motivating Americans abroad in record numbers to get registered and to vote.”
As we speed towards the US presidential elections in November, hyperbole and emotion are the order of the day.
However, in the UAE and the rest of the Arabian Gulf, the legacy of Trump’s first three years is even more complicated. Here, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum are in reluctant agreement: in the region, Trump is popular.
“He’s been very engaged in the region, and has developed really good relationships with the governments there,” says Aaron Cutler, a Republican Washington lobbyist and attorney at international law firm Hogan Lowell. “His first stop [on an international trip as president] was to Saudi Arabia. That showed the world how he views the relationship… actions speak louder than words.”
In the eyes of Cutler and other experts, Trump’s popularity in the region largely stems from one fact: he is not Barack Obama. After all, the previous administration’s relationship with the Gulf states was – more often than not – strained and mistrustful.
Nowhere are the differences more evident than in US policy towards Iran. Trump withdrew from an Obama-era nuclear deal in 2018, re-imposed sanctions, forced US allies to stop purchasing Iranian oil and, more recently, launched military strikes against Iranian personnel and their proxies.
“The Iran policy of the administration has been viewed very favourably,” Cutler adds. “They’ve been seen as steadfast allies. The last administration really infuriated the GCC countries with their Iran deal on the way out. It was done without consultation with the other countries; there was no buy-in. They were really angered by that, and this administration has tried do things in a much different way.”
Dr Basem Hashaad, a Saudi Arabia-based trade consultant who used to work with the United Nations and the Egyptian government, agrees, telling Arabian Business that Trump’s warm welcome in the Gulf was a much as sign of relief that Obama was gone as it was of the confidence that the new administration would pursue policies that “contradict” the previous ones.
“The GCC states are particularly reassured by evidence that the Trump administration will continue to be proactive in addressing the challenges in the region,” he explains. “Positive engagements have [shown] the GCC’s leadership that President Trump is moving forward on an agenda that is consistent with their priorities and perspectives.”
Trump’s opponents, on the other hand, point to his differences with Obama and say they ultimately undermine American credibility around the world, the Gulf states included. “Rather than inspiring the world – which is what Obama was doing – the world is laughing at us,” says Ridah Sabouni, the chair of the UAE chapter of Democrats Abroad, the official party arm for members living abroad.
Graham – an executive committee member and the spokesman of Democrats Abroad UAE – has even harsher words. “The American president is someone who people should respect, admire, and who they look up to,” he says. “That has changed.”
This ‘new’ behaviour, Graham believes, has included “petty arguments” with individuals and allies alike, denying overwhelming evidence of climate change and “conducting foreign policy by Tweet.”
“Obviously, it’s a great thing that America maintains its strong relationships with our Gulf allies. Thankfully, we still have that,” Graham says, although he decline to comment on specific policies or countries. “But American credibility is being undermined by rash decisions. One of the effects of the Trump administration is that people doubt America’s word. Our allies doubt whether we still have their backs, our priorities and the strength of their relationship with America. That’s what’s changed. That applies to the Gulf as much as anywhere else.”
Speaking to Americans at home and abroad, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the country’s political divide has become so vast that it may be irreconcilable. But there is one thing that brings foreign-based US citizens together for a common cause: they don’t want to pay US taxes on money earned overseas.
Specifically, Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for an end to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act – or FATCA. Established in 2010, this wildly unpopular legislation mandates drastic penalties for foreign financial institutions that don’t report the assets of US citizens or green card-holders, leading many to avoid American customers altogether.
Coupled with a system of citizen-based taxation, the regulations effectively mean that the estimated 9 million Americans living outside the country are unable to avoid paying taxes both to their country of residency and to the US government. Only one other country in the world – Eritrea – has a similar system.
“It’s so unfair. You end up paying your local tax [abroad], and Uncle Sam’s tax,” explains Solomon Yue, the Oregon-based CEO and vice chairman of Republicans Overseas. US multinational corporations, on the other hand, are subject to territorial taxation, in which they pay taxes where they make money. “We [Republicans] want the US government to tax individual Americans the same way,” Yue adds. “That’s the kind of thing we’re working on at this moment.”
