Trump v Biden: who might be better for the Gulf region?

24 policy, arm sales and business links will take centre stage in the US-GCC relationship following the November presidential election

Shifts in American policies towards Iran and arms sales to the Gulf will be among the prime concerns for GCC governments if Joe Biden becomes the next US President, according to analysts.

Since coming into office in January 2017, President Trump’s relationship with the Gulf countries – particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have widely been considered strong by political observers in the US.

Trump’s first foreign trip as President in May 2017 was to Saudi Arabia, marking the first time an American leader picked a Middle Eastern location for their maiden journey.

On the other hand, the Gulf relations of the Obama administration – in which Biden served as Vice President – were marked by tension, particularly in the wake of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in which sanctions were lifted in exchange for Iran’s redesign and reduction of nuclear facilities.

The US withdrew from the deal – which Saudi Arabia called ‘flawed’ – in 2018, a move welcomed by the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

With the US rapidly approaching the November elections, analysts in Washington DC said that Arabian Gulf countries will likely be carefully examining Biden’s comments regarding Iran going forward. Biden has previously said he would rejoin the deal, on the condition that Iran returns to compliance with its conditions.

“There should be some concern [among the Gulf countries]. It’s not clear if Biden would pursue the same path as Obama did with Iran,” Aaron Cutler, a Republican Washington lobbyist and attorney at international law firm Hogan Lowell told Arabian Business.

“Obviously, Biden was a part of that administration and was someone President Obama went to for foreign policy matters, for advice,” he added.  “He was certainly in the loop on those matters. Folks in the Gulf should be concerned some of those policies should be reinvigorated.”

The Gulf’s security umbrella

Elana DeLozier, a research fellow and Gulf specialist at the DC-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy who formerly taught at NYU and Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University, said that while Gulf states will be carefully “looking at” Biden’s potential Iran policies, they will more broadly be focused on both candidates’ commitment to GCC security.

“[That] actually may not differ that much between the two candidates,” she said. “That worry would exist with a Trump or a Biden administration, but I think the character of it would be slightly different.”

Going forward, DeLozier added that she believes the Gulf states will be seeking “reliability and predictability when it comes to their security” and America’s role in ensuring it. This belief, she said, has been shaken over the years, both by the Obama administration’s Iran deal – from which the Gulf states were largely excluded – and by the lack of a more forceful response from Trump following the attacks on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia that took place in September 2019.

“If it was clearly defined how the US would approach Gulf security, the Gulf states would feel more comfortable. But it hasn’t been totally clear,” DeLozier said. “I don’t know that they’d get a more clear answer in a second Trump administration, or a Biden administration. There are issues, broadly speaking, regardless of whether it’s a Democrat or Republican [administration].”

The UAE-Israel deal: a win no matter what?

In the case of the UAE, many analysts and Middle East policy experts in the US have noted that the recent announcement of a ‘peace’ treaty with Israel – which was brokered by the Trump administration – will leave it in good standing with both parties, regardless of the outcome of the November election.

“This will only enhance the relationship with the United States, with both Trump and, if elected, the Biden  administration,” explained Sarah Elzeini, the CEO and founder of SMZ International Group, a DC-based global advisory and strategic activities company.

“We already see Biden praising the UAE’s efforts,” she added. “For the UAE, the timing was smart because this won them a lot of praise on the Democrat side, which will start them off on a good foot if Biden were to come into office.”

The normalisation of ties with Israel by the UAE – and other Gulf countries that may follow suit in the future – may bolster efforts to ensure a steady flow of sophisticated military technology from the US, even if a potential Biden administration is less flexible with regards to arms sales than Trump.

“I think those countries that begin working with and integrating with Israel will be better able to justify that they need certain aircraft, weapons and acquisitions from the US,” she said, pointing to current discussions on the UAE’s acquisition of F-35 combat aircraft. “Potentially, down the road, the UAE-Israel deal may help the UAE receive greater military capabilities, as they will not be seen as a threat.”

Business as usual?

Regardless of who sits in the White House following the election, analysts are largely in agreement that business ties between the US and the region will continue unabated, with minimal disruption.

However, Aaron Cutler noted that any change in tax codes imposed by a switch to a Democrat-controlled Senate could impact US businesses operating overseas, including in the Gulf.

“In that scenario, you could see the corporate tax rate being raised by Democrats, and it would be a tougher environment for US corporations,” he said. “They’d have to make tougher decisions about operating units overseas.”

Sarah Elzeini, for her part, said that increased business ties – particularly in the tech sector – have the ability to “transcend politics and administrations” at a time in which Gulf states are working to bolster their own digital infrastructure.

“There is a big area for business at all levels in the space of tech, telecommunications, cybersecurity and AI,” she said.

“As tensions mount between the US and China, and as the Arabian Gulf is in a looming interdependency of exports in oil for imports in products and services, it would be wise for businessmen and governments alike to start doing more business with the US in this space,” Elzeini added. “This will be a win-win financially and further strengthen the bilateral relationship.”



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