After four years of major shifts in the Gulf region under the Trump administration, political analyst, Mahjoob Zweiri explores what changes will come with Joe Biden.
Joe Biden has succeeded Donald Trump to become the 46th elected president of the United States. While some big players in the Gulf region may now look forward to political benefit from Biden’s foreign policy promises, Qatar and Iran will likely emerge as the greatest beneficiaries.
During his presidency, Trump contributed greatly to the Gulf crisis and initially supported the blockading ‘Quartet’ – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – against Qatar. But several months later, this support was dramatically reduced.
Under a Biden-run White House, the US is expected to take the matter a step further by encouraging these countries to end the blockade.
The president-elect has publicly criticised Saudi Arabia on several other matters too, including its rampant human rights violations, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. He has also slammed the kingdom’s role in the war in Yemen, although he is not likely to block congressional resolutions designed to end the US’s support of the conflict.
A dissatisfaction with the blockading countries during Biden’s upcoming era would indeed improve US-Qatar relations, which, admittedly, saw ups and downs under the Trump administration.
Qatar has always maintained good relations with the US’s foreign affairs and defence bodies – even under the blockade – as they generally kept away from some of Trump’s more reckless decisions.
The gas-rich Gulf state also holds investments amounting to $30 billion in the US, and aims to raise these to $45 billion.
However, Qatar has repeatedly made it clear that any initiative to resolve the Gulf crisis – should Biden choose to seek a solution – must “take into account that Qatar cannot accept the undermining of its sovereignty nor any guardianship or dictations.”
De-escalating tensions with Iran
Trump’s legacy will remain heavily present in the Gulf because of the US-led initiative to normalise relations with Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Biden will not be able to reverse this pattern, so he is obliged to work with it – along with the tensions it has caused between Iran and the ‘normalising’ Gulf states.
It is not expected that Biden will be very friendly with his allies in the Gulf, but he will definitely approach them differently. He is expected, like Obama, to take a softer strategy on some matters. More specifically, he is expected to take several measures towards Iran that would avoid damaging the Gulf’s security.
In general, Qatar and the entire Gulf region felt more threatened by escalating tensions between Iran and the US under Trump, considering the regional consequences of any direct confrontation between the two countries.
“It should be more concerned with finding an effective way to manage the spread of COVID-19 and reduce its ramifications.”
With Biden, it is obvious that the administration wants to reverse Trump’s policies towards Iran and resume a more diplomatic track. In particular, Biden has promised to rejoin the historic Iran nuclear deal, dubbed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew, and loosen pressures that have been severely damaging Iran’s economy.
While the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has stated that “it does not matter who wins a surprisingly tight US presidential election” and that his country has planned for “difficult conditions” in the future, he asserted after Biden won that “…an opportunity has come up for the next US administration to compensate for past mistakes.”
That said, by the time Biden becomes more embroiled in the Gulf region’s politics, Iran will already have a new president with elections scheduled in Tehran for June 2021.
With respect to the region overall, there will be no major reforms in the US’s longstanding approach to foreign affairs. Rather, Biden will focus more on redressing Trump’s inattentiveness to the Gulf.
The Biden administration is likely to focus during its first several months in office on domestic politics.
Most urgently, it should be more concerned with finding an effective way to manage the spread of COVID-19 and reduce its ramifications. Thus, it is not expected that major shifts on the foreign policy level will take place, perhaps, until September 2021.
Dr. Mahjoob Zweiri is Director – Gulf Studies Center, part of the College of Arts and Sciences at Qatar University.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Doha News, its editorial board or staff.