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How A Sanders Administration Could Redefine Pillars of U.S.- Gulf Relations: Defense, Security, and Petro-Diplomacy

If Sanders is president in 2021, the Gulf states should brace themselves for the United States to officially untether itself from the Gulf’s regional security architecture. Although President Trump has been arguably meager in his deterrence assistance, past statements and actions indicate that a hypothetical President Sanders would make this break much more stark. Specifically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have particular reason to be concerned by the expected decrease in U.S. security assistance, a Sanders-stance that likely delights Iran.

Ironically, despite the stark contrasts in their respective demeanors, President Trump and Senator Sanders arguably represent two sides of the same coin, approaching populist politics from opposite ends of populism’s political spectrum. On one hand, President Trump’s isolationist policies are rooted in a populism informed by nativist and nationalist stances. In contrast, Bernie Sanders’ status as a populist non-interventionist is born out of an emphasis on class disparities and the human rights of workers. Trump’s unexpected clinching of the American Presidency in 2016 should have been a signal that an unconventional, antiestablishment platform could see equal success within the Democratic Party, and that a candidate as unique as Sanders would have appeal among American voters. Still, despite their obvious differences, it is worth examining how their shared anti-establishment dispositions predict how a prospective Sanders Administration may enact foreign policy in the Gulf region.

Before delving into the candidates’ respective policies, it is important to clearly define the nuance between isolationism and non-interventionism, as understanding this difference is critical to understanding the distinction between Trump and Sanders. While not all non-interventionists are isolationists, the categorization ‘isolationist’ de facto implies non-interventionism. As it pertains to President Trump, his denials of climate change and subsequent withdrawal from the internationally crafted Paris Climate Accord, as well as frequent disparaging remarks concerning the United Nations, are examples of his penchant for isolationism. Importantly, Bernie opposes these positions of Trump wholeheartedly. Yet, both are united in their rhetorical opposition to “endless wars,” a crucial tenant of non-interventionism. At least as far as it pertains to foreign policy, both candidates have challenged American exceptionalism, albeit from two different perspectives. President Trump has seemingly replaced “value-based” aspects of foreign policy with a transactionalist policy approach, arguing that the U.S. should not be the “policemen of the world.[1]” Bernie too has shunned ideas of American global supremacy, however differs in that he pushes for a foreign policy that swaps dominance for partnership, putting organizations such as the United Nations at the heart of his vision for a collaborative international order.[2] While both decenter the United States as the linchpin of the liberal world order, teasing out the differences between these two related ideologies aids in forecasting how a Sanders Administration may differ from that of President Trump in the Gulf.

First Trump-Sanders Divergence: Iran and the U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf

In 2016, to the surprise of many, President Trump made it a point to visit Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit. Such a decision is unusual compared to past presidents, who usually have visited allies (of which Saudi Arabia officially is not) such as those in Europe.[1] Despite his aberration, it is part of what makes President Trump’s policy unique, particularly that he has peculiarly made both Israel and Saudi Arabia the dual pillars of his Middle East policy. While this may seem strange, observers of regional politics know that there are in fact strong mutual interests between President Trump, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The level of both Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s desire to unravel President Obama’s Middle East policy paralleled that of President Trump. Particularly, opposition to the Obama Administration centered on issues with the Iran deal, which was heavily chastised by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

Should Bernie Sanders move into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come 2021, it is almost guaranteed that Saudi Arabia (or any GCC nation) will not be his first foreign visit. In fact, under a Bernie administration, the Iran Deal would be, according to him, reinstated on day one of his presidency. Specifically, he commented that he would “build upon it with additional measures to further block any path to a nuclear weapon, restrain Iran’s offensive actions in the region and forge a new strategic balance in the Middle East.” He doubled down on this policy in the tense aftermath of the Soleimani killing, saying diplomacy with Iran is important to avoid “another endless war.”[3]

Another value-driven aspect of Sanders’ foreign policy is his predilection against the use of economic sanctions as a policy tool, foreshadowing a significant likelihood that Sanders would lift or ease sanctions that had previously been placed on Iran. For example, in 2017 when the Senate passed sanctions against Russia and Iran, Sanders was one of only two senators to vote against the legislation.[4] More recently at the February Nevada Democratic Presidential Debate, in reference to Saudi Arabia and Iran, Sanders declared that he would make regional actors go into the same room to work-out their differences saying, “We can bring the Saudis and Iranians together, tell them that we’re sick and tired as a nation [of] spending trillions on endless wars…They’re going to have to get their act together. And we have the resources to help bring that about.”[5]

In such a scenario, the incentive structure for de-escalation between Iran and the Gulf states will be increasingly probable due to an environment of pre-existing low confidence in the U.S.’ willingness to engage militarily in order to protect the GCC. This was made abundantly clear following President Trump’s inaction following attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Moreover, should Iran be emboldened by the easing of sanctions, it would not be surprising if the Gulf states line-up in a united front, reemphasizing the institutional role of the GCC as a force deterrent, mirroring their post-Iranian revolution response in the early 1980s.

