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U.S. and the Middle East: Strongmen contemplate a post-Trump era

President Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
President Trump shakes hands with then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia during a meeting in Riyadh in 2017.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

It took President Trump less than 48 hours to lay the foundations of a radical shift in U.S. Middle East policy and ingratiate himself with some of the region’s most powerful leaders. On visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel in May 2017 — his first trip overseas as president — he set the tone for the transactional and personality-based relationship that has characterized his dealings with the region’s strongmen.

He made it clear that Iran was in his crosshairs, arms sales would be a priority and human rights concerns would be consigned to a proverbial dustbin, telling a summit of Muslim leaders in Riyadh: “We are not here to lecture.”

The statement was welcomed by the United States’ traditional Mideast allies: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. All were desperate to see new U.S. policies after years of rising anger with the administration of President Obama — not least for signing the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

Trump could yet win reelection; few analysts in Washington have written him off. But he is trailing badly in the polls, so leaders in the Middle East are being forced to contemplate the prospect of Democratic nominee Joe Biden entering the White House, upending Trump’s policies and setting a new course for relations with gulf states.

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For those who invested heavily in their personal relationship with Trump, notably Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and de facto United Arab Emirates leader Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, a Biden victory in November would usher in a fresh period of uncertainty and unease. Some even ask whether a new president could cold-shoulder states as a punishment because of their closeness to the Trump administration.

In Riyadh, the worry is that “Obama-era” officials return to power and U.S.-Saudi relations become politicized, with the “real possibility of a hard reaction to Saudi, purely to be anti-Trump,” a Saudi official said.

The most obvious policy shift would be a Biden administration rejoining the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 to the applause and relief of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Israel. But the whole relationship forged since Trump’s Riyadh trip could be upended — more so if Congress also falls fully under Democratic control.

Biden, Obama’s vice president, would be likely to “revisit and potentially reformulate the entire approach to the gulf,” a former senior Obama administration official said.

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After enjoying what critics view as a free ride by Trump, the Arab states risk facing far greater scrutiny on human rights and their foreign interventions, while having a less sympathetic ear for their hawkish stances on Iran.

“Every country whose leaders have close relationships with the current president are going to find themselves out in the cold if Biden takes office. I think that’s going to be Egypt, maybe Turkey, definitely Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior director for gulf affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration. “A Biden administration will seek to limit their purchases of weapons and we would probably see fewer official visits.”

The task of courting a Biden administration would be much harder for Crown Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, also known as MBS.

“MBS will be treated as a pariah as Biden has called him,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer, alluding to comments made by the presidential hopeful during a debate last year when he threatened to make Saudi Arabia “the pariah they are.”

‘Arm’s length’ approach

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have been Trump’s staunchest Arab partners in his efforts to counter Tehran and they have forged close ties with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East advisor. But both governments have drawn criticism from U.S. lawmakers for their roles in the war in Yemen and the regional embargo they spearheaded against Qatar in June 2017. Crown Prince Mohammed has in particular been the target of bipartisan opprobrium since Saudi agents murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago.

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Abu Dhabi has sought to subtly distance itself from Saudi Arabia, analysts say, acknowledging the damage its links to the crown prince have done to its carefully crafted reputation.

The Emirates withdrew the bulk of its troops from Yemen last year. But it remains involved in Libya’s civil war, where it backs renegade general Khalifa Haftar alongside Russia, whose presence in the southern Mediterranean has sparked growing anxiety in the U.S. military. It was also the first Persian Gulf state to reopen its embassy in Damascus, delivering a boost to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Yet Sheik Mohammed, who has not visited the U.S. for three years, has hedged against the potential for change in the White House by agreeing in August to normalize relations with Israel. The move, followed by Bahrain last week, was seen by many as an attempt to curry favor across the political divide in the United States.

And Biden duly praised the Emirates for a “brave and badly needed act of statesmanship.”

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“It’s such a smart deal because you’ve got evangelical Christians in the Trump space and liberal Jewish communities in Biden’s camp both saying this is a great thing,” said Fontenrose. But, she added, if there’s a Biden administration the Emirates “will be kept at arm’s length from the White House.”

