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President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ear to the ground

Some in Europe and Middle East not as freaked out by a Donald Trump presidency as you might expect

By Zainab Salbi on December 14, 2016

Conversations with strangers often provide the most useful insight into a country. But on a trip I took a week after the U.S. election, from Berlin to London, Dubai to Cairo, I was more often met with silence than with revealing anecdotes. I, too, was more wary than usual. I kept thinking to myself: What if my taxi driver supports a right wing party in Germany, or has voted for Brexit in Britain, or is a secret agent in Egypt? It took a few days on the ground in each place to get a snapshot of local reactions to the extraordinary election of Donald Trump.

At the Simmons Leadership Conference in Berlin, women were worried about their workplace accomplishments being respected, and about protecting women from sexual harassment. A French participant asked, “If the leader of the U.S. casually refers to women in sexual terms, what message does that send to male bosses who were already exhibiting sexist tendencies in the workplace?” Many were concerned that such behavior will no longer be viewed as an outrage, and that misogynist bosses will feel emboldened. Beyond women’s rights, people I met in the city were anxious about Trump’s broader agenda. “We have suffered firsthand from the wall and spent years paying the price for it after its fall. We worry when he talks about building walls and … his other rhetoric. It reminds us of our past,” said Mary, my taxi driver to the airport.

In London the post-Brexit atmosphere echoed the post-election division in the U.S. A friend in the financial sector was not worried about the Trump presidency. “From the suited man’s perspective,” as he put it, “this is a bottom up presidency in financial terms that will take the economy forward in a good way.” I explained to him that women are worried about their rights in the work place. He struggled to grasp the women’s perspective. “Still, the economy will go forward and that is most important,” he said. The conversation ended there.

In Dubai, the views were as diverse as the multinational population itself. An Iraqi man insisted on whispering his political argument: “We hope that Trump will follow Russia’s lead towards its policies in the Middle East. Russia does not interfere in our internal affairs while America has a bad history of meddling in our internal politics.” When I shared this with a Lebanese man I met with a group of friends, he said, “This guy must be Shi’a.” He was referring to Russia’s support of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Since most Shi’a in the region are worried about Sunnis’ threats to kill off Shi’a, they see the maintenance of the Assad regime as critical to keeping Shi’a safe in Syria and in the region at large.

Ahmed, an Iraqi relative of mine spoke his opinion loudly: “Trump is saying it as it is. We always suspected that America wants our oil. Trump said just that, validating what we have been saying all along since America invaded Iraq.” Many Iraqis agree with that take. They also believe that President-elect Trump will eradicate ISIS, as he has claimed in his speeches.”

Ahmet, a Turkish businessman, joined the conversation. “If Trump gives [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan what he wants the most — delivering Muhammet Fethullah Gulen [the man accused of masterminding the July coup in Turkey from his base in Philadelphia], Turkey will become Trump’s best friend in the region.”

Alia, a Saudi woman I met in Dubai explained that Trump will be good for Saudi Arabia as he does not like Iran – a country hostile to Saudi. Trump, she said, may improve U.S.-Saudi relations following what some in her country saw as efforts by the Obama administration and the U.S. press to discredit the Saudi regime.

In Egypt, the people I spoke to seemed to be equally cool with the idea of a Trump presidency. “He hates Muslim brotherhood as much as the government of Egypt does. So that is good for Egypt,” Hisham, an Egyptian entrepreneur explained. When I asked the Arabs and other Muslims I met in Dubai and Cairo what they thought of Trump’s comments on Islam, they didn’t seem too concerned. Ahmet explained, “At the end of the day, if you have money and can do business, everything can work. I am not worried as long as I am a man with money.”

In my encounters abroad, speculation about Trump’s presidency covered the range from fear to optimism. While many Europeans I met in November and earlier this month feared the erosion of women’s rights, most people of wealth seemed to be carefree and confident about their future wellbeing. In the Middle East, many view Trump as a leader who may give them what they want on a practical level, and leave them alone. “After all, he is more like President Erdogan in his leadership style,” one Turkish woman explained. “After all, he is more like President [Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi in his leadership style,” an Egyptian man noted. What is not said, but assumed as common knowledge, is that Turkey’s President Erdogan and Egypt’s President Sisi are both notorious for suppressing opposition voices and ruling with an iron fist.


Zainab Salbi returns to her childhood home in Iraq and makes a chilling discovery