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Giorgio Cafiero

Biden as president: Winners and losers in the Gulf

There are mixed views in the Gulf on how Biden could impact the region. [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 November, 2020

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Analysis: With Trump's chaotic presidency coming to an end, Gulf states are preparing for major changes in Washington that could heavily impact the Middle East.

Once in office early next year, US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will probably have to work with a Republican-controlled Senate. Political paralysis and gridlock can be expected for at least the first two years of Biden's presidency. 

Therefore, it is much more likely that Biden's administration will prove far more capable of making substantive changes in US foreign policy than in domestic areas.

This is even more likely given that Biden, who served as vice president and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is an expert on many global issues. The Middle East is one region where Biden's foreign policy could quickly distinguish him from President Donald Trump. Without question, it is too early to know how Biden will lead as the 46th American president. 

Yet his record as Barack Obama's vice president and recent campaign rhetoric tell us that he will likely try to bring the US back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), end US support for Saudi Arabia's war against Yemeni rebels, and restore the relevancy of human rights to the White House's agenda in the Middle East. 

Stakes for the Gulf Arab states

Among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, there are mixed views on the Biden presidency and how it may impact the region. For the most part, many Gulf Arab government officials and commentators in the media are associating Biden with Obama. 

Among GCC member states there are mixed views on the Biden presidency and how it may impact the region

When considering how the president-elect may lead on the international stage, many in the Gulf cannot help but think of Obama's foreign policy actions in the Arab world. During Obama's eight years in the Oval Office, the Middle East witnessed the 'Arab Spring' revolts of 2010/11, the Egyptian coup of 2013, the meteoric rise of Islamic State (IS) in 2014, and the JCPOA's passage in 2015.  

These developments brought out many differences between Obama's White House and the leaders of certain GCC states, fueling tensions and distrust.

The Gulf Arab state most nervous about Biden replacing Trump next year is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh there are concerns that Trump's successor along with House Democrats will revisit various parts of the US-Saudi partnership. There are fears that Washington will possibly freeze or cancel certain arms sales while ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen

Read more: What will a Biden presidency mean for Iraq?

The Jamal Khashoggi file is another issue where the Biden administration might take some form of action against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who, according to the CIA, ordered the US resident's killing. Ultimately, with the Saudi leadership having bet the farm on Trump, the oil-rich kingdom will have to contend with the post-Trump era which will not prove easy for Riyadh.

"Saudi Arabia is the biggest loser from all of this," Samuel Ramani, a doctoral researcher at Oxford University, told The New Arab. "Mohammed bin Salman is a toxic personality for the Democratic Party. Though the ball is still partially in Riyadh's court regarding the US relationship. If Saudi Arabia continues to brazenly escalate tensions in the region, such as its prior actions in Qatar, Yemen, and Lebanon, it will have much greater pushback from the US than under Trump."

The leadership in Abu Dhabi had a clear preference for Trump in the 2020 race. Yet the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands to pay much less of a price than Saudi Arabia for Biden's win. Having largely removed itself from the Yemen war in 2017-19 and being uninvolved in the Khashoggi case (at least from Washington's perspective), the UAE's brand is not as toxic in DC as Saudi Arabia's. 

Moreover, signing the Abraham Accords, which formalised the UAE and Bahrain's diplomatic relations with Israel, was a shrewd move that let Abu Dhabi hedge its bets as the Trump-Biden race was in full swing with observers anticipating a close election. By opening up full-fledged ties with Tel Aviv, the Emiratis took a step that boosted the UAE's PR efforts with American lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide. 

The Gulf state most nervous about Biden replacing Trump next year is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Kuwait and Oman, as the GCC's two balancing states, will likely find themselves as winners from Biden's triumph. Kuwait, which has been a mediator between Qatar and the blockading states since 2017, has remained "neutral" in most regional conflicts. Thus, Kuwait will probably benefit in many ways from the incoming administration's more diplomatic approaches to regional crises. 

