Ever since the United States replaced Britain as the leading military power in the Gulf region in the 1970s, change in the political leadership in Washington has been observed with great interest in the region’s capitals. With Joe Biden now safely installed in the White House every nuance of the incoming administration will be studied in detail for possible implications. The demise of the Trump administration and the return of Biden, this time as president, will have more consequences than usual, with immediate changes expected in both the style and substance of leadership.
The incoming administration will have a full in-tray of issues that need to be dealt with urgently. First, it will have to sort out who in the new administration will lead on what. Under President Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, emerged as the main trouble shooter on Middle East issues, often bypassing the State Department, the Department of Defence and other agencies. A return to more traditional diplomacy is likely, which whilst overall will be welcomed, will also bring back some elements of interdepartmental rivalry which the new president will have to deal with.
When it comes to the Gulf region and the wider Middle East, there will be five areas where important changes are likely:
The US and Iran appeared to be on the brink of war at several points during the Trump administration. The first task of the new administration is to de-escalate tension with Iran, whilst maintaining a firm stance towards the Islamic Republic’s hardliners. Biden is committed to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known as the Iran nuclear deal – based on mutual compliance, whereby sanctions would be lifted provided Tehran reverses its nuclear breaches. Biden’s task will be to move the JCPOA forward whilst bringing in support for it from the GCC countries, who remain wary about Iranian ambitions and the international community’s way of dealing with them. Biden will benefit from having people with previous experience of working on the deal in his administration, including the new CIA Director-Designate, William Burns.
A new US-EU initiative to increase confidence in the Gulf region may emerge as a way of supporting the JCPOA and as a means of regaining the initiative on issues related to Gulf security and increasing European involvement. There is, of course, already a Russian proposal on the table aimed at enhancing Gulf security, including the holding of a collective-security conference in the Gulf. Foreign Minister Lavrov raised this proposal during his discussions with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan al Saud during the latter’s visit to Moscow on 14 January and is also set to discuss it with the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif when he visits Moscow later this month.
Both the Western countries and the GCC partners would want to see some signs of goodwill coming from Tehran early on. One place where this could happen is Yemen.
One of the flurry measures in the last days of the Trump administration was the designation of the Houthis in Yemen as a terrorist group. The EU and several other international partners criticised this measure as unhelpful for finding a solution to the Yemen crisis, which the Houthis need to be a part of. The measure was, however, welcomed by the Gulf countries engaged in supporting the legitimate government of Yemen against the Houthis. If the Biden administration decides either to launch its own initiative to end the Yemen crisis or support one coming through other parties, this issue can be resolved as part of a wider package. Many consider Yemen as a political black hole, and there is doubt whether the new US administration would want to get very deeply entangled in it; however, given the stakes at play, it just might.
The Abraham accords
Another much more positive legacy of the Trump administration are the so-called Abraham accords, which saw a normalisation of relations between a number of Arab countries and Israel. The way the accords were reached, with countries like Morocco and Sudan particularly, was typical of the transactional approach that characterised Trump’s foreign policy, with some questioning their sustainability in the long term. But it is also the case that, for example, the deal between Israel and the UAE is based on a more solid foundation that takes into account shared dangers and shared opportunities. In all cases, the Biden administration will want to be seen building on these agreements, although the extent to which they will do so enthusiastically will have to be seen. The accords, despite being criticised by several Palestinian groups, may also provide the Biden administration with new entry points for its relations with the Palestinians, which reached a particularly low point during the Trump administration.
Relations with Saudi Arabia and the human rights agenda
Relations between Washington and Riyadh remain a major cornerstone on which US foreign policy is built. Massive changes have been taking place in Saudi Arabia in recent years, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. The positive changes have been overshadowed by unpleasant episodes that have caught the attention of the media. The new Biden administration will have to chart a delicate balance between expressing concerns on issues related to human rights that continue to overshadow the relationship, whilst supporting the wider process of reform that is transforming Saudi Arabia from a medieval kingdom into a modern successful state. Other countries in the region are likely to be challenged on their human rights record too, including Egypt – the other pillar of US relations with the Arab world.
The shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific
Whilst all this may require an element of engagement on the part of the US administration with the complicated and delicate processes in the Middle East, this will have to happen as the US continues to shift its attention towards the Asia-Pacific region where the increasing assertiveness of China poses the most serious future challenge for global security. There is a solid argument for European countries to step up their engagement with the Gulf region, particularly in areas of defence and security. The EU military and security capability remains modest at best. But individual EU member states, particularly France and Germany, already have a long experience of engagement with the region, and may spearhead a European response, with broad support from the wider EU. Here a new formation – which may include Britain, regardless of Brexit – may emerge, and NATO may also play a bigger role in the region going forward
Why now is the right time to reset and upgrade EU-GCC relations
The historic Al-Ula summit on 5 January, which saw the healing of the rift between Qatar and several other GCC members, was warmly and genuinely welcomed by the European Union.
The EU has had a long and positive relationship with the GCC from the time the group was established, but accepted wisdom is that these relations fall far short of their potential. Individual European countries have been happy pursuing their narrow national interests in relations with the Gulf states, and the latter have responded in a similar fashion. There is a sense that this approach is now no longer good enough. As the EU seeks to develop into a geopolitical player, the Gulf region is probably one of the first and most important areas Europe needs to focus on, and a reduced role of the US in the region will make this imperative. However, there are also other reasons.
For the last few years, a process of reform has been ongoing throughout the GCC. Visionary plans, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and Oman Vision 2040, are not simply top-down masterplans drawn up in the offices of Western consultancies as is sometimes alleged. They reflect the aspirations of the people of the region, especially the youth, and the commitment of the leadership in these countries to deliver deep and substantial reforms. These reforms are now seen in their most stark forms in areas such as economic liberalisation, cultural renaissance, and a speedy process of empowering women to play a full and equal part in their respective societies. These issues, which once were stumbling blocks for EU-GCC relations, are now the cornerstones on which a new level of co-operation can be built. Europe needs to recognise this and step-up its engagement with this reform process, offering – where useful and necessary – advice, technical support and encouragement. The EU can and should be the partner of choice in the journey of reform and renewal that the GCC states have embarked on.
With the GCC now poised for a relaunch after nearly three years of stagnation because of the Qatar crisis, now is a very good time for EU-GCC relations to be put on a stronger footing and for a more ambitious bilateral agenda to emerge. This should also take into account the considerable soft power that the two blocs yield, which if brought together, can become a real game-changer in many contexts.
source: This analysis was prepared by the research team of commonspace.eu
photo: The Abraham accords are one positive legacy of the Trump administration. The Israeli prime minister Netanyahu is seen with the foreign ministers of Bahrain and UAE after signing the accords (archive picture)