The Biden Presidency and the Gulf Arab States

Joe Biden takes office on January 20, 2021 with a most daunting list of challenges since Barack Obama entered the White House, with Biden as his vice-president, in the immediate aftermath of the global financial crisis 12 years ago. Then, as now, domestic affairs dominated the opening months of the Obama Administration, which nevertheless went on to make a mark in foreign policy over its two terms in office. Now, with Biden set to appoint many of the officials who played a role in that administration to key foreign, defense, and security posts, the team he picks to focus on US policy in the Gulf will face quite a different set of challenges from those when they left office in January 2017. Indeed 2021 is not 2017, and regional political and security dynamics in the Gulf differ in significant ways that will impact the foreign policy files the Biden Administration inherits from its most unconventional predecessor.

The range of issues that will confront the president-elect and frame the next phase of US-Gulf relations is formidable. They include the unresolved rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that has festered since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt joined forces to blockade Qatar in 2017, US relations with Saudi Arabia and the ongoing war in Yemen that is approaching its sixth year, next moves vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear deal, as well as the evolving strategic landscape after the UAE and Bahrain signed normalization deals with Israel on September 15, 2020.

An Initial Difference

At the outset, it should be noted that one feature that is likely to distinguish the Joe Biden Administration from the Donald Trump presidency is the reassertion of institutional capacity over personalized ties and the appointment of key personnel, including ambassadors, at all levels of government. It is unlikely that senior advisors to Biden will be suspected of arranging key details of summit meetings over WhatsApp messaging with Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, or that a partner as central to US interests as Qatar will go nearly an entire presidential term without a permanent US ambassador in-country. Nor is a secretary of state in a Biden White House expected to learn of meetings consequential to US interests almost by happenstance years after the fact, as was the case in 2019 with Rex Tillerson and reports of undisclosed meetings by Jared Kushner with foreign leaders in advance of the Qatar blockade in 2017.

The Pesky Gulf Crisis

The blockade of Qatar and the resulting crisis that has split the GCC is an example of a challenge the Biden Administration will inherit that has roots in the “alternative facts” free-for-all that marked the beginning of the Trump presidency and looks set to outlast it. The decision to launch the blockade of Qatar would almost certainly not have happened had the leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi not identified a unique opportunity to leverage the transactional approach of the Trump White House. Indeed, Ben Rhodes, who served in the National Security Council throughout the Obama Administration, stated in January 2018 that “some of the things that have happened this year, interestingly, were things we tried to forestall … the break with Qatar, we basically had to spend a lot of time trying to prevent that from happening” before the Obama Administration left office in 2017.

The decision to launch the blockade of Qatar would almost certainly not have happened had the leadership in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi not identified a unique opportunity to leverage the transactional approach of the Trump White House. 

Tony Blinken served as deputy assistant secretary of state between 2015 and 2017 and later became Joe Biden’s key advisor on foreign policy in the 2020 campaign. Two weeks into the blockade of Qatar, Blinken authored an op-ed for The New York Times entitled “President Trump’s Arab Alliance is a Mirage.” Starting from the premise that “Tweeting first and asking questions later is not a good way to make policy,” Blinken argued that Trump’s “unconditional support for the Saudis” during his May 2017 trip to Riyadh “seemed to embolden them” and the Emiratis to move against Qatar. While Biden Administration officials will urge the American partners in the Gulf to speedily bring an end to the Gulf rift, their task will be complicated by the fact that the harder-line approach in Abu Dhabi that has impeded previous efforts to bring about a reconciliation appears undimmed.

Relations with Saudi Arabia

Tipped by many for a senior foreign policy post under Biden, Blinken predicted in a July 2020 dialogue at the Hudson Institute that “we would be doing less not more in the Middle East.” That same month, Blinken told a conference call that a Biden administration “would review the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, to which President Trump has basically given a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies.” More detail was provided by Daniel Benaim, another senior advisor on Middle East issues to the Biden campaign, in a lengthy article for The Century Foundation in June 2020. Entitled “A Progressive Course Correction for Saudi-U.S. Relations,” Benaim made an argument for “reform, not rupture” in the relationship, called for a six-month strategic review of all aspects of US-Saudi cooperation, and urged the United States to “reassert its considerable leverage [and] reinforce lapsed expectations regarding Saudi behavior.”

Specific issues that Benaim suggested would be required of the Saudis included a swift end to the rift with Qatar, a cessation of its military intervention in Yemen, and support for a structured regional dialogue with Iran. Saudi officials may view the prospect of disengaging from the Yemen war as an issue they could present the incoming administration as a “gesture” of good faith and a sign that the Saudi leadership was prepared to break with and learn from the series of regional policy missteps of recent years. Saudi officials have struggled to identify a way out of Yemen that makes it look as if they are in control of the process, preserves national dignity, and ensures that it does not appear as a strategic or operational defeat. Reports that the Saudi leadership is intensifying efforts to end its military involvement in Yemen are perhaps unsurprising.