Yet, as the U.S. military distances from the region (especially under a Sanders Administration) , the GCC states may intensify their jockeying for power, thus heightening intra-GCC conflict. Senator Sanders clearly recognizes this risk as exemplified in his quoting of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”[6]

Iraq is one area Sanders often cites as a ‘case-and-point’ of this misplaced power, and has repeatedly voted for a withdrawal from Iraq.[7] Similarly, President Trump has rhetorically displayed a preference to withdraw American troops from Iraq, yet when the Iraqi parliament stress-tested his rhetoric and voted for U.S. troops to leave, Trump intransigently refused withdrawal. Ironically, the opposite happened with the Obama administration when the U.S. attempted to withdraw American forces and the Iraqis ostensibly refused to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).[8] In contrast to both previous administrations, if historical votes of Sanders are an indicator of his foreign policy, there is a high likelihood he would make it a priority to withdraw many American forces from Iraq and decrease the U.S.’ military presence in the region.

Minimizing the U.S.’s presence in the Gulf region is not a new policy stance of Sanders. As early as the 1990s Sanders voted against the Gulf War, citing worries that expenditures on Gulf conflicts would contribute to America’s debt and detract from addressing domestic issues he thought were more pressing such as healthcare, education, and jobs.[9] [10] Therefore, if Sanders were to become president, the GCC states would likely need to find alternative partners for the region’s current security architecture.

Countries that have the military means to replace the U.S., such as China, are unlikely given Beijing’s long espoused non-interventionist principles, not to mention its dire need of more diverse hydrocarbon resources. Therefore, China is in no position to assert itself against any camp of the oil wealthy states in the Gulf region. As for Russia, its strategy and tactics are incompatible with the Gulf states and their interests. India remains a wildcard, however, Gulf leaders remain skeptical of entrusting military security to a nation whose expatriate citizens comprise a large portion of the GCC’s populace. The lack of a viable alternative ‘superpower’ means a continued drift towards regionalization, such as the recent strategic partnerships between Qatar and Turkey (and Kuwait to a certain extent), or the bilateral agreement between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and perhaps a more tacit partnership between Oman and Iran.

Second Trump-Sanders Divergence: Foreign Policy for the Highest Bidder

Part of Trump’s proclivity to focus his Middle East policy on the wealthy fossil-fuel rich Gulf states can be credited to his identity as a businessman, focused on the bottom-line. Understandably then, he has placed transactionalism at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, prioritizing the political interests of wealthier states over those that are poor. This was made evidently clear when President Trump made an exception to his isolationism, and sent U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia in exchange for $500 million.[11] It is due to these reasons that President Trump is willing to overlook events such as the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, including his vetoing of last year’s War Powers Resolution (ironically sponsored by Senator Sanders) to limit congressionally unauthorized U.S. support to the Arab Coalition in that war. In contrast, Sanders’ class-centric philosophy arguably extends to combatting global inequality, and one of his stated foreign policy objectives is to “end U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.”[12]

Not only does Sanders diverge from Trump on the Yemen War, but he is also abundantly clear regarding his differing position on wealth being an influencer on foreign policy. In a recent foreign policy speech Sanders, referring to foreign leaders in general, commented, “Interestingly, many of these leaders are also deeply connected to a network of multi-billionaire oligarchs who see the world as their economic plaything.”[13] In making this comment, Sanders is directly criticizing economic statecraft, the very reason Arab Gulf states are able to ‘punch above their weight’ on the world stage. Sander’s criticisms against the Gulf states’ diplomatic philosophy sets up an inevitable clash between the GCC and his potential administration.

The arms trade between the U.S. and the Gulf (which is one of the world’s largest weapons import markets) is arguably the most visible example of Trump’s and Sanders’ differences on this issue. Almost from day one of his presidency, the Trump Administration has prioritized and capitalized on opportunities for American companies to lucratively sell weapons to the GCC states. Among others, since taking office President Trump has advocated for an $8 billion sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,[14] a $750 million sale to Bahrain, and a $3 billion sale to Qatar.[15] Bernie Sanders is equally cognizant of the GCC’s wealth, but instead of seeking to procure deals from it, he would starkly expect the Gulf states to shoulder the financial burden of their spending. While President Trump may have ran on a platform of isolationism, in actuality he has been quick to come to the military aid of the Arab Gulf states, a position Sanders would find untenable. This difference evidences the divergent positions of Trump and Sanders when it comes to the role of the military industrial complex.

