There have been rapid changes in the Democratic primary race in recent days, with several prominent candidates dropping out, and with left-wing candidate Bernie Sanders initially looking set to be the dominant candidate. However former Vice President, Joe Biden, has suddenly emerged as the other frontrunner, following a shaky start to the contest, but then winning big in South Carolina. The withdrawal of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar disproportionately favoured Biden as the principal remaining centrist candidate, allowing him to notch up a series of unexpected wins in the 3 March “Super Tuesday” voting.
This means that in the 3 November presidential elections, the winner will almost certainly be one of three figures: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Here we take a look at what a presidency under each of these figures could mean for the GCC region.
Sanders has conducted an unapologetically radical campaign, as the standard bearer of the “socialist” far-left. His policy promises, like “Medicare for all” would see massive domestic expenditure, while he has pledged to slash overseas military spending. Over his long political career he has always been one of the most outspoken figures against US involvement overseas, particularly in the Middle East.
Sanders has a record of hostile language towards Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, so regional powers would certainly view the prospect of his presidency with concern. While Sanders as a president may have to soften his past rhetoric, it is difficult to imagine his relationship with these states being particularly close or friendly.
Sanders would certainly back away from Trump’s tough policies on Iran, and may move to abolish sanctions (although this could be opposed by Congress). While it’s unclear what a revised deal with Iran could look like under a Sanders presidency; the Tehran regime would certainly look to exploit Sanders’ dovish and anti-interventionist tendencies concerning Middle East policies.
Although Sanders is Jewish, he has been strongly outspoken against Israel’s leadership – recently calling Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.” Sanders furthermore stated: “I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel. But you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people… We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians.”
Biden is inevitably closely associated with the Obama presidency whose signature foreign policy issue was the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which many GCC states saw as giving too much away to Tehran without addressing Tehran’s meddling and paramilitary activity in the region. Obama’s presidency saw a conscious move away from close engagement with the Middle East. In states like Egypt, the step away from traditional allies like President Mubarak had profound consequences.
Many GCC observers see Obama’s premature 2011 withdrawal from Iraq as setting the stage for the rapid emergence of ISIS throughout the region. However, Biden will be seen as a much more experienced and predictable figure than other candidates who had been in the Democratic race; like Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
In recent debates, Biden called for a re-evaluation of the US’s relations with GCC states. Biden promised to force Saudi Arabia to “pay the price” for the death of Jamal Khashoggi, saying that if he won the elections Saudi Arabia would be treated as a “pariah” and pledging to halt military aid for the war in Yemen.
While Biden would probably want to move quickly back to an updated version of the Iran nuclear deal, there are many reasons why this may not be possible: Supreme Leader Khamenei has said many times that the Trump abrogation of the deal proves that America can’t be trusted, and in recent days the IAEA has reported that Iran has made a lot of progress with its enriched uranium programme just in the last few months, so this may be a higher-stakes game than in 2015. It will also not be easy for Biden simply to cancel the complicated packages of additional sanctions which Trump has imposed on Iran over the past three years.
Trump has established strong ties with GCC states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE over the past four years. Saudi Arabia was the destination for Trump’s first state visit in May 2017, which was an important opportunity for boosting economic and political ties after several years of somewhat strained ties during the Obama presidency.
These states strongly support Trump’s maximum pressure campaign of sanctions against Iran, although there have been some concerns over his U-turns on policy positions, such as over the drawdown of troops in Syria. GCC and other Arab League states strongly condemned the Trump Administration’s proposed deal over the Palestinian issue, which made major concessions to Israel, including annexing Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and much of the West Bank.