Saudi Arabia is a young country both historically and demographically. It’s an absolute monarchy that was declared in 1932 with over 70% of its current population under the age of 30. Despite our young population’s high education and a 70% internet penetration, national political participation remains limited. It’s no surprise that Saudis enjoy spectator political participation. Local social media followed the American election closely. Our Arabic news channels’ coverage could compete with their American counterparts. And just like most people in the world, Saudis were entertained when Trump announced his candidacy. The likelihood of his winning was considered slim, and when pitted against a seasoned politician like Clinton, Saudis took her upcoming presidency as given. One of the first Saudis to do an about-face and tweet congratulations to Trump is HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.
The shock of Trump’s victory did not inhibit Saudis from expressing themselves. Within minutes of the announcement, Whatsapp, Snapchat and Twitter accounts shared memes expressing dismay, fear, banality, and even joy. Many expressed their indifference with a meme of a merged Trump and Clinton face stating that they are two sides of the same coin. Others likened him to the Prophet Mohammed’s hostile half-uncle. In the Quran, the half-uncle is cursed as the father of flames and his wife the bearer of the wood. So it goes the bearer of the wood lost to the father of the flames to express the candidates’ perceived animosity to Saudis. My favorites are one where Saudi men in traditional dress are running in horror from a giant Trump in the background and a Snapchat photo of a Saudi college student in the US anxiously watching the election numbers come in with a suitcase packed and ready to go.
A reaction that was to be expected was the thrill of ultra-conservatives and Islamic fundamentalists at the fact that the United States had not elected a woman. A meme on how Clinton started an Instagram account to sell her cooking, a popular income generator among Saudi women, went viral. A Saudi Twitter news account boasting over 1.6 million followers euphorically tweeted : “A message to those calling for abolishing the male guardianship system: The results of the American elections are expected for a country as strong as the USA would never allow a woman to lead.” They soon deleted it, but the same text remained on their Telegram channel.
Soon after, Saudi political analysts began to put in their two cents. Mohammed Al Alshiekh optimistically wrote for Al-Jazirah newspaper about how American foreign policy will be in Saudi’s favor under a Trump presidency. He claims that the Democratic party has always been bad for the region and Saudi in particular and that the Democrat “whose father came from the jungles of Africa is the worst of them all.” Al Alshiekh blames Obama for the Arab Spring and calls him its “spiritual father.” He predicts that a Trump presidency might lead to a cancellation of the Iranian nuclear deal and at the very least a less civil administration to Islamic sectarian factions.
On the other end of the spectrum, the highly influential Jamal Khashoggi wrote for Alhayat newspaper about his uncertain Trump presidency outlook. The piece was so widely shared among Saudis that it contributed to the Saudi Foreign Ministry issuing a statement reminding people that Khashoggi’s opinions do not represent the government’s position. In Khashoggi’s piece, he forewarns that a president Trump is the same as the candidate Trump and that Trump has consistently held his current seemingly wild views for over two decades. Khashoggi points out that Trump is an extreme right wing populist who probably only thinks of the Arabian Gulf Countries as oil wells. His worst-case scenario is that a Trump presidency might lead to an American-Russian collaboration in the Middle East and the best-case scenario is that Trump’s advisers convince him to create an effective coalition with Middle Eastern Sunni powers to fight ISIS and bring stability to the region.
Currently, Saudis are closely watching Trump’s statements and choices for advisers and administration. While some are celebrating the likely new CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s comments about undoing the Iran nuclear deal, others are wary of Mike Flynn’s likening Islam to a cancer. Trump’s statements on how he’ll wean the United States off of Saudi oil drew an apt comparison to King Faisal’s oil embargo threats. Meanwhile, many are content admiring the new first lady and Ivanka Trump. Naif Alsalam even wrote a poem on how “for Trump’s daughter sake he’s not upset about the win and that he’ll forget all their differences. He goes on that “Ivanka governed humanity’s hearts long before her father governed the states.”