The ball is in Biden’s court; he can do much to incentivize democratic development in the GCC states, or, by adhering to traditional U.S. positions, he can do much to prevent it
For much of the modern history of the Gulf, the Arab states of the region – particularly the six countries joined together in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – have had an enduring, unique, and fruitful relationship with the United States. After the decline of British influence and its withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971, the Arab states quickly learned that American hegemony could greatly stabilize the region, and the nature of this relationship later formed the determinants of Gulf political action at the international level. The Gulf states’ strong relationship with the United States has helped to strengthen American influence in the Middle East; conversely, the United States has in some ways guaranteed stability and control for the Gulf states, making their relationship a mutually beneficial one.
The Hidden Costs of America’s Friendship
However, it is clear by now that the alliance with America has come at a cost: the Gulf countries have faced a multitude of political and diplomatic problems because of their relationship with the United States. The alliance has made them subject to criticism from their opponents in the region, in addition to internal criticism from the part of Gulf society that was uncomfortable with the growing American influence in the region. The Gulf governments have found it difficult to avoid or play down the symbolism represented by the United States as the sponsor of imperialism and capitalism in the world, in addition to its controversial and unpopular positions on Middle Eastern issues, the Palestinian issue in particular.
The American intervention in the first Gulf War of 1990-91, saving Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion, gave recognition of the legitimacy and importance of the relationship between the GCC and the United States. Despite the profound change that this experience brought about to the minds and hearts of the Gulf communities, however, the positive image of the United States soon dimmed as Washington resumed its advocacy for positions that were biased against the Arabs’ interests, such as advocacy for Western imperialism and unconditional support for Israel’s actions against the Palestinians.
The Arab Spring gave the citizens of the Gulf another reason for uncertainty about the role of the United States. In its earliest days, America supported the democratic movements growing across the region; however, once it realized its strategic interests were at stake, it began to ignore its allies’ authoritarian crackdowns and a broader return to tyranny. Against this backdrop, the Arab citizens soon lost any hope to correct their flawed systems of government; consequently, they lost confidence in the United States, whose support for authoritarian leaders ultimately broke the democratic movement.
After the demise of the Arab Spring revolutions, the United States continued presenting itself as an ally of authoritarian regimes in the name of stability in the GCC and across the Arab world. Subsequently, crackdowns on activists and democratic movements increased. During President Trump’s term, overt U.S. support for authoritarianism reinforced the negative stereotype of the United States among the Arab citizens as protector of dictators, which shifted public opinion into an increased protest to dealing with the U.S. as an ally. Despite this, the Arab and Gulf citizens continued to pay close attention to American reports, procedures, and positions on issues related to human rights, democracy, and the conditions of the Arab world.
The Arab Street Still Hopes for U.S. Support
Even after the Arab Spring, however, there was hope for an improved American position on human rights without being implicit in covering up violations committed by the Arab regimes. Because of the international nature of American power, and the close relationship between the United States and many authoritarian governments in the Gulf, American journalistic reports, congressional testimony, and statements from the U.S. government were more influential to the Gulf states’ authorities than the efforts of thousands of local activists within the Gulf countries themselves. The reason is clear: the governments and authorities are not as concerned with local movements, which can be suppressed, as they are with the American position, which has the real power to create change. Consequently, the authorities always listen to the Americans and pay attention to their comments to a much higher degree than the internal situation, which they are capable of silencing through arrest, imprisonment, or exile.
In this regard, the Kuwaiti experience seems to be an important one to be compared to. The Kuwaiti case is the perfect example of the influence of the United States on the Gulf states’ domestic politics. Kuwait has the only elected parliament in the GCC states and has an active political life and a culture of debate. Amidst its current political and democratic crisis, the street remains on the lookout for American reports, discussions, and positions. This is confirmed by what happened recently: following an American report that accused a prominent political figure of involvement in corruption and money laundering, he was arrested. In this case, American reporting led to serious accountability.
The Kuwaiti street has become more convinced of the importance of U.S. government and media reports, especially those that might suggest the coming of demands that put pressure on authorities to hold powerful figures accountable. The belief in the importance of U.S. intervention in this regard, or in terms of protecting and strengthening democracy and human rights, has become one of the things that concerns the street now; U.S. policy has even affected the nature of domestic movements.
The Biden administration has not so far devoted significant attention to the situation in Kuwait or the other GCC states. However, it is important to note that, while broader concerns about the U.S. presence in the Middle East have continued, the Kuwaiti “street” has associated the U.S. position with democratic values, human rights, and opposition to corruption. This change in the societal attitude towards the American role is not entirely clear, and is probably not due to the increase in confidence in the American role, since the U.S. official position has hardly given any Kuwaiti a reason to be more optimistic. In spite of this, though, increased trust in America’s role, and pressure from the United States, has become the only option for the Arabs seeking reform in the face of the weakened and distorted tools of change and the limited options for pro-democratic forces in the face of the strong networks of corruption and the targeting of active youth voices.
This presents the Biden administration with an interesting challenge. President Biden campaigned on the platform of human rights and democracy and opposition to dictatorship. Spurning the traditional U.S. model of engagement with authoritarians, he criticized several authoritarian rulers, including both America’s adversaries and its nominal allies. These steps might have antagonized some GCC leaders, but have encouraged support for the United States among pro-democracy Arab publics. One way or another, the ball is in Biden’s court; he can do much to incentivize democratic development in the GCC states, or, by adhering to traditional U.S. positions, he can do much to prevent it.
Dr. Abdul Hadi Nasser Al-Ajmi has held many academic and research positions since 2004. He is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts, Kuwait University, as well as the Head of History Department and the Deanship of Consulting, Training, and Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.