For Oman, Biden's plan to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which will pressure Riyadh to move faster toward a political settlement with the Houthi insurgents, will be positive.

Officials in Muscat have seen Saudi intervention in Yemen as destabilising while Oman views the threat of Yemen's crisis spilling over into its own territory as the top threat to the sultanate's national security. Most likely, the Biden administration will turn to Muscat for its unique abilities to facilitate dialogue on various regional files including Iran, Yemen, and possibly Syria. 

Qatar is capable of hedging between Democrats and Republicans while making itself diplomatically useful to US administrations of both parties. Since an early stage of the GCC crisis, which erupted in mid-2017, Doha has been able to build strong ties to the Trump administration which has been critical to Qatar's well-being while under siege from its neighbours on the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. 

Read more: Biden and the Saudi quagmire in Yemen

By the same token, Saudi Arabia and the UAE's maximalist foreign policy agendas and increasingly adventurous interventions in other countries in the region leave Qatar feeling uneasy and Doha understands that the increasingly confrontational postures of Saudi Arabia and the UAE have resulted in no small part from Trump's presidency. Perhaps, if a Biden administration could put more pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to exercise greater restraint and even possibly open up to a reconciliation with Doha, the Qataris could find themselves under less pressure in the Gulf.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, the leadership in Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar would support the Biden administration's efforts to bring the US back into the JCPOA. Although not perfect, the Iranian nuclear deal was the best option for dealing with Tehran's standoff with the West over its nuclear program from Kuwait City, Muscat, and Doha's perspective. 

If the Biden administration eases some of the US pressure on Iran and seeks to engage the Islamic Republic diplomatically in order to salvage the JCPOA, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar could easily serve as bridges between Washington and Tehran. In other words, with a US foreign policy that provides greater room for diplomacy, these smaller GCC states have much to gain.

"Let's not forget that Oman has been in many regards ignored by the Trump administration whereas it was front and center to Gulf policy in Obama's administration," wrote Dania Thafer, director of the Gulf International Forum. "Until Trump's pull-out, the Omanis looked to the JCPOA as a crowning achievement.

Once Biden enters the Oval Office, his administration can be expected to begin the process of resetting Washington's partnerships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi

Biden's willingness to engage Iran in diplomacy, and especially his disdain for Saudi Arabia and opposition to the war in Yemen fit squarely in Qatar's foreign policy, but also bring comfort to Oman and Kuwait."

The road ahead

With Trump's chaotic presidency coming to an end in January, Gulf states are preparing for major changes in Washington that could heavily impact the Middle East. If assumptions are correct that Biden will shift US foreign policy toward greater diplomacy, multilateralism, and liberal internationalism, GCC members will have no choice but to adjust. Officials in Riyadh must contend with the fact that Biden's administration will likely make demands of the kingdom. 

Read more: Could Biden bring the US back into the Iran
nuclear deal?

In Saudi Arabia and, to a much lesser extent, the UAE, there are worries about the consequences of their countries having bet so much on Trump while actively opposing Obama in ways that upset many Democrats in DC. Once Biden enters the Oval Office, his administration can be expected to begin the process of resetting Washington's partnerships with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.  

To be sure, Biden is not going to abandon Saudi Arabia and the UAE as partners of the US, which have a decades-old history of working closely with Washington. There is much that Biden and Harris will seek to achieve in the Middle East which will require help from both Gulf powerhouses.

Moreover, the President-elect knows that leaving either Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in the cold would almost inevitably push both even closer to Moscow and Beijing. 

But Biden will make it clear that what was 'business-as-usual' in US relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE from 2017 to 2020 will not carry on into the post-Trump period.

The message which these two Gulf capitals may soon hear from Biden and those in his inner circle is that the Saudis and Emiratis need to begin working toward resolving their conflicts through greater compromise and regional dialogue with adversaries while also making improvements when it comes to human rights within their own countries.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics,  a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

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