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Candidate Profile: What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Could Mean for the Gulf

Looking to replicate the unexpected successes of his primary challenge in the 2016 Democratic nominating contest, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has announced that he will be launching a second bid for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. While this time around he will have to share the progressive lane with several other anti-establishment Democrats, Sanders benefits from the ways in which his prior campaign already necessitated that he beef-up his foreign policy credentials. Specifically in regards to the Gulf, while the foreign policy of several of his counterparts seems limited to scorning the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Sanders has a familiarity with the region that extends across the other states of the Arabian littoral. Still, in most recent memory Sanders’ foreign policy achievements are related to Saudi Arabia, and the Senator cemented his spot in history by becoming the first lawmaker to successfully pass a measure invoking the controversial War Powers Resolution. According to campaign aids, the application of a “progressive foreign policy” will be a central element to his 2020 message.[1] Should a Sanders Administration become a reality, Gulf states should anticipate American pressure to become more responsible for the security of their own region.

Like other potential 2020 candidate Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders was serving in Congress in 1991 as the nation weighed military action against Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Also like Biden, at the time Sanders criticized President George H.W Bush’s decision to liberate Kuwait, a country which he referred to alongside Saudi Arabia as being “feudalistic dictatorships.”[2] Sanders doubled down on his anti-interventionism in 2002 by voting against resolutions authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq. Sanders frequently touted his vote against the unpopular War in 2016 election as a wedge issue against Hillary Clinton saying of her qualifications to be Commander-in-Chief, “I don’t think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous War in Iraq.”[3] During 2016, Sanders too directed criticism towards Clinton for her namesake foundation having accepted donations from foreign governments, saying of Saudi donations to the charity, “..I have a problem when a sitting Secretary of State and a foundation run by her husband collects millions of dollars from foreign governments, governments which are dictatorships.”[4]

Independent of his critique of Clinton, since having gained a wider platform in 2016 Sanders has become a leading Senate voice in reprimanding Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the humanitarian tragedy in Yemen. Sanders was the primary democratic sponsor for Senate Resolution 54, a bill invoking the War Powers Resolution in order to curtail US involvement in Yemen. After the bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support Sanders took the time to recognize the unprecedented-nature of his accomplishment saying “the historic importance of today is not only moving the United States out of that horrific war, but is having the country see that their elected representatives are about to take back their constitutional responsibilities on the issue of war, one of the most important functions that the United States Congress has.”[5] While lack of experience in the foreign policy realm was a perceived weakness of Senator Sanders in his run against Secretary Clinton, Sanders has since beefed-up his foreign policy bona fides, and can point to this history making legislative maneuver to ensure that the same concerns are not leveled against his candidacy in 2020.

As mentioned, Sanders has utilized his newfound perch a top the Democratic Party in order to gain exposure within other Gulf related issues. During the previous presidential election Sanders lambasted Qatar for investing upwards of $200 billion on preparing the emirate for hosting the 2022 World Cup, saying that the money should be better spent fighting ISIS. His later remark in the same speech, “Wealthy and powerful Muslim nations in the region can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect the United States to do their work for them,” can be interpreted as a rebuke of each of the Gulf nations’ spending priorities.[6] He directed a similar criticism toward Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in regards to Syrian refugee resettlement implying that the two oil-wealthy nations have not done their fair share in assisting displaced persons.[7] Both sets of comments indicate that Sanders expects the Gulf states to have a more pronounced presence in funding and executing strategies to improve Middle Eastern security.

In sum, Sanders represents a significant threat to the status quo of US-Saudi relations, and if ultimately elected president would almost certainly use executive authority to halt weapons sales and security assistance to the Kingdom. Additionally, given past statements it is likely Sanders would expect America’s Gulf allies to more prominently shoulder the burden of conflict and humanitarian disasters within the Middle East. Approaching 2020 with a wide fundraising and voter-turnout network, it would be a mistake for the Gulf states to underestimate the possibility that the Vermont Senator is ultimately able to implement his Gulf policy vision.



[1] Holly Otterbein, “Sanders Launches Second Bid for Presidency,” Politico, February 19, 2019.

[2] Bernie Sanders, “Bernie Sanders Speaking About the Persian Gulf War in 1991,” C-SPAN, January 17, 1991.

[3] Trevor Tim, “Bernie Sanders’ Focus on Clinton’s Iraq War Vote isn’t Harping – its Necessary,” The Guardian, April 11, 2016.

[4] Kyle Cheney, “Conflict of Interest: Sanders Assails Clinton Over Foundation,” Politico, June 5, 2016.

[5] Bernie Sanders, “Sanders Statement After Senate Passes Yemen War Powers Resolution,” Office of Senator Bernie Sanders, December 13, 2018.

[6] Edwin Rios, “Bernie Sanders Says Qatar Should Spend its Money Fighting ISIS, Not Hosting the World Cup,” Mother Jones, November 19, 2015.

[7] Rebecca Kaplan, “Bernie Sanders: I’m Concerned About GOP War Talk,” CBS News, September 13, 2015.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy

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