A Joe Biden-Shaped Reckoning is Coming for Trump’s Middle East Policies

Biden has pledged to “reassess” the US relationship with the oil-rich Arab states that Trump fawned over. That’s both good and bad news for Iran.
November 13, 2020, 3:46pm
Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in 2018.
Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office in 2018. Photo: Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

Mike Pompeo sets off on Friday for a ten-day trip to Europe and the Middle East, including visits to some of the countries that have benefited the most from Donald Trump’s foreign policy in the region.

It should be a farewell tour for Pompeo, but his boss is still baselessly contesting the results of the US election, and Pompeo has himself literally said he is working on a transition towards a second Trump administration. This bending of democratic norms should make Pompeo feel at home when he ends his trip in the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, where Kings and Princes serve lifelong terms. 

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Under Trump, those rulers have enjoyed almost total support and immunity from even the most shocking of crimes, as well as special access to the president through America’s own answer to the prince, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

That’s all about to change though, as President-elect Joe Biden has promised to “reassess” the US relationship with the Middle East, explaining why he has so far received a relatively muted response from the Arab states.

Under a Biden administration, Mohammed Bin Salman, or MBS, the Saudi crown prince and the de facto leader of the country, can expect to come under much more pressure over the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. CIA and western intelligence agencies have already concluded MBS had “direct” involvement in Khasoggi’s murder, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, but Trump stuck by him throughout.

The oil-rich kingdoms of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain have long enjoyed a strategic military alliance with the US that predates Trump. The alliance is formed around mutual hostility towards Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, and trade. Fluctuations in this relationship aren’t unheard of: kings and princes tend to stick around for a long time, but presidents change with election cycles, and there’s always the background hum of pressure over their human rights records at home or war crimes abroad. The Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in Yemen, not a concern for Trump, could become a focus for Biden.

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The days of having "glamorous recognition at the world stage, and receptions" without any "accountability of their human rights records are over," said Andrea Prasow, the deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch.

Biden’s incoming US Secretary of State will also inherit the "Abraham Accords,” a series of US-brokered peace agreements between Israel, UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan, formed rather conveniently and hastily by Trump before the US election. None of these countries have any real recent hostility between them, but as well as looking impressive on paper for US voters, it's yet another pact formed to contain and deter Iran around the Persian Gulf.

During his time in office, Trump struck Iran with multiple rounds of sanctions and significantly weakened the country’s economy after withdrawing from the landmark nuclear deal in May 2018. Leaders in Tehran have just about withstood the immense economic pressure, topped by a deadly pandemic, but they have reached their limits, and effectively bet all their chips on Biden winning. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has already reiterated his country's willingness to go back to the agreement in the hope of lifting the crippling sanctions. 

"The policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran are very clear, based on peace and stability in the region, respecting the rights of nations, not infringing or interfering in countries' internal affairs, combating terrorism, ending unilateralism, and adhering to accords and constructive cooperation,” he said earlier this week. 

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Biden could of course benefit from a weakened Iran too, to limit Tehran's activities in the region and in order to force them to the negotiating table for a diplomatic win early into his term.

The Saudi-led group of Gulf states fear the rise of the "Safavids"—a sectarian term, derogatorily and widely used among Arab leaders that refers to an Iranian-centred dynasty founded five centuries ago. 

King Salman, the de jure leader of Saudi Arabia, has urged the incoming US administration to commit to pushing back Iranian influence. "The kingdom stresses the dangers of Iran's regional project…its interference in other countries,” he said following the US election.

The fear of Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programmes, and far-reaching proxies in the Middle East has seen Arab leaders purchase billions of dollars worth of weapons from the US and other Western countries. 

"We'll see how Biden will handle the arms sales, the Congress can buy more time, and he can definitely stall the process until these countries review their actions towards human rights at home and Yemen,” said Human Rights Watch’s Prasow. “The US administration's public pressure could easily open doors on many activists, journalists, and political critics unjustly held behind bars."