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The Geopolitical Implications of America’s Presidential Transition on the Gulf

In the final weeks of the Trump administration in Washington, the President is still fighting to contest the results of the election and refusing to concede to his opponent, President-elect Joe Biden. As the administration makes one attempt after another to change the election results, the rest of the world has watched carefully. While typically a winner is declared on election night, this time the world watched election results followed by dozens of court cases filed by President Trump and his lawyers. Then, on December 15, 2020, President-elect Biden was confirmed by the votes of the Electoral College, one of the last few formal steps before the inauguration.

The Trump administration leaves a negative legacy in many ways, in some quarters, Trump is perceived as failing to successfully address any pressing issue in American politics. Despite promising to balance America’s budget deficit, it has ballooned under his leadership. The unemployment rate is high, and America’s trade deficit has also grown substantially during the pandemic. Relations with Washington’s historic allies in Europe are at their worst in a half-century. Yet the biggest damage may be the polarization between liberal and conservative Americans with increasingly opposed beliefs, and some U.S. analysts fear that the country might be facing civil war due to the president’s continued contempt for democracy.

America’s Internal Challenges

These recent events might reflect the demise of American hegemony as the sole global superpower. In history, the decline of major powers usually starts from the inside rather than the outside. While the time, place, and external circumstances are different, what is happening in the United States has distinct parallels to what happened to the British Empire after the Suez Crisis: internal splits, economic deterioration, and the loss of a moral sense of national values. America’s controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be what historians will refer to as the start of the American moral crisis.

What we see on the American political scene is telling about what is happening in the country as a whole. The United States lost a sense of direction to righteousness a long time ago. What probably brought the country to its current status was a set of factors that emerged in the way Obama and Trump ruled the country. Although the two presidents came from different political parties and had very different political philosophies, they each lacked an understanding of the changes within the United States and in the world. This is similar to the British rule of Anthony Eden and Harold McMillan, who came after the Second World War and believed that it was possible to “turn back the clock of history.”

The issues that President Trump will pass to President Biden on January 20th cannot be resolved except through a political overhaul that addresses the polarization within the American society. This will require a gargantuan effort that may not be feasible for the next administration to pursue. Even at the level of the two parties, any prominent member who cooperates with the other party is “considered a traitor,” as former President Barack Obama noted in his recent book, “A Promised Land.” Obama told the story of a Republican official who had embraced him because of his success in treating the economic crisis in 2009. That member was forced to leave the party due to the harsh criticism he received.

Biden’s situation in 2021 is much worse than Obama’s was in 2009. While the Republican Party appears united among its members, Biden is facing a number of divisive movements within his party. The most powerful of these is the leftist, progressive wing of the party, some of whom signed a letter last week demanding an immediate return to the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Because of this discord, the Biden administration will likely be hesitant to make important decisions immediately. Consequently, the United States will probably stall in place for a time, due to social polarization and economic problems. As the U.S. economy flounders, China has signed a free-trade agreement with 14 other nations from Asia and the Pacific that will help each of them recover their economies faster than the US.

The free trade model is moving to the East, similar to most Western values. While the concept of free trade came from the Western liberal thought – “let him work, let him pass” – it has shifted to another place with a modern application. While Trump and his elite circle pushed the deceptive slogan, “America First,” which caused isolation and lack of confidence, Biden now puts forward America “at the head of the table.” However, this slogan is also misleading. While America now has a seat at the table of the international community, it is no longer at its head.

How to Deal with Iran

The first test for Biden’s foreign policy will be how to deal with Iran. For this, there are several scenarios. Biden might go for a quick return to that agreement without any modification, as the left wing of the Democratic Party is asking him to do. However, by doing so, Biden would be giving Iran the green light to create more chaos in the region than it already does. The second possible scenario is to return to pressuring Iran – presumably through sanctions – to negotiate its ballistic missile program and its regional policies. This scenario has the United States again facing Iranian blackmailing, and these negotiations will go on for years, probably beyond Biden’s four-year term. The ceiling for progress here is very low, due to the deep mistrust between the two sides. And if the administration is preoccupied with other international issues, such as relations with China and Russia, then little progress will be made in negotiations with Iran.

Some see the Iranian nuclear issue as an obsession for the West and the United States in particular. In fact, the priority for Iran’s neighbors is not its nuclear program, but its meddling in their internal affairs. Iran’s interference has led to serious chaos in these Arab states that will be hard to fix. For example, because of the Iranian policies in the region, the meaning of a “state” and its institutions have totally changed in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. However, the grand prize for Iran would be instability in the Gulf states, which have long opposed Tehran. America’s increasing reluctance to further commit to the Middle East’s regional struggles might encourage Tehran to do so.

Confronting this dangerous possibility leads to thinking about a response and a defense strategy made up of four linked steps. The first of these is the formation of an “Arab Wall”, composed of stable Arab countries apprehensive about Iran’s expansion. The second step must be to end the ill-conceived Gulf rift and unite the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), since the danger coming from Tehran will not spare anyone. Third is a diplomatic and intellectual presence of an Arab influence in Washington to explain the Arab position and concerns. Finally, the Arab states must pursue internal reforms and work on building a serious and healthy model of a modern civil state, including economic diversification efforts, democracy promotion, and human rights measures.

Iranian apologists have long engaged in “whataboutism”, responding to criticism of Iran’s human rights record with criticism of human rights in the GCC countries. A successful effort by the Arab states to improve their records would not only be a moral end in itself, but would greatly improve the Arab nations’ position in Washington and deprive the Iranian regime of a potent weapon. These four steps are indispensable for facing possible American retreat from the region and the possibility of increased Iranian threat.

 

Dr. Mohammad Al-Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.

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

Dr. Rumaihi is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kuwait. He holds a Ph.D. from Durham University and has published more than 20 books about the social and political changes in the Arab Gulf states. He has been an Editor-in-Chief for prominent newspapers and magazines in Kuwait and other Arab Gulf states and was Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature 1998-2002.


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