Saudi Arabia’s View of a Potential Biden Presidency
With only a few days until the 2020 U.S. presidential election, polls show former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead. An end to the Trump presidency could have major foreign policy implications, especially in the Middle East, where the White House has invested heavily in Washington’s partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A potential Biden presidency could change U.S.-Saudi relations in major ways—a scenario that proves uneasy for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS).
While no dove, Biden would bring more coherent and strategic diplomacy back to U.S. foreign policy. If Biden enters the Oval Office on January 2021, he will likely seek to work more closely with longstanding international institutions such as the United Nations and NATO to address international issues. When it comes to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s adherence (or not) to global norms of decency and diplomacy, Biden may seek to establish certain redlines with MbS- a stark contrast to Trump. This will be particularly true of the Jamal Khashoggi affair, an issue that will continue playing out within the U.S. and internationally in 2021. Perhaps one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia’s leadership is fearful of a Biden victory has to do with Iran and how Washington-Tehran relations could improve if the former VP becomes commander-in-chief next year.
The Saudi-Iranian geopolitical battle for influence has taken centre stage in the discussion on U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s decision to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and continue the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, much to Saudi Arabia’s delight, has resulted in intense U.S.-Iran brinkmanship. While remaining tough on Iran, Biden is likely to ease tensions through his “smarter way” of dealing with the Islamic Republic, shifting the U.S. back in line with its European allies.
In early August, Biden said that should Tehran adhere to the nuclear agreement’s terms, he would “re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside [America’s] allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints.” However, Washington’s return to the negotiating table will come at a price, with the new terms and conditions likely addressing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, domestic human rights violations, as well as “Iran’s other destabilizing activities.” The initial agreement faced strong opposition from Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) whom the Obama administration did not consult amid negotiations with the Iranians that began in Muscat in 2012/13. Many experts agree that a Biden administration would have to approach the Iranian nuclear file with much more sensitivity to Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini security considerations than the Obama administration showed.
Nonetheless, from the Saudi perspective, Biden, as a veteran of the JCPOA and as Obama’s VP during the negotiations, signing, and implementation of the accord, is closely associated with Trump’s predecessor. For Riyadh, Obama’s eight years in the Oval Office were a difficult time, particularly given how that administration, according to many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, abandoned Washington’s GCC partners in favour of a détente with Iran. For MbS, four more years of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran would better serve Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position in the region than a Biden presidency which could possibly result in the JCPOA being salvaged.
Yemen will be of particular importance in redefining U.S.-Saudi relations. Throughout his campaign, Biden has repeatedly stated that he seeks to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and calls for a “reassessment of [the U.S.’s] relationship with Saudi Arabia.” Of course, campaign rhetoric is yet to be differentiated from actual policies. However, if a Biden administration delayed, canceled, or froze arms sales to the Saudis without first a peace accord in Yemen, Riyadh would feel increasingly vulnerable to the Houthi rebels. Yet such a move on the part of a Biden administration would likely leave the Saudis convinced that they need to negotiate their exit from Yemen. Without a doubt, such a scenario would leave Iran feeling emboldened and this is a major concern on Saudi Arabia’s part, and another reason why the leadership in Riyadh would prefer a Trump victory.
Since Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the brazen assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani in early 2020, Iran has become bolder in Iraq. However, with an economy crippled by instability and conflict, the country’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, aims to reintegrate Iraq into the international community by seeking the support of western allies. This will be accompanied by strengthening ties with its Gulf neighbours while drawing new boundaries with Tehran.
Achieving these ambitious goals will not be easy for Kadhimi. However, if successful, Iraq might one day become a powerful mediator in the Middle East, serving as a channel between Tehran, Riyadh, and Washington. Biden has expressed strong support for Kadhimi and developed strong ties with Baghdad that he will likely seek to maintain. While the situation remains volatile, Biden will aim to reduce America’s military footprint in the region, playing a supportive role in enabling Iraqi allies to manage the continued threat presented by ISIS. Reconnecting Iraq with its Gulf neighbours will support Saudi interests as they also aim to strengthen ties with Iraq. This will provide an opportunity for both Riyadh and Washington to work towards a common goal; restoring Iraq’s independence and strength, therefore pushing back against Tehran.
A Biden administration could result in much more U.S. scrutiny over Saudi Arabia on a host of issues from the Khashoggi murder to the catastrophic war in Yemen. It’s safe to say that the oil-rich kingdom would not be Biden’s first presidential visit nor will he be sword dancing in Riyadh at any point in his presidency. Equally, in contrast to Trump, Biden is unlikely to give MbS the benefit of the doubt on various issues, such as the Khashoggi affair.
Yet below the surface, it is not clear how much a Biden presidency would change any of the fundamentals of the U.S.-Saudi partnership. After all, Biden would need to work with Riyadh on a host of issues in the Middle East that matter significantly to Washington, from Arab-Israeli normalization accords to fighting ISIS and countering Iran. While changes in bilateral affairs could be expected if Trump loses, with many strong institutions serving important roles in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the partnership is very unlikely to end as a consequence of a new president entering the Oval Office.