U.S. policy in the Middle East

  • June 2009: In a speech in Cairo, Obama calls for a new beginning in relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and vows to support the pursuit of freedom and rule of law
  • February 2011: The Obama White House is perceived by Arab leaders to have abandoned Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution that toppled the veteran president
  • August 2013: Obama fails to follow through on his “red line” warning to the Assad government on its use of chemical weapons by not ordering a military strike against Syria
  • June 2014: U.S. begins sending troops back to Iraq to confront Islamic State militants, after having announced a full withdrawal from the country in 2011
  • July 2015: U.S. administration signs nuclear deal with Iran and five other world powers
  • March 2016: Obama urges Saudi Arabia and Iran to find a way to “share the neighborhood,” a comment that is said to have infuriated Riyadh
  • December 2016: The U.S. abstains from United Nations Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements, infuriating Benjamin Netanyahu
  • December 2017: Trump administration recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announces that U.S. Embassy will be relocated from Tel Aviv
  • May 2018: Trump White House pulls out of Iran deal and starts imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic
  • September 2019: Trump responds with sanctions as U.S. blames Iran for strike at heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure
  • October 2019: Trump tacitly approves Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria against Islamic State and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces
  • January 2020: Trump orders assassination of Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, taking Washington to the brink of war
  • January 2020: U.S. unveils Palestinian-Israeli peace deal heavily tilted in Israel’s favor
  • August 2020: Trump announces deal between Israel and United Arab Emirates that will lead to the two Mideast states normalizing relations

Gulf divergence

Yet in Abu Dhabi there is confidence that if Trump loses, the influential emirate will retain its strong ties to Washington as its military and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. has deepened over the last two decades.

“Biden will definitely be bad for some, but he will be absolutely on board with the UAE,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent Emirati commentator. “The UAE is 10 feet taller than it was before the Israel deal.”

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Anwar Gargash, the Emirates’ foreign minister, told a forum that the Israel agreement would signify a “new gear” in the gulf state’s U.S. relations. “Our strategic relationship with the U.S., which is our most important relationship, will develop further,” he said.

But if there is a confidence among Emirati officials that their nation would successfully “adjust” to a Biden administration, there is concern among Saudi officials.

More than any other Western leader, Trump backed Prince Mohammed after the Khashoggi murder triggered the kingdom’s worst diplomatic crisis in years. The president reportedly told veteran journalist Bob Woodward he saved the prince’s “ass” and got “Congress to leave him alone.”

“Because we have got along well with Trump on Middle East politics — although there have been disagreements — and American politics is so polarized we are concerned that we become a ball being played between two groups,” the Saudi official said.

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He added that the world’s top oil exporter has endured previous periods of fraught relations with the U.S. that have been overcome, from the 1973 oil embargo to the Palestinians’ second intifada in the early 2000s when the late King Abdullah flew to Washington and told then-President George W. Bush that “if your interests go one way and ours go the other, so be it.”

The U.S. is far less reliant on Saudi oil imports than it was in the past, and Biden has promised to overhaul the nation’s energy system and put climate change at the heart of his agenda. However, the kingdom is considered an important intelligence partner and its stability is deemed vital to the region.

“We would hope any U.S. administration sees the importance of Saudi Arabia”, the official said, “and it’s not just something that should be tossed aside.”

Iran reset?

The principal concern among the two gulf monarchies, their Arab allies and Israel — and Biden’s prickliest Middle East decision — would be how he handles Iran.

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Their main complaint with the 2015 deal was that it empowered Iran just as Tehran’s regional influence was rising. They also criticized the accord for focusing on the West’s fears about the republic acquiring a nuclear weapon, while failing to address the region’s worries about Tehran’s missile program and support for militias. And they felt excluded from the whole process.

Biden has said Washington would rejoin the deal as long as Tehran came back into “strict compliance.” Iran increased its nuclear activity in response to Trump’s crippling sanctions, but insists it is committed to the accord, which is still supported by European governments, Russia and China.

A chart showing U.S. arms exports to the Middle East surged under President Obama.
(Financial Times)

“We urgently need to change course,” Biden wrote in a recent opinion piece for CNN, calling Trump’s Iran policy a “dangerous failure.”

