The Middle East is all eyes as America goes to the polls

Whoever wins on Tuesday, the consensus remains: The Gulf is a key ally for the US, and that is unlikely to change

The Arab League’s foreign ministers meet in Cairo February 1 after US President Donald Trump announced his Middle East peace plan (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Arab League’s foreign ministers meet in Cairo February 1 after US President Donald Trump announced his Middle East peace plan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Middle East is watching – and waiting – as Americans go to the polls to decide who will lead them through the next four years.
After a momentous year of peace-making under the Trump Administration, many Middle East scholars fear that a United States government led by Joe Biden would speed up disengagement from the region to focus more on Europe and the perceived threat from Russia.
This could weaken some of the critical ties binding the US with nations in the region. 
Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla says the elections in the US, one of the most divisive in its history, are not merely of interest to those in the Gulf capitals – they are essential. For rulers in the Middle East, he explains, almost no other country in the world commands so much attention at election time as the US.
“Whichever way the voters decide, it will have huge ramifications on foreign policy,” Abdulla told The Media Line.
“There is no doubt that while the Gulf Cooperation Council awaits a Trump re-election, Iran is praying for a Biden victory,” he said. “For the radicals in Tehran, this would be seen as a gift from God.”
Vernon Pedersen, head of the Department of International Studies at American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, says the Iranian regime poses one of the biggest foreign policy fears for many in the region, and it is with Iran that the biggest changes might yet happen.
He envisages the US reentering or renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal under Biden, which in turn would lessen the narrative of an Iranian threat and strengthen the argument for moving troops out of the region.
“Biden is much more focused on Europe and views Russia as a major problem with his Cold War mindset, so I think that’s more the foreign policy direction he would move toward,” he told The Media Line. 
Pedersen believes the recent Abraham Accords normalizing ties between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain have had a significant impact on reducing the reasoning in the Biden camp for further US involvement in the Middle East.
“It’s opened up the door to resolving one of the region’s biggest conflicts,” he explained. 
The American public is growing increasingly tired of foreign entanglements, he points out, adding that while business and economic ties will indeed continue, the goal of military withdrawal is well on its way.
“When it comes to pulling back military engagements, Biden is of that mindset,” he noted.
Trump has positioned himself with the Gulf states as the stronger ally, not only due to the Abraham Accords, but by making himself a friend of many of the region’s leaders, including the UAE’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi crown prince, who was a pivotal player in the deal.
Trump’s first foreign visit was to Saudi Arabia, a clear message of the importance of his Gulf allies.
“The two candidates could not be farther apart, but in spite of his unpredictability, many feel we have a better mutual understanding with Trump after the last four years of office, so we know full well the pros and cons of his presidency and policies,” Abdulla said. 
The Gulf’s leaders also know Biden from his eight years in office under president Barack Obama. There is no doubt that Republican presidents have a better understanding of security concerns than do Democrats, according to Abdulla.
Since the US is no longer dependent on the Middle East for oil, the relationship becomes easier to ease away from should there be a Biden win, Pedersen says.
The Gulf is also key in the battle against Islamic extremism, now being strongly promoted by Iran on the back of the recent accords, which have caused outrage in Iran and Turkey, as well as among Palestinians.
Najah al-Otaibi, a Saudi academic and specialist on Islamic extremism, told The Media Line that for Saudi Arabia, strategic interests weigh more heavily than candidates. 
“What defines Saudi-US relations is actually the strategic interests, such as intelligence-sharing, counter-terrorism interests, and the huge bilateral trade between the two countries,” she said.
“We have seen in the past that Saudi Arabia didn’t particularly agree with some of Obama’s policies, but both countries remained strong allies,” she continued. “If you remember particularly, despite Obama’s position on Yemen’s war, he still agreed to the US offering a logistical support to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in this war.”
While the relationship would remain strong, Otaibi says things will indeed change under a Biden administration, though not necessarily negatively, as some commentators believe.
“It’s true that Biden’s position on many issues regarding the Middle East is different from the Saudis,” she said. “For example, his positions regarding Yemen, the Iran nuclear deal and deploying US forces in Saudi Arabia are the main points of contention. Biden thinks if Iran abides by its obligations in the agreement, the US will return to working on the agreement alongside the European Union, which is not particularly what Saudis want.”
While many members of the GCC feel that Trump understands them better, Otaibi says there are simply too many other factors at play to depend on the US president alone.
“Let’s be realistic,” she said. “What shapes US decision-making is not just the president. There’s Congress and the judiciary, which also share powers, and of course the federal government shares sovereignty with the state governments.”
Whoever wins, the consensus remains: The Gulf is a key ally for the US.
Emirati political analyst Salem Al Ketbi says that although many in the GCC would consider a Biden win “unpleasant,” the long-standing institutionalization of relations means the foundations would remain strong. 
“Radical changes cannot be expected in these relations because there are constants that cannot be circumvented in US foreign policy toward the Arab Gulf region,” he told The Media Line.
“The… alliances,” Ketbi says, “are likely to increase in strength and durability in the foreseeable future based on the calculations of the strategic interests of the two [sides], regardless of the identity of the winner in the November election.”