Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director and Mike Eisner is the General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer of DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now).
As the United States gears up for the the November 3 presidential election, questions have been raised over the potential impact of a Joe Biden administration for Qatar and the Gulf region.
The most recent polls predict a Biden win in the November 3rd presidential election, which would be a welcome sign for the viability of liberal democracy in the United States and potentially good news for Qatar across several key issues in the Gulf region. Among other small adjustments, Biden is expected to return to a more moderate, but fundamentally unchanged approach of prior administrations, which centres on close ties to Israel and arms sales that fuel the region’s arms race.
The Trump Administration moved closer to Saudi Arabia than any prior US administration, signalling its intention with Trump’s first foreign trip outside the US to Riyadh. President Biden will seek to maintain the strong strategic alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia but with some adjustments to account for the Kingdom’s gross and increasingly embarrassing human rights record. We can expect a President Biden to make efforts to reign in Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s worst abuses; this includes continued efforts to attack Saudi activists living abroad even after Khashoggi’s murder and its war in Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Given the strong bipartisan Congressional opposition to the war in Yemen, Biden may threaten to end US military sales to Saudi Arabia for its disastrous war in Yemen, which could give the Saudis the “out” they need to justify ending the war.
With respect to the Khashoggi killing, Biden will most likely comply with Congressional legislation requiring declassification of the intelligence report revealing the Crown Prince’s leading role in the murder. Biden’s already on record stating that he believes MBS ordered the killing of Khashoggi.
Revealing the truth of MBS’ role will create a significant challenge for the Biden Administration, though, which will have to find a workaround to continue selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and preserve America’s strategic alliance with a country led by a documented murderer. It won’t be the first time for the United States.
Biden is likely to press much harder on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end their blockade on Qatar.
The Trump administration recently stepped up its diplomatic efforts to encourage a resolution, ultimately realising that the conflict between two strategic allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is not in the interests of the United States. MBS and MBZ would do well to show some flexibility now and make a deal to end the blockade while they still have the Trump administration tilting the scales in their favour.
A Biden administration will not have the same patience for their antics, and might well employ levers to pressure them to end the blockade that President Trump wouldn’t consider, including blocking or delaying arms shipments.
With respect to Iran, Biden has already declared his priority to return to the approach of the Obama administration, in contrast to the Trump administration’s more belligerent approach, which derives in large measure from the US’ close ties to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Biden will most likely end Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and seek to draft a new version of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). A new agreement between the US and Iran will likely ease pressure on Qatar to downgrade its relations with Iran.
“Qatari citizens should welcome the election of a President Joe Biden”
We can expect a more realist Biden administration not to harbour hopes about possible ripple effects of domestic reform in Iran with a second draft of the JCPOA. Instead, Biden will seek to incorporate conditions concerning Iran’s activities in the region and to make the agreement permanent. The good news for everyone in the Gulf is that a second version of the JCPOA, regardless of its terms, would reduce the chances of military conflict between the United States and Iran, which of course would be highly damaging to Gulf economies and security.
A top Iranian Revolutionary Guard General has gone on record threatening to strike the US al-Udeid base in Qatar in the event of military conflict with the US. The Iranian General’s threat might well be more bluster than real. Regardless, any military clash between the US and Iran could result in miscalculations by the combatants that could draw even Qatar into the conflict.
On Israel-Palestine, long a concern to the Qatari people, a Biden Administration will continue the bipartisan policy of previous American administrations, including the Trump administration, that has favoured Israel, with billions in military assistance and diplomatic cover from accountability for its abuses.
However, Biden will return to the more nuanced, mainstream US policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict that will likely provide some moderate check on some of the worst Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, and forestall the threatened annexation of the West Bank.
Read also: Would an Israeli embassy ever open in Doha?
Biden recently stated, “Israel needs to stop the threats of annexation and stop settlement activity because it will choke off any hope of peace.” However, Biden will not move to cut military aid to Israel even if settlements continue to expand, as they have even since the UAE-Israel normalisation. Israel’s military occupation will most likely continue under a President Biden.
Expect US arms to continue to flow to the region.
More than half of US arms sales from 2014-2018 went to the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia received and paid for an astounding 25% of all US arms exports from 2015-2019. That’s big business for the United States, and the percentages of US exports to the region and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to change, barring the emergence of new arms markets for US weapons sellers.
Indeed, the proposed sale of F-35 stealth fighters to UAE in the wake of the Israeli-UAE normalisation might well signal an increase in US arms sales to the region in the coming years, and an acceleration of the regional arms race.
In short, Qatari citizens should welcome the election of a President Joe Biden, who will bring pressure to bear to end the Saudi and UAE-led blockade and will minimise the significance of Qatar’s ties with Iran.Finally, a Biden administration will likely reestablish the strength of America’s diplomatic corps, including filling the many State Department vacancies with more professional diplomats than political hacks. Qatar should benefit from this diplomatic upgrade. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that a professional and experienced US Ambassador in Riyadh in June 2017 might have headed off the Saudi-led blockade entirely. As it was, the Trump administration left the post of US Saudi Ambassador vacant until April 2019.
With respect to the region, Biden will not bring any major reforms to America’s longstanding approach, but his more predictable policies will be an improvement over the incompetent and erratic approach of the Trump Administration.
Michael Eisner is the General Counsel of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and former US State Department Attorney-Adviser. Sarah Leah Whitson is Executive Director of DAWN.
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.