Disappointment can wait

The world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yell

It was Pennsylvania when things started to get crazy.

We were in a bar somewhere on Capitol Hill, where a crowd of young Washingtonites were huddled round a television. And whenever the networks called a state for Obama, they started cheering, even when it was such a solidly blue state as Massachussets or Vermont. (Logic dictates there must be plenty of Republicans in this town somewhere, but I didn't seem many of them last night.)

But it was when they called Pennsylvania that things really took off. This was the state McCain had bet everything on, this was one he couldn't afford to lose - and within mere minutes of the polls closing, there it was, standing safely behind Barack Obama.

But still people didn't allow themselves to believe. By 9pm I was telling anyone who was foolish enough to come within three feet of me that this thing was over, that Obama would win and win big, but my American friend was having none of it. "He might just scrape past 270," he shrugged. But that was it.

When we got in a cab across town, the first words spoken by the Pakistani driver - I'm pretty sure he hadn't even asked us where we were going - were, "Is he winning?" He switched on the radio, where we heard that Fox were calling Ohio for Obama. "Ah, that is good," he said. "But he still needs Florida, I think."

By the time we found another television, somewhere on U Street, Obama had 204 in the electoral college, and the polls had yet to close on the west coast. That, best I could tell, made President Obama an inevitability.

But no-one was saying it. There were painful memories of 2004, and no-one wanted to jinx a possible victory.

So when, at 11pm, the magic words appeared on the screen, the place exploded. People were screaming, hugging, high fiving strangers. One of two girls at the back of the bar who looked like they hadn't noticed it was election day asked the room what had just happened, and received a unanimous cry of, "He won!". They looked bored. Maybe they were the ones who voted for McCain.

Meanwhile the world outside had collapsed into a spontaneous street party. Cars were hooting, people were yelling, and the crowd was spilling into the road. At the corner of 14th and U hundreds were dancing alongside four guys with steel drums. About a dozen had climbed onto a bus shelter that, contrary to popular expectations, didn't collapse. One guy was sitting on a traffic light. Another was in a tree.

And the police let it all happen. I'm pretty sure some of them even joined in the hooting.

In the middle of the dancing there was one guy in a suit, looking staid and calm and, frankly, lost. My American friend suggested we stick a McCain badge on his back, just to see what happened. But no-one wanted that on their conscience.

It was after the victory speech that everyone decided to march on the White House. Its staff had cleverly arranged to have some building work going on, so we could only get so close, but that didn't stop thousands of people from showing up with the express intention of making as much noise as they possibly could. "Let's wake the old guy up!" someone was yelling.

Two guys with a cardboard cut out of the President Elect found themselves besieged by people wanting to pose with it for a photograph. Another guy - and I make no claim to understand this - was running around in his underwear, looking for all the world like he'd just forgotten to get dressed for his midnight jog.

"You Brits do realise this isn't going to change US foreign policy even one little bit?" said my American friend, never to one to accept victory without declaring a defeat.

But it didn't matter. The inevitable disappointment could wait. America had voted for President Obama, and that was all we needed to know.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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