The Gulf and the White House

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 10 Nov 2020

There is little concern in the Arab Gulf states over major changes in US foreign policy under a Biden presidency

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The reaction of the Arab Gulf states to the announcement of Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden as president-elect of the United States following last week’s US presidential elections has been similar to the reaction of the markets to the news.

Though the markets had preferred incumbent President Donald Trump, they had also factored in a possible Biden presidency.

That was how one British academic who has worked for years in Saudi Arabia and the UAE responded to questions about how the Gulf would deal with the new US president.

Almost all the Gulf countries have congratulated the US president-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, though some had speculated that they might wait, especially Saudi Arabia, until official certification of the election results came through in order to avoid irritating their ally Donald Trump.

But Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly that the “strategic relationship between the US and the Gulf states is strong, and it will continue regardless of who is in the White House.”

Nevertheless, relations between Washington and the Gulf capitals are not going to be the same as they were during the Trump presidency over the last four years. Biden might not choose his first foreign visit as president to be to Riyadh, for example, as Trump did in 2017.

As the British academic said, Biden might not revert to the policies pursued by former US president Barack Obama towards the Middle East and the Gulf, but he would still most likely change many of Trump’s policies in the region.

Biden might repeal Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, for example, even if he would not necessarily scrap all the sanctions on Tehran and thus assist the Islamic Republic, since this would raise concerns among America’s Gulf allies.

On Yemen, a Biden presidency might push for an end to the war in the country, putting more pressure on Riyadh to bring this about than Trump did in the last year of his presidency. The least significant result of a Biden presidency will likely be in the Qatar crisis, which will most likely be left to local parties to sort out.

 Underlining the notion that American policy towards Political Islamist groups might not change, a plus for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, is the fact that a future Biden administration will not tolerate Turkish policies in the region.

“Biden will end the cosy relations that [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan had with Donald Trump. This will be a blow to his expansionist policies in the region and will limit Turkey’s interventions in the Middle East, which were condoned by Trump,” Alkhames said.

“Biden is also on the side of the Kurds, unlike Trump, which means more pressure on Erdogan. Remember the interview Biden did with the New York Times editorial board some months ago, when he described Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’. He also criticised Turkey’s aggressive policies in the Middle East and its oppression of the Kurds.”

Most commentators agree that the new US administration will focus on internal issues, trying to mend many of the ills left by Trump. The new president-elect’s message of “unify and heal” means that this will be his priority, followed by many other challenges that require immediate attention like the Covid-19 pandemic and the slowing economy in the United States.

Foreign policy is likely to be further down the new president’s to-do list, and when he reaches it the Gulf might not be a priority.

In an article in the US journal Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden wrote at length about his foreign-policy agenda if he became president, focusing mainly on repairing US relations with allies and international organisations.

“In order to regain the confidence of the world, we are going to have to prove that the United States says what it means and means what it says. This is especially important when it comes to the challenges that will define our time: climate change, the renewed threat of nuclear war and disruptive technology,” Biden wrote.

“The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilise collective action on global threats.”

He then talked about what he described as his “middle-class foreign policy,” explaining that this would focus on economic and trade partnerships and American competitiveness, particularly with regard to China and Russia.

A rhetorical part of the lengthy article touched on the Middle East region, coming within the framework of some general talk about America’s global moral responsibility.

“From Hong Kong to Sudan, Chile to Lebanon, citizens are once more reminding us of the common yearning for honest governance and the universal abhorrence of corruption. An insidious pandemic, corruption is fuelling oppression, corroding human dignity, and equipping authoritarian leaders with a powerful tool to divide and weaken democracies across the world,” Biden wrote.

One issue that might be more than rhetorical is America’s relations with its main ally in the region. “The most unclear issue is how Biden will approach Israel and its place in the Middle East. Whilst he welcomed the peace deal with the UAE and Bahrain [negotiated by Trump], Israeli expansion on the West Bank is a controversial topic, and there might be a lot of pressure on him to condemn illegal settlements and violations of international law,” one Western pundit said.

The Gulf states are not worried that Biden will completely reverse Trump’s policies, especially on main issues of concern like Iran and the radical Islamists.

Relations might not be as cosy for some, and they may be more cumbersome for others, than they used to be under the Trump administration, but the Gulf capitals are experienced enough in Washington’s internal politics to keep up good relations with the world’s main superpower.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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