GCC: Would the Gulf States Want a Second Trump Presidency? \ Newslooks.com \ Washington DC \ Opinion Does President Joe Biden deserve another term, or should Donald Trump be brought back to the White House? Would it best to elect another Republican such as Nikki Haley, Ron DeSantis, or Vivek Ramaswamy? Until November 2024, these questions will nauseatingly dominate political debates and news cycles in the United States.
But it is worth asking, how do Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members look at this election? Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, generally prefer working with Republicans who approach the Gulf more transactionally.
However, despite what many in Washington might assume, the 2024 race’s outcome isn’t necessarily too important to GCC policymakers. Compared to decades ago, America’s domestic political arena matters much less to Gulf officials. Since the 2000s, there have been general trends in US foreign policy which GCC members don’t see changing regardless of who is president.
“The GCC leaders in general have become increasingly disillusioned with America’s alleged leadership role in the Middle East and that pretty much started with the Obama administration, but continued through the Trump administration, and now affects also the Biden administration,” said Dr. Andreas Krieg, an associate professor at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, in an interview with Newslooks. “For most GCC countries, there has been a realization that this shift away from majorly focusing on the Middle East is a…matter of grand strategy rather than government policy.”
Although America remains all Gulf states’ security guarantor, Washington’s foreign and security policies are less aligned with those of GCC members. This factor has contributed to Gulf capitals diversifying partnerships by moving closer to China, Russia, India, Turkey, and other non-Western powers to gain greater autonomy from Washington.
GCC and US Competition with China and Russia
Foreign policy pundits in the US frequently focus on Trump and Biden’s differences while ignoring their similarities. Biden has continued many of his predecessor’s foreign policy agendas. Great power competition is a case in point of continuity from Trump to Biden.
Both administrations pressured the UAE and other GCC states to not use Huawei technology. Regardless of which candidate wins, the US will continue to press Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals on their relationships with China while remaining obsessed with expanding the Abraham Accords.
“Generally speaking, there are some personality politics that will change if there is a switch in the presidential administration, but strategically speaking, the United States will remain in an increasing great power competition with Russia and China, regardless of president and the Gulf Arab states don’t particularly want to choose a side between these two camps,” Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company Rane, told Newslooks.
Of course, if Trump returns to the Oval Office in 2025, the world will be much different from the 2017-21 period. In February 2022 came the Ukraine shock, raising post-Cold War tensions between Washington and Moscow to their highest levels. If Trump wins next year, his new administration could approach Russia and Ukraine differently. Here the implications for Gulf countries could be significant.
Biden’s team has attempted to bring GCC states away from Moscow. Although such efforts appear to have proven futile, they would probably continue if Biden secured another term. If Trump returns to the White House, however, his administration will possibly take steps toward negotiating a freeze of the Ukraine War while perhaps slowly lowering temperatures in US-Russia relations. Gulf policymakers would welcome this change.
“If we do see a second Trump term, I tend to think that the GCC states will hope that will mean an easing of pressure on them to reduce ties with Russia,” said Bohl.
During Trump’s first presidency, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain cheered his aggressive “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Those GCC states had greater confidence in Trump’s commitment to countering Tehran than they ever had in Barack Obama. Yet, new circumstances in the region might result in them not wanting the US to return to Trump’s Iran policies from the 2017-21 period.
Gulf leaders came to terms with the failures of “maximum pressure” and realized that diplomatically engaging Iran had the better chance of bringing lasting peace and stability to the Gulf. The Saudi Iranian détente and improved relations between other GCC members and Tehran must be seen against the backdrop of “a loss of faith in America’s ability and willingness to protect the GCC states from Iranian activities in the region,” Dr. Krieg told Newslooks. Moreover, this loss of faith is unlikely to be reversed if Trump or another Republican triumphs in next year’s election.
“While this is still a thin veneer of rapprochement between the GCC states and Iran—particularly when it comes to Saudi Arabia and the UAE—I don’t think we’re going to a see a U-turn, even if there is a new president coming in, potentially even Trump. I think there are underlying grand strategic elements of pragmatism in the GCC that are enduring. They are not going to change, even with the US president changing. Domestic politics in the US has far less of an impact on how regional actors behave,” added Dr. Krieg.
Ultimately, GCC-US relations are increasingly about institutions and less about personalities. Both sides are working together quite pragmatically. In this context, Gulf leaders want steady hands in the White House with an American head of state clearly defining Washington’s foreign policy goals and supposed values.
“While some Gulf governments have indicated nostalgia for the former Trump administration’s transactional approach—favoring economic and security ‘wins’ with little regard for human rights agendas—the former administration’s Middle East agenda was riddled by unpredictability and greater risk acceptance for escalation,” Caroline Rose, a senior analyst, and head of the power vacuums programme at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said in an interview with Newslooks.
Saudi and Emirati officials probably want to see Trump win in 2024. But Riyadh and Abu Dhabi would want him to be more predictable than he was in his first term. Additionally, as their détentes with Iran remain on track, they would not want a second Trump administration’s foreign policy to disrupt the relative stability which the Gulf has enjoyed since 2021.
“The Gulfies want clarity. They don’t want an indecisive and chaotic American government. It seems that the Biden administration [has been] unfortunately that. Whether what Biden has done domestically is good or bad, in terms of regional policy and Middle Eastern policy there is a consensus [in the Gulf] that Biden has just continued and probably even worsened America’s standing in the region and continued a trend of disengagement,” said Dr. Krieg.
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