If one follows politics in Washington today, it should come as no surprise that the Middle East was not mentioned in the last presidential debate. Despite the furious crossfire between President Donald Trump and Vice President Joe Biden, there is a common understanding. This year, the presidential nominees of both parties are promising to end “forever wars”. In addition to the fact that a viral outbreak still rages in America and the public has grown impatient with conflicts in the Middle East, U.S. strategic interests have changed in the Gulf. Middle East oil has become less politically and economically relevant (albeit maintaining global oil supply is still important). Terrorism has become less of an imminent threat. The only lingering major strategic concern is nonproliferation. A renegotiated JCPOA could curtail the Iranian nuclear threat more effectively than the current “maximum pressure campaign”.
Washington has been doing some “soul searching” about its role in the Middle East. Whether it is retrenchment, reduction of forces, or a complete withdrawal, discussions with the policymaking community for the last decade have been centered on stepping back from the region since Obama took office. In recent years the U.S. has been walking a fine line that has displayed restraint without retrenchment. Under both administrations, there is a strong possibility of a drawdown, but no one has defined how that would look.
Intersections and Divergences in Trump-Biden Gulf Policy
The two differ mostly on Yemen and Iran, two critical conflicts for the GCC states. First, Trump supports the war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthis as part of his maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Biden doesn’t. It will be interesting to watch how a Biden administration will further withdraw U.S. support of the Yemen war. According to a conversation I had with General Joseph Votel (Former Commander of the U.S. Central Command), in his opinion, there are limited military options left on the table to decrease the U.S.’s role in Yemen. The U.S. has stopped refueling jet fighters of the Saudi-led coalition striking Yemen and significantly reduced intelligence support according to most news reports. On the other hand, it continues to sell a variety of modern munitions and allow U.S. military and company technical support to Saudi forces. Also, the U.S. Navy participates in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition blockade of the Yemeni coast to prevent Iranian resupply of the Houthis with weapons and missiles. A Biden administration could suspend any of these activities as a signal to Riyadh.
Second, both Trump and Biden aspire to check Iran as a nuclear power. Trump supports the continuation of a maximum pressure strategy with Iran while Biden believes a comprehensive diplomatic effort remains the best means to “verifiably cut off all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb”.
Both Biden and Trump tend to agree on Gulf State “normalization” with Israel and to a certain extent on resolving the Gulf crisis, though the latter does not appear high on either candidate’s priority list. In keeping with traditional U.S. foreign policy, both Biden and Trump categorically agree Israel is a key ally and will welcome with open arms any Arab state’s normalization with their esteemed partner – although they differ in their stance on a two-state solution and in their relationship with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. By supporting Trump so enthusiastically, Netanyahu has likely burnt his bridges with the Democratic Party. In regards to resolving the GCC crisis, we can expect more of the same – mediation without much muscle behind it. Trump has recently supported mediation to end the blockade, although he initially rhetorically greenlighted the blockade. Biden has not paid much attention to the Gulf crisis, but I suspect he will push for more diplomacy and mediation.
Sword Dancing in Saudi is Probably Not on Biden’s Agenda
Saudi is a paradox for any American administration’s foreign policy team. On the one hand, the U.S. has important strategic interests vested in the kingdom, yet it often collides with what would be typified as “American values”.
Trump has displayed hardline support for Saudi Arabia, more specifically for Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS). He has safeguarded MBS in his quest to consolidate power and shielded him against his own missteps. Riyadh, I can assure you, will not be one of the first countries a Biden administration would visit, nor will Biden be as lenient as Trump on MBS’s missteps. There could be a scaling back of military support to Riyadh and it is highly likely Biden would not push arms sales-forward without securing congressional approval. Democrats in Congress would be less prone to vote for arms sales to Saudi Arabia. At the least, Biden would be less tolerant of Saudi adventurism and more critical of human rights violations. Biden and Trump both know that the price war between Riyadh and Moscow wreaked havoc for the U.S. oil industry and hurt the fracking industry in particular. Trump supports fracking while Biden is not fully on board with the fracking industry.
