US presidential candidate Joe Biden has displayed a conflicting stance towards the two Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while scorning the former and speaking positively about the latter.
As the United States presidential elections draw closer, polls indicate the Democrat candidate and former US vice president Joe Biden is favoured to beat incumbent president Donald Trump.
There is speculation over what a Biden victory would mean for Washington’s Middle East foreign policy, and US relations with two key regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Both Gulf states have come under fire for their policies in Yemen, Libya, Qatar and the Horn of Africa, as well as growing domestic repression.
October 2 marked the two-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul: Biden promised to “reassess” US relations with Saudi Arabia should he win.
“Two years ago, Saudi operatives, reportedly acting at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), murdered and dismembered Saudi dissident, journalist, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi," said Biden. "His offense - for which he paid with his life - was criticizing the policies of his government.”
Washington and Riyadh have historic and strong economic, military and strategic ties. Yet Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen since March 2015, which has caused what the United Nations calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” has prompted such calls to revise relations with Riyadh.
After all, Washington has supplied over 70 percent of Riyadh’s arms imports since 2014, while providing crucial parts for its air force, including refuelling war planes. These transactions increased under the Trump administration.
With increasing US Senate and Congress condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war and killing of Khashoggi, Biden has utilised this as a key issue in his campaign.
"Under a Biden-Harris administration, we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil," Biden added.
"America's commitment to democratic values and human rights will be a priority, even with our closest security partners.”
Biden has previously made contemptuous statements towards Saudi Arabia. During a Democratic nominee debate in November 2019, Biden said he would stop selling arms to the Saudis, accusing the Gulf kingdom of “murdering children” in its long and bloody intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
“There is very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” adding he will “make them pay the price and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
Biden clearly seeks to publicly distance himself from Barack Obama’s administration’s position on Yemen, as it initially backed the Saudi-led intervention.
Trump meanwhile has shielded MBS throughout the Crown Prince’s quest for absolute power in Saudi Arabia and granted him a free pass on various regional issues. He boasted “I saved his ass,” referring to growing US Congress criticism of MBS’ role in Khashoggi’s murder. Trump also vetoed US Senate resolutions designed to end US support for the war in Yemen.
Trump’s hard-line support and tolerance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE also largely bolstered the ongoing Saudi-led blockade on fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state Qatar since June 2017.
He wrote in a series of tweets days after the severing of ties: “during my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”
MBS would therefore hope for a Trump victory, given Trump’s support of him. This would also enable him to up efforts against Qatar and Yemen, and increase his grip on power.
While doubts may linger over how much Biden will genuinely pressure Riyadh, his tone indicates he will be less forgiving than Trump. Biden is already tackling sensitive issues for MBS, namely the Khashoggi affair, as the Saudi Crown Prince tried to whitewash his own role in the murder. The Democrats regaining control of the Senate could further reduce Washington’s impunity for MBS.
At the very least, there could be a scaling back of military support to Riyadh.
“Biden is unlikely to be as lenient as Trump with arms sales, and won't push them through without Congressional approval, “ said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East & North Africa Program Director at International Crisis Group.
Even though he has displayed a tough stance on Riyadh, Biden has shown comparative tolerance of the UAE, despite Abu Dhabi’s leading role in Yemen and Libya’s wars, and the blockade on Qatar.
There is growing international criticism of the UAE’s role in these areas. A recent confidential UN report revealed that Abu Dhabi continued to violate the arms embargo on Libya earlier this year, delivering over 150 different flights of weapons shipments to warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces, having empowered his siege on the capital Tripoli since April 2019.
Another UN report in September tied Abu Dhabi to war crimes and human rights violations in Yemen, along with Saudi Arabia. US weapons, supplied to the UAE, had even ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda in Yemen, a previous CNN investigation revealed, as some Emirati-backed southern militias enjoyed non-hostile or even friendly ties to the extremist faction.
Moreover, while Saudi Arabia has shown more receptivity towards Qatar, the UAE has consistently remained hostile to any GCC rapprochement.
A key reason for Biden’s silence is Abu Dhabi’s normalisation with Israel in August, which created the image of the UAE as a peacemaker. After both countries agreed to establish diplomatic relations, Biden stated “the UAE’s offer to publicly recognise the State of Israel is a welcome, brave, and badly needed act of statesmanship,” while also echoing the misleading claims that the deal halted Israel’s annexation of the West Bank.
The UAE has boosted its favour in Washington as a result, not only with Trump, but also Biden and the Democrats- this removes the impression that Abu Dhabi is just a Trump ally.
“Most congressional Democrats — relieved that annexation is off the table for now, and always calling for Arab normalization with Israel in any case —also generally applaud the move,” wrote Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings.
“If Biden becomes the next president, the UAE has put itself on a path that mitigates the strikes against it among Democrats.”
This also comes with significant UAE lobbying efforts in Washington, where it has targeted legislators, non-profits, media outlets and think-tanks, to present a positive image of its foreign policy actions. Though Saudi Arabia has also utilised lobbying in Washington before, the UAE is currently more proactive in this.
Additionally, with far less criticism within the US towards the UAE compared with Saudi Arabia, Biden would feel less urgency to address Abu Dhabi’s actions and scale back military support.
This would however undermine any stated intentions from Biden to bring stability to Yemen, all the while weakening Washington’s ability to resolve other regional issues such as Libya and the GCC crisis.
Joost Hiltermann added that despite the normalisation deal, Abu Dhabi is increasingly less dependent on Washington, meaning that the US may struggle to pressure it regardless of a Biden or Trump victory.
“The US has certainly lost some of its historic leverage over these states owing to their own foreign policy activism (UAE), the availability of other allies and military partners (China, Russia), and discontent over the JCPOA,” he said.
The UAE has bolstered economic, military and strategic ties with Russia and China in recent years, seeking to bolster its own foreign policy independence and move away from Washington’s hegemony.
Therefore, compared with Saudi Arabia, the UAE will face less pressure after November, irrespective of the victor.
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