The Gulf is currently engulfed with multiple dimensions of conflict and instability. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are still at odds with Qatar (as well as with Turkey and Iran) about leadership in the region and the role of political Islam in the Muslim world. The US is pursuing a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran that has repercussions throughout the Gulf and the Levant, especially in Iran and Iraq, and is driving Tehran into the arms of Beijing and Moscow. Global warming, declining oil prices, youth bulges, and COVID-19 are challenging the ability of Gulf states to maintain their social contract: authoritarian stability and material prosperity in exchange for political quiescence.
US Interests and Disinterest in the Region
Disillusioned with the Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) interventions against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein respectively, the United States is seeking to reduce its commitments in the Middle East. President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011, only to return in 2014 to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. President Trump withdrew most US troops from Syria in late 2019. He has reduced troops in Iraq and has threatened to close the US embassy in Baghdad unless it is given better protection from Iranian-backed militias attacks. He wants US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. But US forces remain in Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Bahrain (in addition to Jordan and Turkey).
What interests does this still substantial presence in and near the Gulf serve? My colleagues at the Middle East Institute identify five main US interests in the Middle East: 1) Maintaining the free flow of energy and trade to world markets; 2) Countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction; 3) Combating terrorist groups; 4) Standing with partners and allies; and 5) Competing and countering the influence of rival great powers. These interests are broadly agreed among Democrats and Republicans, even in the current polarized American political scene, though how to achieve them is the subject of sometimes sharp partisan debate.
Priorities have shifted from the past. Energy and terrorism are no longer at the top. While it is still in the interest of the US to maintain the free flow of energy and trade, the US has become a net oil exporter. Most Gulf exports of oil and gas go to Asia, which has become a freeloader on US military deployments that amount to 12-15% of the Pentagon’s budget. China, Japan, South Korea, and India should be carrying more of the burden of protecting their own energy supplies. Combating terrorist groups has proven to be a whack-a-mole game. Suppressing them in one country or region causes them to pop up elsewhere, often in greater numbers and with greater lethality. In any event, foreign terrorists since 9/11 have killed many fewer Americans than homegrown extremists, mostly white Christians. American partners and allies in the Middle East increasingly prefer to protect themselves, using a lot of US technology but few US troops.
Redefined Washington Priorities in the Middle East
Higher priority in Washington now goes to countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction and limiting the influence of rival powers in the Middle East. Washington has pursued nonproliferation mainly through coercion, using military threats, covert action, and economic sanctions against adversaries Iran and Syria. Presidents Obama and Trump have hesitated to employ overt military action against Iran. They have preferred cyber and other surreptitious attacks with a veneer of deniability. Washington continues to turn a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear weapons and Turkey’s nuclear ambitions. Trump has even encouraged Saudi acquisition of nuclear technology, which could enable Riyadh to match the weapons programs of other countries in the Middle East.
Countering the influence of rival powers has risen sharply in recent years as a US interest worldwide, due to challenges from Moscow and Beijing. Russia seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, intervened in Syria to save Bashar al Assad in 2015, and has sold arms to Turkey and some Gulf Arab states. Chinese energy demand, Beijing’s growing ability to project naval power, and a willingness to finance infrastructure loom large in the Gulf. Iran has a lot to gain if Moscow and Beijing defy or circumvent US sanctions.
Implications of the Election on Future US Policy in the Gulf
The problem for the United States is that none of its interests in the Gulf are well-served by coercion, but neither are they well-served by withdrawal, which hurts partners and allies while opening new opportunities for rivals. The US needs to ensure that reducing its commitment to the Gulf can be achieved without endangering friends and encouraging adversaries or unleashing a regional arms race.
The November 3rd election will have a big impact on how Washington pursues its objectives. President Trump is impatient and transactional. He will likely pull the plug on US troops in places that are not prepared to protect them (Iraq and Syria) or will not pay for them. The UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel in part to ensure continued American commitment to their security. Oman and Qatar may be willing to do likewise. Israeli security technology is helping the Arab Gulf states maintain their autocratic rule, and Israel benefits from being able to reduce security threats.
Trump invented this triangular (US/Israel/Gulf) “Abrahamic” transaction but Biden supports it. Where they differ is on Palestine and on governance in the Arab world. Biden continues to favor a two-state outcome for Israel and Palestine, whereas Trump and his Israeli partners seek to eliminate any possibility of creating a Palestinian state. Biden would be less accepting than Trump of Gulf human rights abuses and push harder for a better deal for the Palestinians than the one Trump has offered.
Biden and Trump also differ on the value of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran nuclear deal), but both aim to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Having withdrawn from the JCPOA, Trump’s approach is “maximum pressure,” mainly through unilateral economic sanctions but also including the threat of kinetic action. He aims to force Iran back to the negotiating table to negotiate a “better deal” that would include regional issues, missiles, and extending and expanding the nuclear agreement. Biden wants to negotiate the same issues but is prepared to lift some sanctions to incentivize a return to the status quo ante: Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Whichever candidate wins, Iran is unlikely to change course before its June 2021 election.
A Much-Needed Regional Security Framework
Neither Trump nor Biden rules out war with Iran, which would be catastrophic for the Gulf states. Qatar has the most to lose, as freshly renovated Doha is close to Iran and shares the world’s largest gas field with the Islamic Republic. The Al Udeid air base will need to be emptied of Americans and their warplanes if war becomes imminent, as it is well within firing range of Iran’s missiles. Doha naturally opposes war with Iran and will try to remain neutral if it happens. Nor is war an attractive proposition for Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama. No Arab Gulf state wants Iran to get nuclear weapons. They will all cooperate to prevent it, but they also will not want to risk joining Israel and the US in an overt war with Iran whose outcome may be predictable but whose consequences are not likely to be good for the Gulf.
President Trump is a welcome figure in the Arab Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia. He has shielded the Kingdom and its Crown Prince from accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and continued the Obama Administration’s support for the Yemen war, despite bipartisan discomfort in the US. Because of his human rights commitments, Biden will be less favored. He will not be sword dancing in Riyadh.
The two presidents share the desire to reduce US commitments in the Middle East and the interest in preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Several of their predecessors also had these goals and failed to achieve them. The reason is all too clear: the Americans have relied too heavily on coercion and too little on diplomacy. The United States has enormous destructive military and economic power. But that cannot build what is needed: a regional security architecture that will reduce threat perceptions in all the Gulf states, Iran included, decrease incentives to develop nuclear weapons, and prevent encroachments by rival powers. This framework will require a stronger diplomatic nexus of mutual understanding, restraint, and respect. Continued low-level conflict, or a real war, will make that much more difficult to achieve. The Gulf is not a military challenge, but rather a diplomatic one.
Professor Daniel Serwer is the Director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also affiliated as a Scholar with the Middle East Institute.