Is Donald Trump a serious threat to global political and economic order? Or is he just full of bluster that will moderate as the U.S. election draws near?
Business leaders in the Middle East and other emerging markets say that yes, they are concerned. But surprisingly, some say they get the joke and are confident in the U.S. system.
“I think the outlandish things he says are quite a joke about building walls on the Mexican border and Muslims not coming in,” said Francis Yeoh, managing director of YTL Corporation. YTL is a Malaysian conglomerate with businesses in the utility sector, transportation and hospitality.
But Yeoh added, “People take those things to heart globally.”
Many of the businessmen among a crowd of 3,000 at last week’s financial markets forum in Abu Dhabi would speak only anonymously about Trump.
A second businessman who did speak on the record said it was too early to take Trump’s statements seriously.
“If he becomes [the] formal candidate for the party, then what he says counts. We will see if he repeats then some of his unusual comments,” said Fouad Dada, Senior Partner at investment group Lloyd Gulf Enterprises.
Dada, like others, believes the ‘no holds barred’ style of the television debates and ensuing social media spin are taking U.S. democracy into choppier, uncharted waters.
Over the past year, business leaders from countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia have taken note of the swipes the billionaire has taken at China’s trade policy, immigration from Mexico and Muslim countries, and the long-standing U.S. commitment to defend oil exporters in the Gulf.
Many of these executives see this as grandstanding and debate antics, believing Trump will tack towards the center of the political spectrum if he becomes the party’s nominee.
These business leaders say they are far more interested in the decisions being made behind the white marbled façade at the U.S. Federal Reserve.
“We are more concerned at the moment about Federal Reserve policies than we are about political policies,” said Uche Orji, chief executive of Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund Authority.
The Fed’s December interest rate hike had a punishing effect on some emerging markets, pulling assets from them to the U.S., and pushing currencies like the Nigerian naira to record lows.
“You see the U.S. is becoming this center of gravity in terms of its interest rate policy and that is having a knock on effect in terms of the rest of the world,” said Orji.
While the Republican frontrunner remains a hot topic at C-suite gatherings, some business leaders said they can, as a last resort, count on the U.S. constitutional system of checks and balances.
They would look to the U.S. Congress and courts to keep even a president such as Trump from exerting too much control over American foreign and business policy.