While it remains a possibility Sanders’ rhetoric will differ from the policy he would actually implement if elected, his past statements and legislative actions indicate that he would at least question whether the U.S. should prioritize the arms trade. In fact, Sanders has repeatedly stated he will challenge the military industrial complex. On the topic, he again quoted Eisenhower, saying “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”[16] Since the Gulf states armed forces are not large, military technology remains their great equalizer to deter larger neighbors. Therefore, the U.S. military industrial complex is a significant aspect of their current security architecture and they will likely feel the brunt of the arms trade falling on Sanders’ list of priorities.[17]

Third Trump-Sanders Divergence: The Fossil Fuel Industry

A third factor differentiating Sanders from Trump are their attitudes and policies towards climate change, a topic that has real implications for the Gulf region due to its inextricable linkage with the fossil fuel industry. In a general sense, policies to fight climate change and policies to decrease the role of the fossil fuel industry go hand-in-hand. Sanders has vowed to declare climate change a national emergency and use his authority to ban the export of crude, a point of concern for the Gulf states. For the hydrocarbon wealthy states in the Gulf region, the fossil fuel industry is paramount to their economic health. Without this resource wealth, the Gulf states cannot come remotely close to sustaining their economic wellbeing. However, it is debatable how Sanders’ policy towards the fossil industry would affect economies of the Gulf states.

A major aspect of Sanders’ climate policy is the much-discussed Green New Deal. While its focus on climate change may initially seem disastrous for the Gulf states, a further look reveals that certain scenarios of the Green New Deal could raise oil prices, a boon for the Gulf states. Given the United States’ increasing energy independence, the import-limitations of the Green New Deal would have little effect on OPEC, as the U.S. is no longer relied upon as a source of demand for the cartel. However, limitations placed by the deal on the U.S.’ exporting could actually empower OPEC member nations, including the Gulf states, to fill this gap for countries that had previously relied on the importing of American crude. Still, at present, this remains a speculative scenario, and there are many dynamics that will affect the future price of crude.

It will be important to carefully watch whether President Sander’s fight against the existential threat posed by climate change would be carried out at the domestic level, or whether he would work to enforce his restrictions on a more global scale. If he opts for the latter, Sanders’ climate policy will be an area of great contention with the Gulf states. If his efforts are confined domestically, it could effectively increase global demand for Gulf oil, and transitively boost their economies.[18] The limitations placed on the U.S. energy landscape by a Sanders Administration is of course a divergence from President Trump, but also President Obama, whose focus on ushering in an era of U.S. energy independence was problematic for the Gulf due to the economic downturns they experienced due to a decrease in oil’s demand.

While fellow candidate Vice President Joe Biden’s exceptional performance in the Super-Tuesday primaries and caucuses may have complicated the narrative of Bernie Sanders’ unstoppable path to the Democrat’s nomination for President, the Vermont Senator’s impact on the direction of foreign policy within the Democratic Party has undoubtedly been disconcerting from the perspective of some of the Gulf states. Even if he fails against Biden to clinch the nomination, his impact on U.S. – Gulf policy is not nil, and Joe Biden’s reversal of position on Yemen, to his vocal criticisms of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that were echoed by dozens of other candidates, can arguably be traced to the ways in which Sanders mainstreamed these issues within the Democratic party. Regardless whether either one becomes the Democratic nominee, they will likely continue to ask big questions regarding the value of the Arab Gulf states for the U.S.’s longstanding strategic interests. However, in a Sanders Administration the pillars of U.S.-Gulf relations –defense, security and petro-diplomacy – will remain unsettled, if not, redefined significantly.


Dania Thafer (@Dania_Thafer) is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum and a Visiting Scholar at Georgetown University

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum



[1] Brett Samuels, “Trump: We Don’t Want to be the Policemen of the World,” The Hill, April 30, 2018

[2] Alex Ward, “Read: Bernie Sanders’s Big Foreign Policy Speech,” Vox, September 21, 2017.

[3] “Where Democrats Stand,” The Washington Post.

[4] Elana Schor, “Senate Votes to Impose New Sanctions on Russia and Iran,” Politico, June 15, 2017.

[5] Vakkas Dogantekin, “US: Sanders Slams Israel, S. Arabia in Democratic Debate,” Andalou Agency, February 20, 2020.

[6] Ward, 2017.

[7] “Bernie Sanders on Iraq,” FeeltheBern.org.

[8] James F. Jeffrey, “Behind the U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 2, 2014.

[9] “Bernie Sanders on Iraq.”

[10] Vice President Joe Biden also voted against this resolution.

[11] Barbara Starr, “Saudi Arabia has Paid $500M Toward the Cost of U.S. Troops in Country,” CNN, January 16, 2020.

[12] “A Comprehensive Foreign Policy,” BernieSanders.com.

[13] “Sanders Speech at SAIS: Building a Global Democratic Movement to Counter Authoritarianism,” Office of Senator Bernie Sanders, October 9, 2018.

[14] Patricia Zengerle, “Defying Congress, Trump Sets $8 Billion Plus in Weapons Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE,” Reuters, May 24, 2019.

[15] Jordain Carney, “Senate Rejects Effort to Block Trump’s Qatar, Bahrain Arms Sales,” The Hill, June 13, 2019, .

[16] President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “A Chance for Peace,” Speech, Delivered April 16, 1953.

[17] Ward, 2017.

[18] “Bernie Sanders Could Hurt the U.S. Economy with this Executive Order,” The Washington Post, February 6, 2020.

Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.

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