As a student of the Middle East, I cannot help seeing parallels between the actions of Donald Trump and those of the Arab autocrats I have studied. In particular, the confluence among Trump’s family, business, and political interests and his relationship with the media are strongly reminiscent of autocratic Arab regimes.
The exploitation of family connections for private profit is endemic across the Arab world. In 2014, the World Bank released a paper entitled “All in the Family: State Capture in Tunisia” that investigated the extensive business interests of former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s family. The researchers found that the president’s family regularly abused regulations for “private gain at the expense of reduced competition.”
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad introduced rapid neo-liberal restructuring and the expansion of the private sector to the country. The single largest beneficiary of this economic reform was Bashar’s family. His first cousin, Rami Makhlouf, was estimated at one point to be worth five billion dollars and was in control of 60% of Syria’s economy. Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his family also made billions by exploiting their political power and connections.
Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump brushed off questions about potential conflicts of interest that could result in huge private gains. He said he would entrust his businesses to his children upon taking office. By naming those same children to his transition team, however, he has facilitated the kind of corruption prevalent in the Arab world.
These conflicts of interest are already playing out. Trump’s three oldest children, Ivanka, Donald Jr., and Eric, sat in on a meeting between the president-elect and high profile tech CEOs last Wednesday. Their involvement this meeting raises the possibility that they might exploit their political connections in future business dealings with Silicon Valley executives.
Ivanka Trump used a 60 Minutes interview as an opportunity to promote her jewelry brand and was also present in a meeting between her father and the Japanese prime minister after his election victory. Reports surfaced last week that she would even take up an office in the White House usually reserved for the first lady, further blurring the line between family, politics, and business.
Trump himself is embracing the business opportunities the presidency has afforded him. During a phone call with Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri, Trump reportedly asked for and received building permission for a business project in Buenos Aires that had previously been held up for years. Trump’s team also reportedly pressured the Kuwaiti embassy into relocating a major event to Trump’s new Washington, D.C. hotel.
Trump’s relationship with the U.S. media is similarly reminiscent of some Arab heads of state. Writing at Sada, journalist Mohamed Elmeshad noted that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi “believes information is a one-way street going from the top down… At times, Sisi expresses his contempt for media outlets, trying to circumnavigate pundits and reporters to address Egyptians directly. At other times, he tries to control or woo prominent figures within the media who serve as important conduits of information.”
The same could be said of Donald Trump. Though Trump prefers his Twitter feed to the kind of long diatribes Sisi favors, both men choose to bypass journalists and directly address the public. As of December 20, Trump has not held a press conference in 145 days but has tweeted 1,482 times. His other major post-victory public statements have been his six state “thank you” tour and a couple of short messages on his transition YouTube page.
Also like Sisi, Trump has tried to control high-profile journalists and undermine media outlets. During the campaign, he blacklisted a number of media outlets and threatened to sue others for libel. After his victory, he held an off-the-record “media summit,” in which he scolded anchors and executives for unfriendly coverage. On Twitter, he attacked The New York Times as “failing” and Vanity Fair as “dead” because of their critical reports of his campaign. Overall, the coming Trump presidency represents a serious threat to press freedom.
Since Trump has previously expressed admiration for leaders like Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein and praised Sisi, according to POLITICO, for the way he “took control of Egypt,” we should not be surprised that he is exhibiting the same behaviors as his beloved Arab autocrats.