DUBAI and WASHINGTON — Anti-Muslim sentiments issued from front-runners in the Republican primary could damage the party's future security engagements with Gulf Arab leaders, experts warn.
Since the terrorist attacks in Paris, some GOP candidates have ridden a wave of anti-Muslim commentary. But the issue came to a head Dec. 7, when Donald Trump, comfortably ahead in most polls among as the GOP candidates, frontrunner, called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." This followed previous calls from Trump for surveillance on mosques and a database of Muslims living within the US.
Two days later, 10 Gulf Arab leaders condemned the "hostile, racist" remarks made against Muslims and Syrian refugees.
"The supreme council expressed its deep concern at the increase of hostile, racist and inhumane rhetoric against refugees in general and Muslims in particular," the Gulf Cooperation Council said in a statement at the GCC heads of state meeting in Riyadh.
While other candidates and Republican leaders distanced themselves from Trump's latest statement — presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey Graham pointedly told Trump to "go to hell" after his comments — other GOP candidates such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz have previously called for halts to immigration of Muslim refugees while suggesting it is OK to accept for Christian refugees. to still arrive in the US.
And Trump's comments appear to be in line with the Republican electorate. According to findings from a Bloomberg Politics/Purple Strategies PulsePoll, almost two-thirds of likely 2016 Republican primary voters favor Donald Trump's call to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, while more than a third say it makes them more likely to vote for him.
But what plays in the homeland does not always work abroad, and the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment could come back and harm the GOP in the future, analysts warn.
"Such statements will definitely affect the relationship between the Republican Party and the Gulf despite it being made for local consumption," said Dr. Abdullah Baabood, director of the Gulf Studies Program at Qatar University.
"Local populations in the Gulf now are more aware because of widespread media and Internet access, this will cause an embarrassment for the GCC governments if and when they deal with a new Republican administration," Baabood said. "This will hurt [the Republican Party] internally. They might lose not only the moderate voices but also Muslim voices. This also gives them a bad reputation in the Arab and Islamic world, whose support they need in their current war"
The Pentagon said Dec. 9 that such statements would be counterproductive to their ongoing fight against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL.
"Anything that tries to bolster, if you will, the ISIL narrative that the United States is somehow at war with Islam is contrary to our values and contrary to our national security," Department of Defense press secretary Peter Cook said. "We are, as I mentioned, working with Muslim nations right now. We want to, in essence, take the fight to ISIL with the help of Muslims and others around the world. And anything that somehow challenges that, we think would be counterproductive to our national security."
Historically, Republican administrations have had closer ties with GCC leaders than their Democratic counterparts, Baabood said.
"This is election propaganda, however Republicans are closer in mindset to GCC governments while the Democrats are not," Baabood said.
GCC leaders prefer the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, he said, because the Democrats have been more rigid in their dealings over the years.
"[The Democrats] have also been trying to influence democratic agendas in the Gulf populations in the past, which make the Gulf leaders uncomfortable," he said.
Emirati political analyst and author Dr. Abdel Khaleq Abdullah said that the relationships between the Republican Party and the Gulf have been developed by the Bush family after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
"The relationship between the Republicans and the GCC governments has been focused on the Bush family's personal relations with GCC leaderships," Abdullah said. Despite that, he expects that the inner circles with in GCC governments' inner circles are taking these statements seriously.
The business community around the Gulf has taken a stand by removing any Trump-related products or affiliations.
"It's a case against an individual and not a party; it might end up being a bubble that pops later," he added.
"It's very, very destructive," said Nawaf Obaid, visiting fellow at the John F. Kennedy school and previous adviser to Saudi officials. "We're going to be hearing about this for years to come, what Donald Trump said."
Retired US Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., USMC (Ret.), former national security adviser to President Barack Obama and now chairman of the Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., USMC (Ret.), said last this week that people overseas take "our politicians much more seriously than Americans do."
Added Barry Pavel, former special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council staff: "I think it's corrosive, and we're in a world now where it's not just nation-states who have power, but nonstate actors, and people have power and connectivity.
"When you see mass shootings once a week, Muslim or otherwise, and then you see statements from one of the leading party's presidential candidates that people of a certain religion should not be allowed into the United States, a country that was founded on immigration, it's yet another detriment of others' perceptions of us," Pavel said.
Pavel added that such statements have contributed to a perception of an erosion in US influence and role as a model.
"I think that we seem to misunderstand as a government and as a people that we are operating from a very significant deficit right now, a deficit of pubic perception of US leadership, and we really need to start digging out of the hole and not digging deeper," he said.
The rising support from Republican voters, according to Dania Al Khatib, a UAE-based specialist in US-Gulf relations, Dr Dania Al Khatib, is evidence of an isolationist US strategy.
"America is already disengaging from the Gulf, there is an isolationist policy," she said. "First of all [such speech] will go back and affect [the US] one way or the other through the propagation of extremism; number two, their mistakes in the region starting with how they dealt with Iraq and now with Syria are evidence of a strong isolationist movement."
Khatib said that America is no longer more interested in the Gulf.
"They used to look to Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Iran, but now they are friends with Iran," she said. "The second reason is the oil; the US will be an exporter by 2020 so there are no more strategic interests in the Gulf."