To repair fences with a Biden administration, Saudi Arabia could choose to normalize relations with Israel. However, this would not go down well with Saudi public opinion and especially with King Salman’s attitude. Moreover, normalization could undermine Saudi Arabia’s position in the Muslim world as “the custodian of the two holy mosques”. Nonetheless, Saudi has been flirting with the idea, displaying hints reminiscent of the UAE’s pre-normalization days. It was no coincidence that Prince Bandar bin Sultan acknowledged the normative prerogative of the Palestinian cause yet placed a strong emphasis on how Saudi Arabia should prioritize its own interests when it comes to Israel. A drawdown of the Yemen war or perhaps less costly options such as ending the Gulf crisis or releasing high profile women activists could be cards on the table for Saudis to get out of the woods with a Biden administration.
Overall, if Saudi had a choice – Saudi would vote for Trump! A Trump victory would also empower MBS to continue the consolidation of his power at home and achieve his foreign policy ambitions against Iran.
The UAE Has Less Work to Do than Saudi Arabia if Biden Wins
The UAE leans right towards Trump but has deftly diversified its alliance portfolio enough to mitigate any direct pushback from the Democrats. One cannot ignore the UAE’s systematic and disciplined longstanding lobbying efforts in Washington where it has honed in on members of Congress and the Trump administration, media outlets, think-tanks, and non-profits. Also, let’s not ignore how normalization with Israel scores goody points with both sides of the aisle.
Trump brings more comfort to the UAE than Biden. Although UAE has strong business ties with Iran, it is undeniable that it was unhappy with Obama’s handling of Iran and is keen on meeting its strategic interests in Yemen. It emphatically pushes for a continuation of the blockade against Qatar. All of which would be more likely under a Trump administration.
As aforementioned, Biden has vowed to end the U.S. support for the Yemen war. Although the UAE technically has withdrawn from its direct role in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, it still has indirect engagement and vested interests in the war. The fact that a Biden administration would emphasize diplomacy might collide with the UAE’s hardline stance on the GCC crisis and weaken Washington’s leverage in resolving regional tensions.
The UAE’s quest for the F-35 fighter plane remains elusive during the election season. If Biden were to win and a blue wave materializes in both chambers of Congress, there would be some pushback on the decision to proceed with the sale. Just last week, Democrat senators have been pushing delays of the sale by introducing new legislation, the Secure F-35 Exports Act of 2020, which would require the White House to provide a report detailing the technical risks of selling the F-35 to a non-NATO country or one that is not considered an ally. Even if this legislation does not pass, the pipeline for procurement until arrival can take several years. For Israel – the US’s closest partner in the Middle East – it took years for it to land on their territory. Therefore, aside from the long drawn out process, the F-35 sale would need to undergo hurdles of attaining approval of the next president, achieve congressional approval, and it must be determined that Israel will still maintain a qualitative military edge. In fact, the Israeli position on the sale that would normally make or break it appears confusing.
In sum, the UAE would prefer Trump as his Gulf policy aligns with their strategic interests. Yet the UAE will manage well with the Democrats, though perhaps not as well as under a Trump administration.
Small GCC States Never Put their Eggs in One Basket
Like the UAE, Qatar has conducted outreach to both the Democrats and Republicans. It was no coincidence that Nancy Pelosi spoke at their national day or Lindsey Graham and Ivanka Trump were at their 2019 Doha Forum. Doha is hedging its bets, Oman and Kuwait are no exception.
As small states, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman’s most important foreign policy tool is diplomacy. They find seizing opportunities in the global governance system and diversifying alliances as the best way to secure their interests. Qatar has cultivated amicable relations with the Trump administration and considering its precarious situation with its neighbors cannot afford tensions with Washington. Yet Qatar, along with Kuwait and Oman, have been demonstrably uncomfortable with an unhinged Saudi Arabia and UAE that seem to have benefitted from their remarkably close ties with the Trump administration.
