Former Vice President Joe Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Although the results have not been fully certified yet, there is much anticipation on what policy issues a prospective Biden-Harris administration would tackle first. The world has witnessed the United States cope with two major events that have reverberated across the world’s economic, social, and political landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have shaken the country to its core and unearthed deep-seated issues around systemic racism and government transparency.
The consequent global response to these events have been sweeping and multitiered. Many critics of the Trump administration have proclaimed that he mishandled the pandemic by withholding information that could have saved thousands of American lives. From the contentious actions of lawmakers in Washington to the behavior of law enforcement in middle America, the government’s trust and accountability have been brought into question unlike ever before in the modern political era.
US Policy in the Gulf Region: From Obama to Trump
In conversation with several former colleagues and contemporaries in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the sentiments on the forthcoming administration are varied. There is mutual agreement, however, on the need for President-elect Biden to do some heavy lifting to re-establish good relations and mend the wounds of the Trump era. Allies to the United States have shown little respect for the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” foreign policy campaign.
Case in point: the complications between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries coming out of the Obama years have been widely argued. The fissures of the Iran nuclear deal, the ongoing civil war in Syria, unresolved disputes involving classified information on 9/11, the lesser publicized strife in Yemen and Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia’s hand on the oil market remain center stage. At one point, the six-nation GCC was convinced it was better to wait until the next president – Trump – before making distinct policy decisions, on account of the mutual distrust prevalent on both sides during the Obama years.
Throughout the Obama administration and in subsequent years, many Gulf Arabs developed a fondness for President Trump and the Republican Party’s agenda. The GCC nations fostered a hope that the celebrity and en vogue nature of Donald Trump’s brand would enhance international business, creating more dynamic income streams to replace the region’s depleting oil reserves. The American rust belt and the oil-rich Gulf states shared the idea that a Trump presidency meant big business and overflowing coffers for everyone.
President Trump’s Policy Toward the Gulf
As a newcomer to the White House, President Trump was tasked with proving to foreign governments that he had the credentials to maintain and optimize U.S. foreign relations, but also with demonstrating his ability to work as a progressive international partner. He has likened himself to a ‘tough-talking peacemaker,’ albeit racking up a list of major unfulfilled policy promises. Trump’s path to a triumphant presidency was partially attributable to his xenophobic rhetoric, which resulted in Executive Orders 13769 and 13780 — otherwise known as the ‘Muslim Ban’ he employed a year into office.
In Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, neither of which were targeted by the ban, Trump’s Islamophobia was seen as empty words; in the grand scheme of international politics, they meant little, while Trump’s actions meant everything. The president’s actions, however, have done nothing but further isolate the United States, both at the UN and around the world. The historical anchors of the US-GCC relationship — arms agreements and a strong U.S. military presence in the region — have not come undone since President Obama left office in 2017, but they have been challenged by the current president’s inflammatory rhetoric and disdain for the political architects who have worked to manage what has been an unprecedented four years.
However, with Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, the sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is one of concern due to the certain return of a Democratic agenda. This would resuscitate talks with Iran, which is seen as the principal instigator of conflict throughout the region. The June 2017 Saudi-led decision to sever diplomatic relations with Qatar has furthered the complications in the region. Akin to his nature, President Trump claimed credit for engineering the blockade in a series of tweets on Twitter, but later retreated – pivoting his tone from adverse to friendly – lauding Qatar’s efforts to combat terrorism and calling Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani a “friend of mine.”
Military relations have always been the bedrock for US-GCC cooperation, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the United States’ biggest arms export partners. The Kingdom kept quiet during the Obama administration when the United States led the deal that lifted global economic sanctions on Iran with the understanding that the Islamic Republic would curb its nuclear program. To keep the peace, Saudi silence was bought with a more lucrative weapons program — used to stave off an emboldened Iran.
Donald Trump’s 2016 win meant shifting the impetus from political partnerships and diplomatic relations to profitable business deals, which, according to Saudi and Emirati authorities, would take center stage in a new kind of US-GCC alliance. Iranian policy, arms negotiations, and subduing proxy wars were important agenda items then and are equally important now, to both those in and outside the region. In the minds of many Gulf Arabs, President Trump was the right choice, perhaps not for Americans themselves, but for the rest of the world.
Biden’s Presidency is the ‘New Old’ for the Gulf
As is the case every four years, the American public — and the world — sit with bated breath and await to install the next president, understanding that this person shoulders the responsibility for a large share of the global economy. Vice President Joe Biden comes with a long career, serving as a U.S. Senator from Delaware for nearly four decades, the highest-ranking member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Obama’s second-in-command. While that level of government tenure is not something to dismiss easily, the presidential presumptive will have to tactfully consider the next steps towards refitting US-GCC policy.
It is speculated that the Biden administration would lean on many who served in the Obama administration. The former administration was a body of public servants who understood that national interests are not mutually exclusive with international cooperation. This suggests that Vice President Biden’s advisors would champion a U.S. foreign policy strategy in the post-Trump era that leans strongly on Washington’s traditional allies, namely America’s European partners in NATO.
President-elect Biden would be stepping into the presidency in a post-pandemic era. Thus, it is highly likely that his White House would address this issue head-on by investing in international institutions and initiatives aimed at dealing with pandemics, global warming, and transformations driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. But what would this international cooperation mean for the Arab Gulf states — namely the UAE and Saudi Arabia?
As a longtime defender and advocate for Israel, Vice President Biden has praised the recently announced peace treaty between the UAE and Israel. The normalization of ties between these two countries – and other Gulf nations that may follow suit – has the potential to ensure a steady flow of sophisticated military technology from the U.S. to the Gulf. Substantial arms exports from the United States to Saudi Arabia and the UAE will keep a certain level of U.S. engagement in the region, even if a Biden administration is less flexible with regards to arms sales than President Trump.
American policymakers and business executives certainly understand that a strong Gulf alliance is predicated on the direction of Washington’s regional policies. The Gulf countries also need far more than simple rhetorical reassurance from Washington. The crux of the tenuous relationship between the UAE and Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration centered around the two Gulf nations’ deep frustration over U.S. policy toward détente with Iran, which the GCC considered a sellout of their interests and well-being. It is evident, now more than ever, that a reset of the strategic partnership in the region is urgently needed to advance the enduring relationship, without exaggerating the abandonment dilemma.
Demetrius L. Jones is a project manager and global affairs administrator who worked in the Gulf region and the U.S.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.