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“There is a smart way to be tough on Iran, and there is Trump’s way,” he wrote, adding he would offer “Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.”

His advisors say he has yet to decide how to tackle regional concerns, but is weighing either a renegotiation of the deal or agreeing to a parallel track to address the concerns of gulf states, which could appease some of the region’s hawks.

The Emirates in particular has sought to de-escalate with Iran after tankers were sabotaged in the gulf last year and Tehran warned Emiratis that their nation would be targeted if Washington attacked the republic. Emirati officials have suggested a political track should accompany the sanctions.

Saudi Arabia has also quietly sought to defuse the situation with Iran after attacks blamed on Tehran in September 2019 temporarily knocked out half its oil output. But there would be concerns that a softer line on Iran would once more empower the republic.

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“This is the worst possible time for a lot of money to be injected into someone who wants to stir things up,” the Saudi official said.

Israel, meanwhile, continues to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

President Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
President Trump with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, after signing a proclamation in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in 2019.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Few are as critical of the Iran nuclear deal as Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister who has enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Trump. In his first term, the U.S. president has sidelined the Palestinians and taken several contentious steps in support of Israel, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem. Biden has made it clear that he would leave the embassy in Jerusalem.

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But Netanyahu is another leader who could expect strained ties with a Biden administration after his hostility toward Obama ruptured his relationship with Democrats.

“There has been long-term and deep damage to Democratic support of Israel. You cannot fix that quickly. Netanyahu can play nice with Biden, but for most Democrats he is in the enemy camp,” said Natan Sachs at the Brookings Institution. “The important question is how much that would extend to Israel, after Netanyahu is gone, and what would it mean in terms of U.S. policy, because Israel remains very popular in America.”

Biden advisors cautioned that he would probably be slower to act on the Mideast than some expect. They said the region would be a low priority for a new administration focused on the coronavirus and foreign policy issues in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

His advisors added there would be no rush to secure an agreement with Tehran in what is likely to be a complex process.

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Iran, whose presidential election is slated for June, with a hard-liner expected to win, has insisted it would not hold talks as long as U.S. sanctions prevent it from exporting oil, the moribund economy’s lifeline. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader, told officials in August it would be a “strategic mistake” to tie the economy to “the election in a certain country.”

But he kept the possibility of negotiations open. “They [the U.S.] might make a good decision one day or make a bad decision,” he said. “If it’s a good decision, we will use it.”

Biden would, however, struggle to negotiate a “grand bargain” to include missiles and militias, analysts said.

The U.S. “should be modest about our ability to transform the region,” said Colin Kahl, who was national security advisor to then-VIce President Biden. In that role Biden opposed U.S. intervention in Libya in 2011 and was against the troop surge in Afghanistan, but failed to win the latter argument.

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Biden has surrounded himself with many Obama-era officials, including Kahl, Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan.

Policy rethink

Yet even if there is anxiety in some Arab capitals about the potential for a Biden victory, Kahl and other advisors argue a Democratic administration would offer something they have been missing: policy consistency set against the unpredictability of another Trump term.

“Both Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE are sufficiently pragmatic to understand that they [would] have to recalibrate their policies,” Kahl said. “If they want to cooperate with us, then they can do so, [but] it’s got to be on terms that are agreeable to us.”

If not, they run the “risk of losing bipartisan support.”

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While the two gulf states cheered Trump’s tough stance toward Tehran, there was some unease about his apparent unwillingness to back his bellicose rhetoric with a muscular response after Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone and the assault on Saudi oil infrastructure. He also upset Arab allies by tacitly greenlighting a Turkish offensive against U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Syria.

Gulf states’ growing ties with China have also meant they have been caught up in the tensions between the Trump administration and Beijing. But the legacy of the Obama administration and the nuclear deal lingers in the background, still rankling some Arab officials.

“The concern the Arabs have with a Democratic administration is that it would desperately want to prove what Obama did [on Iran] was right, but it was wrong,” said a senior Arab diplomat. “If they say, ‘Let us go back to a table and we bring our allies,’ or at least take their concerns into account, that’s a different story. But it didn’t happen. That’s why Trump was so welcome in the region — that’s how it all started.”

England reported from London and Manson from Washington.

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