Saudi officials may view the prospect of disengaging from the Yemen war as an issue they could present the incoming administration as a “gesture” of good faith and a sign that the Saudi leadership was prepared to break with and learn from the series of regional policy missteps of recent years.

The Biden Administration, therefore, is likely to give the Saudi leadership a (time-limited) chance to show that it is open to learning from the recent past and demonstrating, in practical terms, that it is ready to play a more constructive and responsible role in regional affairs. Already there are indications that Saudi officials have acknowledged the changing dynamics and may be preparing to make changes, with reports that female right-to-drive advocates detained since 2017 may soon be released and that the leadership is intensifying efforts to end the Saudi military involvement in Yemen. Such moves are unsurprising given the impending loss of the Trump White House that has protected Mohammed bin Salman from fierce and bipartisan political criticism since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The Nuclear Deal with Iran

On a regional level, the Biden Administration likely will gauge the Saudi and Emirati response to its attempts to revive the JCPOA, bearing in mind that several of Biden’s key advisors were pivotal in the initial US-Iran talks in 2012-13, which preceded the P5+1 negotiations. These advisors were in the White House when the Saudis and Emiratis launched their military campaign in Yemen in March 2015 just as the P5+1 negotiations were reaching their climax. Jake Sullivan was intricately and personally involved in the Iran negotiations during the Obama Administration; during Biden’s 2020 campaign, he was responsible for managing the working groups of foreign policy experts. Sullivan has stated that after rejoining the JCPOA, the Biden Administration would immediately start negotiating “a follow-on agreement that deals with some [of] our ongoing concerns with Iran in respect of its nuclear program and its behavior” across the region.

It will not be as easy, as some may think, for the United States simply to rejoin the JCPOA in the opening 100 days of the Biden Administration, especially as such a move is conditioned on Iran also returning to compliance as well. Iran has a domestic political constituency just as active and as split on the merits of the deal as the American political landscape and the damage of the past four years cannot easily be swept away. Iran also is approaching a presidential election of its own, in June 2021, in which President Hassan Rouhani, one of the principal Iranian architects of the JCPOA, cannot run for a third consecutive term in office. While it is the case that the Supreme Leader, rather than the president of Iran, has the final say on matters such as the JCPOA, the Biden Administration may only have a window of a few months to convince Iranian interlocutors of its ability to negotiate a “stronger” deal that is fair for all parties, one that contains robust enough safeguards for any agreement to survive future political headwinds in both Iran and the United States.

The Biden Administration may only have a window of a few months to convince Iranian interlocutors of its ability to negotiate a “stronger” deal that is fair for all parties, one that contains robust enough safeguards for any agreement to survive future political headwinds in both Iran and the United States.   

Normalization with Israel

Biden’s Middle East team will inherit a strategic regional landscape that has been changed by the signing of normalization agreements by Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan and the prospect that other Arab states may also normalize relations with Israel in due course. The UAE-Israel agreement was notable for including reference to a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” (which did not appear in the Bahrain-Israel accord). Emirati and Israeli officials, in particular, have been quick to operationalize the strategic and commercial components of their normalization agreement, and the Emirati and Bahraini ambassadors to the United States shared a platform with their Israeli counterpart, Ron Dermer, on November 16 as the latter called on the Biden Administration not to rejoin the JCPOA. In addition to navigating a potentially confrontational path back toward the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden team and regional partners also will need to decide if the Middle East Strategic Alliance set up by the Trump National Security Council in 2018 has a future.

A Look at Possibilities

On some issues, such as Yemen, the experience of four years of grinding stalemate means the Saudis will be rather more open in 2021 to a political resolution of the war than they were in 2017, while the shock to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding the lack of an overt US response to the attacks on energy and maritime targets in 2019 has left both leaderships more mindful than before of their regional vulnerabilities. These are points of opportunity for the Biden Administration to work with in the rebalancing of relationships that grew overly confrontational in the Gulf under the Trump team. In other areas, the realignment of Israeli-Emirati (and Saudi) strategic interests may be a harbinger of a broader diversification of Gulf states’ security ties, further eroding the hitherto dominant American position and—along with Turkey’s growing regional presence—creating issues of its own that will come to define the Biden era in the Middle East.

The realignment of Israeli-Emirati (and Saudi) strategic interests may be a harbinger of a broader diversification of Gulf states’ security ties, further eroding the hitherto dominant American position.

The foreign policy team that Biden assembles will thus inherit an array of issues, some of which (the JCPOA and the Yemen war) began when they were in office under Obama and others (the Gulf crisis and Mohammed bin Salman’s self-inflicted missteps) more directly attributable to four years of the Trump Administration. The likelihood that the people in charge of Middle East policy in the opening phase of the Biden presidency will have served in government before will help them reframe the transactional style of decision-making. So, too, will the expectation that President Biden and his pick for secretary of state will move as quickly as possible to reverse the hollowing-out of the State Department that has undermined American diplomacy. Nevertheless, the legacy of the Trump years will continue to be felt for some time still to come.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), and a Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University. To learn more about Dr. Ulrichsen and read his previous publications Click here