Trump’s incoherent foreign policy doctrine has some GCC states questioning US commitment to their regime security, while Biden could usher in a reset of US-Gulf relations.
Obviously, no one knows whether US President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden will win this November’s presidential election — let alone how it will impact the Middle East.
Yet the Gulf monarchies are preparing for both a scenario where Trump wins re-election and one in which he loses to Biden, who currently enjoys a lead in the polls.
Some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members see the possibility of either candidate winning as both positive and negative.
When it comes to Iran, some Gulf officials have been mostly pleased with Trump’s hawkish foreign policy. The president and those in his administration see eye-to-eye with the leadership of anti-Iranian GCC states regarding Tehran; arguably, there has never been a Secretary of State as fervently opposed to the Islamic Republic as Mike Pompeo, whose rhetoric on Iran sounds like that of a lobbyist in DC who is on the Saudi government’s payroll.
The Saudis realise that Trump bent over backwards to give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) the benefit of the doubt following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The same treatment could not be expected from Biden, who slammed the Saudi kingdom as a “pariah” state last year and vowed to make Riyadh pay for the murder of the Washington Post columnist at the hands of Saudi agents purportedly taking orders from MBS.
Additionally, the lawsuit which Dr. Saad al Jabri filed earlier this month in the US District Court for the District of Columbia is set to further damage the Crown Prince’s image in Washington, particularly among Biden and his fellow Democrats along with elite figures within America’s foreign policy establishment.
Under Barack Obama’s leadership, Washington and Tehran’s partial thaw and the 2015 passage of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in which GCC states did not have any say, led to the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini governments becoming unsettled and angry.
Other events and policies fueled distrust of US leadership too. These included Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis, condemnations of Bahrain and Egypt’s governments on human rights grounds, and rhetoric that was seen as pro-Arab Spring.
In sum, officials in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama detested the previous administration’s perceived sympathy for Islamists and Iran, as well as its limited and selective support for democratic reforms in the wider Arab world.
Nonetheless, Trump has been all over the map as a president. Many of his foreign policy decisions have lacked coherence or any semblance of strategic thinking. As such, leaders in the GCC question his commitment to their sheikdoms’ security.
‘Maximum Pressure’ on Iran
If Trump’s presidency lasts until 2025, there is good reason to expect his “maximum pressure” campaign to continue. While GCC states like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain favour the intensified US pressure on Iran, others such as Oman and Qatar have found it problematic from the standpoint of their own national interests in maintaining strong ties with both Washington and Tehran.
Regardless of the fact that each GCC member views Iran and Trump’s presidency differently, all six of these Arab states worry about “maximum pressure” spiraling out of control.
The five smaller GCC members lack any strategic depth, thus their leaders are fully aware of how disastrous it would be for their own security if a new war involving Iran breaks out in the Gulf. With Trump in the Oval Office, that is always a risk.
A Biden presidency would raise the serious possibility of Washington returning to the JCPOA, which would lead to the US easing some pressure on Tehran. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar genuinely favoured the nuclear accord and did not express support for Trump pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal. These Gulf states would probably see changes in Washington-Tehran relations under a Biden presidency as beneficial to their geopolitical positions.
Yet Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, which lobbied Trump to impose “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic, must see the prospects for a Biden win with unease. Leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Manama worry that Biden would bring back Obama-era strategies for dealing with Tehran, which they believed left their monarchies vulnerable to Iran’s nefarious conduct in the region.
Yemen, Iraq, and Libya
GCC states also have vested interests in many of the Arab region’s hotspots, which the outcome of the US presidential election could severely impact.
In Yemen, Trump’s administration has strongly backed the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Houthi rebels. Even as the US diplomatic establishment has ceased to support Riyadh’s actions in Yemen, Trump and those in his inner circle have never backed off from supporting the Saudi-led military campaign notwithstanding such domestic pressure.
If Biden enters the Oval Office in January, Riyadh may have to work with a new US administration that pressures the Saudis to pull out of Yemen. The Saudis would not want to end their operations before the Houthis make certain compromises that would enable Saudi Arabia to exit without worries about what could result from the Iranian-backed Ansarullah movement feeling emboldened.
Iraq is where Trump has been boldest in terms of countering Iran’s regional influence, most vividly underscored by the brazen assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani in January. In general, the Saudis have welcomed Trump’s determination to confront the Iranians and their proxies in Iraq within the context of grander efforts aimed at decreasing Tehran’s influence in the country.
By the same token, as the September 2019 Aramco attacks indicated, the Saudis have concerns about Trump’s willingness to defend the kingdom from the threats posed by Iranian-sponsored groups in the region that have a hostile relationship with Riyadh.
Libya is another war-torn Arab country where the US may take a different approach if Biden takes the helm. Whereas Trump has mainly outsourced Washington’s Libya foreign policy to GCC members, European allies, and Russia, Biden might boost US support for the Turkish and Qatari-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
Furthermore, if Biden leads a foreign policy that is less UAE-friendly than Trump’s, there is good reason to consider the possibility of his administration putting more pressure on Abu Dhabi to abide by the international arms embargo on Libya.
From the perspectives of General Khalifa Haftar and his Gulf backers, such a shift would indicate a return to the Obama administration’s supposedly ‘pro-Muslim Brotherhood’ policies, which they complained about for years.
Looking ahead past November, the relative decline in Washington’s geopolitical influence in the Middle East is set to continue. This will be the case regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins the election.
For some GCC governments, it is not necessarily clear whether the benefits of having to work with Trump for another four years outweigh all the costs. As much as the White House’s “maximum pressure” agenda aligns with some Gulf states’ interests in weakening and isolating Iran, Trump’s total lack of predictability and his unhinged decision-making leave many in the Arabian Peninsula with sweaty palms.
Yet Biden too represents certain unknown variables that makes some GCC officials nervous. The extent to which Biden would attempt to revive the policies of the Obama administration is difficult to gauge, especially given how much the Middle East and the world at large have changed since January 2017.
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