Democrats, for their part, are equally keen to do away with a system they see as antiquated and hopelessly complicated. “The overwhelming majority of Americans, including most members of Congress, don’t understand this is a global anomaly that needs to be reformed,” Graham says.
So far, however, even Trump supporters say that progress has been painfully slow – but hope that the president would do away with FATCA if he were re-elected. “Certain candidates come out and say they’ll address it. Trump did the same. He says he’s addressing it,” remarks Dr Steven Anderson, a former chairman of Republicans Overseas UAE chapter. “I’m hoping something will happen. It has to change.”
While American expats in the region will be dreaming of an end to their tax woes, the Gulf states that host them will be hoping that their cosy relationship with the Trump White House continues. Experts, however, warn that this is by no means assured at a time when foreign policy decisions can be made suddenly, with little or no consultation before being announced on social media.
“Trump and the Washington administration have made it clear to the world to watch the words and tweets of the US president,” says Cyril Widdershoven, a veteran global energy market analyst and founder of Netherlands-based Verocy. “Washington sees [the Gulf countries] as indispensable allies and regional powers, but at the same time will not be linking its regional and geopolitical considerations and strategies to the wish and dreams of Arab countries.”
While Widdershoven believes that in most cases American and Gulf interests will dovetail, countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia can expect surprises. As evidence, he points to America’s restraint and caution in the wake of the drone and missile strike on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility or the string of attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz or Bab Al Mandab.
“Moves are made if of importance to Washington, not when asked by Arab countries,” he adds. “The US is following its own strategy… this new Trump doctrine – some call it the Trump Hotel variation of geopolitics – is presenting Arab countries with major issues. Arab capitals can’t count on US support in all cases.”
Perhaps the most ‘major’ of these issues going forward will be Trump’s belief – broadcast for the entire world to see in the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s death in Baghdad – that the US “does not need” Middle Eastern oil even as the US government and companies continue to eye projects and contracts in the region.
“If it were up to Trump, no more oil is needed from the region. Of course, that’s not reality and will not be, maybe ever,” Widdershoven says of Trump’s comments. “Still, Trump and his voters believe the ideas, which opens up a Pandora’s box, as it means no need for investment and security arrangements between the US and GCC.”
If re-elected, Widdershoven adds, Trump is like to adopt a “quid pro-quo approach” towards the GCC. “If Washington supports and secures the region, the latter should be paying for this Pax Americana.”
Americans in the region, however, are at the moment primarily concerned with the looming spectre of the November election. Traditionally, interest in US elections among expats has been lukewarm at best, with only a small proportion of the estimated 9 million Americans abroad casting a vote.
Not anymore. Americans from both sides of the political spectrum report unprecedented interest in politics, motivated either by “Trump anxiety” and loathing for the president, or by strong support for his policies and actions. Already, midterm elections have seen an 800 percent increase in voter engagement when compared to those held in the pre-Trump era.
Predictably, locally-based Americans are split on the outcome and importance of election, with both expressing optimism that their party will emerge victorious. “He’s sure to win”, some say. “He doesn’t stand a chance”, say others.
“It’s an important year. I’d say it’s the most important election of our lifetimes,” Sabouni says. “If they [Americans] don’t rally and correct this mistake, we could see some lasting damage. Another four years of Trump would really do some lasting damage.”
Many Republicans, on the other hand, are quick to dismiss their rivals and express confidence that, at the end of the day, only one thing will matter to voters: the economy. “Undecided voters will break on the economy,” Cutler says. “And right now, the economy is just humming along, doing well. The economy could change between now and then, but if it stays on this track, President Trump is in really good shape.”
In the meantime, the world is sure to continue to see US politics play out on their TV screens and Twitter feeds, while the county’s expats will be gearing up to battle in the polls in November. For them, this election is likely to be one of the most important they will ever vote in.
“There is no excuse not to vote,” Graham says of his countrymen in the region. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.”
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