North Africa, West Asia

What does Biden’s presidency mean for the future of the Gulf?

Will the new president undo Trump’s hawkish stance on Iran, Yemen, Libya and Qatar?

Zeidon Alkinani
3 December 2020, 10.01am
Al Diriyah Palace where the 39th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 9 December 2018
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Tu Yifan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are the most strategic economic and political partners to the United States of America in the West Asia region. President-elect Joseph Biden and his Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, may not bring a fundamentally different political project to the region, but they do bring another kind of diplomacy.

Despite the widespread assumption about Biden’s presidency being an extension of Obama’s policies, there are still new realities in the Middle East that the President-elect will have to acknowledge.

The GCC countries are divided due to the Saudi-led embargo against Qatar since 2017. For many GCC leaders a revived Obama foreign policy is not ideal. This was the time we witnessed the Arab Spring revolts in 2011, the Egyptian military coup in 2013, the rise of extremist groups, and finally the Iran Nuclear Deal.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi relished Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and his inaction towards human rights abuses.

Biden publicly stated that he would not tolerate the cruel murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, imprisonment of Saudi women activists, and war crimes in Yemen. Biden's impatience towards Saudi Arabia and expected lenience towards Iran counters the expansive Washington lobby that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi heavily invested into.

The U.S. government’s alleged claims that it wants to witness an end to Yemen's humanitarian crisis caused by the Saudi airstrikes were blocked by Trump’s very inner circle. Therefore, with the absence of that circle, Riyadh will have to find much simpler Houthi compromises. UAE’s gradual withdrawal from the Yemen war between 2017-19 placed it in a lesser robust situation than its Saudi neighbor in front of Trump’s defeat.

Alongside Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) went to normalisation with Israel on 13 August 2020, officially referred to as the Abraham Accords. The shocking historic move was considered a betrayal to the Palestinian cause and unnecessary to the UAE's geopolitical position. However, it can be read as a desperate attempt to further rival Iran.

Iran is the core focus of determining U.S.-GCC foreign policy. The signing of the nuclear deal in 2015, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), presented a new era for the Iranian regime to break through the global western-led global isolation and sanctions. Three years later, Trump unliterally abandoned the deal and began a "maximum pressure" campaign that entailed harsher economic sanctions against Iran's financial sector.

Biden has stated that he will rejoin the accord to pave the way for continuous negotiations. However, one cannot predict how Biden will define accurate compliance from Iran's side, considering the unclear benchmark left by his soon-to-be predecessor. After all, Iran being Trump's biggest enemy, does not equal Biden's best ally. Additionally, one must not forget Riyadh’s disappointment with Trump during the September 2019 Aramco attacks.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi relished Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran and his inaction towards human rights abuses

Iraq is another place where intensified U.S.-Iran disputes erupted as a result of anti-government protests that began in October 2019. Riyadh strongly welcomed Trump’s attempt to confront Iran-backed proxy groups in Iraq. Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy, views Trump’s actions in Iraq as the “boldest in terms of countering Iran’s regional influence, most vividly underscored by the brazen assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani in January [2020].” Conversely, Cafiero also adds that following the September 2019 Aramco attacks, “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.”

Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar will favour Biden's de-escalation with Iran and any attempts to end the Gulf crisis. While Oman will welcome Biden’s plans to end US military support to Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, Kuwait looks forward to an expectedly more “neutral” U.S. leader to face the Gulf rift.

Doha will be counting on Biden's willingness to end the embargo after Trump seemed to have overlooked the U.S. long-term strategic institutional relationships with the GCC countries, and its interest in having a unified Gulf-front against Iran. Nonetheless, a peace between Riyadh and Doha is more likely than one that includes Abu Dhabi as well – unless Joe Biden exceeds the expectations. Although, willingness alone will not end the Gulf crisis if Biden aims to focus on U.S. relations with the wider Asian continent more than the Gulf.

In Libya, Biden is more likely to support the Turkish and Qatar-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), in contrast to Trump’s pro-UAE approach and reliance on the European and Russian allies. In other words, they are pressuring Abu Dhabi to abide by Libya's international arms embargo. Conversely, U.S. approval to sell advanced defense capabilities (F-35s) to the UAE (a technology only provided to Israel in the region) on 10 November 2020, is a regional game-changer.

From an economic perspective, Biden is expected to reiterate the U.S. global role on climate change by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, that Trump quit with an executive order. Biden’s environmental policies emphasizes on a ban on fracking in its waters and on its federal lands. GCC states would benefit from such a move as it would increase global oil prices. Saudi columnist, Sultan Althari states that this “gives them [GCC] a much-needed cushion to navigate the delicate balance between alleviating pandemic-induced economic difficulties and ambitious plans to diversify and successfully transition into knowledge-based economies.”

Overall, the U.S. will maintain its strategic alliance with its GCC friends, but not every Washington stance will be welcomed. However, certain issues that are already losing their relevance and the support they received, such as the Yemen war, the blockade against Qatar, and further escalation against Iran, will gradually come to an end.

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