Unlike Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Doha and Muscat did not support the U.S.’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Moreover, Qatar and Oman have a history of hosting mediation talks and I think would be keen on facilitating a Biden administration’s negotiations with Tehran.
Let’s not forget that Oman has been in many regards ignored by the Trump administration whereas it was front and center to Gulf policy in Obama’s administration. Until Trump’s pull-out, the Omanis looked to the JCPOA as a crowning achievement. Biden’s willingness to engage Iran in diplomacy, and especially his disdain for Saudi Arabia and opposition to the war in Yemen fit squarely in Qatar’s foreign policy, but also bring comfort to Oman and Kuwait.
If Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait had a vote in the 2020 elections, they would probably vote for Biden. But these states have never put their eggs in one basket.
Trust Deficit Continues from Obama to Trump
Historically, the GCC states have preferred Republican presidents. The traditional Republican platform aligns more closely with the Arab Gulf state’s interests. Republicans usually prefer increased military spending and are hard on security, both important to GCC interests. Additionally, the capitalist predilection of less government intervention into markets tie well with GCC states that use paycheck diplomacy to win hearts. It is noteworthy to mention that George H. W. Bush saved Kuwait (and the Gulf states collectively) from the Iraqi invasion in 1990, while George W. Bush finished his father’s business by removing Saddam Hussain whom was viewed as a major threat to GCC states. In retrospect, however, most of the GCC states appear to have had second thoughts about the wisdom of removing Saddam and empowering Iran in Iraq.
Obama certainly had a trust deficit with the GCC states. He appeared inward-focused on pulling the U.S. from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression and his era marks the beginning of the US’s decreased role in the Gulf. He was the architect of the JCPOA, the Iran deal that angered some of the GCC states. In their view, the deal that came with little consultation with Arab Gulf states and fell short of addressing the issue of Iran spreading its tentacles throughout the Middle East.
Although Trump’s abandonment of Obama-era policies supporting human rights and democratic reform in the Arab world were welcomed in the Gulf capitals, he has perpetrated a sense of unreliability in the region. His emphasis on authoritarian personalities rather than long-term strategic goals caused uneasiness across the Arabian Peninsula. He was swift in pulling out of the Iran deal and forceful in slapping sanctions on Iran, yet in 2019 when Saudi oil facilities were hit by Houthis (or as some would argue Iran), his response was to state that they did not affect U.S. national interests.
Gulf States are Split on their Preferences
The current regional context starkly differs from the 90s or the early 2000s. With the evolving role of the U.S. in the Gulf region, Arab Gulf states have jockeyed for power and raised their profile in regional affairs. The Republican party led by Trump has given Saudi Arabia and the UAE literally blank checks to act as they want, something that is highly appreciated in their capitals but undoubtedly makes their neighbors uncomfortable. Therefore, today in contrast to their traditional preference for Republicans, GCC states are split – Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait would be more comfortable with a Biden administration, while Saudi, UAE, and Bahrain lean more towards Trump. All players have a strong chance of cozying up to the Biden administration, Saudi is the only one that remains questionable. But I suspect it will manage.
Notably, all of the GCC states have diversified their alliances in recent years in an attempt to move away from Washington’s hegemony. They have sought their own foreign policy independence by bolstering strategic, military, and economic ties with Russia, China, and European nations. More important than great power competition in the Gulf, there is a salient rise in intra-regional alliances as a deterrence mechanism against each states’ threat perceptions. Qatar’s alliance with Turkey developed in reaction to threats by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The move towards normalization with Israel is no exception to this strategy. It cannot be discounted that formalizing relations with Israel are based partly on mutual mistrust of Iran and equally a sign of the continued loss of faith in the U.S.’s security role in the Gulf no matter who becomes the president next week. However, the occupant of the White House is still intrinsically linked to the future of the Gulf and leaders in the region are certainly sitting on the edge of their seats as election results will trickle in next week.
Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum and a Professorial Lecturer at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.