As the US presidential elections approach and opinion polls tilt towards the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden, many countries formerly allied with incumbent US President Donald Trump have started reaching out to Biden’s team, among them Arab Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Many in the Gulf are not taking the polls at face value, however, and are not discounting the re-election of Trump for a second term. As one Gulf analyst noted, the “chances are 50-50… we need to remember what the polls were like in 2016 when they gave Hillary Clinton a clear lead over Trump and yet finally Trump won.”
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, he asked “ask anyone to answer the question in public, do you cheat on your wife? The answer will be no. But put these people in a booth to answer anonymously, and the answer will likely be yes.”
In 2016, Trump did not win the popular vote, but the Electoral College vote took him to the White House, nonetheless. In 2020, it might keep him there for another term, the Gulf pundit concluded.
But the Gulf countries are not taking any chances and they are making preparations for the possibility that former US president Barack Obama’s vice-president will win the elections on 3 November.
Looking at the mainstream media in the Gulf countries does not provide clear evidence of whether Trump or Biden will be preferred. But talking to local people in the Gulf cities will likely mean hearing people choose Trump, seeing him as the more authentic representative of America.
The UAE and Bahrain made a smart move by normalising their relations with Israel before the elections, thus garnering bipartisan praise in Washington. This will make it easier for them to cultivate relations with a new Democratic administration if Trump loses his bid for a second term.
The main reason for Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain to favour a second term for Trump is his position on Iran. As Saudi commentator Abdel-Aziz Alkhames told the Weekly, “the main reason for the Gulf support for Trump is his stand on Iran and the maximum pressure that will make Iran finally listen to its neighbours’ concerns and commit to stopping its interventions. The Iranians will never compromise unless they are pressured to do so, and that is what Trump is doing.”
“Second to Iran comes the peace deals he is concluding between the Gulf countries and Israel. A second term for Trump would mean widening and reinforcing relations between the Gulf countries and Israel. And again, this will be in the interest of the Gulf countries in their struggle with Tehran,” he added, saying that Iran is thus the first and second reason for the Gulf’s support for Trump, even if the latter apparently only concerns peace with Israel.
Some analysts say that opinions are divided among the Gulf countries, and they divide the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members into two camps, one voting for Trump and one indifferent to him. Andrew Hammond of Oxford University, who has worked in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, said that “Biden will talk to Iran, which is a problem for Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, though the others are less bothered,” meaning Qatar, Oman and Kuwait.
Hammond suggested that Saudi Arabia was the main Gulf country for Trump, as the US president gave Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman the benefit of the doubt following the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, while Biden slammed Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state last year.
In addition to the difference between Trump and Biden on Iran, many GCC countries do not want to see “another Obama guy” in the White House, recalling the Obama administration’s support for the protests against the regimes in the Arab world a decade ago.
Ghanim Al-Najjar, a political science professor at Kuwait University, told the Weekly that not all the GCC countries share the same position towards the Trump administration, adding that their reaction to Trump was a reaction to the previous administration.
“I think the strong position, especially with Saudi Arabia, started with Obama’s position on Syria when he at the last minute changed course in not bombing Syria in March 2013. As a result, Saudi Arabia decided to pull out of the UN Security Council as a sign of its anger with the US. At the same time, the Arab Spring was widely seen as having been assisted by Obama,” he said, though he also agreed that Iran was a priority.
“Iran is a major factor,” he added.
One of the issues for the leaders of the GCC countries is the fact that Trump has taken an unprecedented approach in dealing with them. Alkhames said that “the transactional foreign policy of Trump is the best for the Gulf... far better than one based on some doctrine or dogmatic belief.”
Trump might be the first US president to have dealt with the Gulf, and the Arab world as well, in a way free of previous burdens. He is “not thinking much about history or analogies, just working on new deals for the future,” as one semi-official source put it.
Trump does not listen to academics in think tanks or in the administration who differentiate between “moderate” and “radical” fundamentalists in the Arab world or build arguments about Gulf countries based on long-held assumptions.
The Trump administration also might be the first to have formulated its foreign policy towards the Gulf without consultation with the British, who still have a tradition of seeing the region as part of their empire a century ago.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly