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What Would a Biden Presidency

Look Like for the GCC

By Sophie Smith

The results of the upcoming US elections will likely impact Washington’s relationship to the Middle East. It is assumed that, if re-elected, Donald Trump would continue his policies of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran and pushing for normalisation between Israel and a string of Arab Muslim states in the region. There is also a possibility that Trump’s second term may be defined by the readiness to use more force in pursuit of US interests. However, what if Trump does not secure a second term? What would Joe Biden’s Presidency mean for the region and, specifically, for the US-Gulf relationship? Although US interests in the region – most notably the continued free flow of oil – remain unchanged, some shift in the foreign policy approach towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is likely, based on the record of past Republican Presidents, including incumbent Trump, and past Democratic administrations. Recent debates involving Biden confirm that he has adopted a critical stance towards Trump’s policies and instead may prioritise dialogue on several issues concerning the Gulf region.


Republicans and the Gulf Region


Past Republican administrations placed a heavy emphasis on maintaining a strong relationship with the GCC countries in line with US interests. Ronald Reagan deepened US military commitments to the GCC countries, working closely with the group to counter Iran.[1] His successor, George W. H. Bush, continued to provide support to the region; the US signed defence cooperation agreements with both Kuwait and Bahrain in 1991 and Qatar in 1992.[2] Further, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield saw the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia in support of Kuwait after the Iraq invasion.[3] In a similar manner, after 9/11, George W. Bush insisted on the strong US-Saudi partnership in the fight against terrorism.[4] He was also the first US President to visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2008.[5] On the issue of Iran, past Republican Presidents have tended to avoid open engagement with the country; within the context of the Cold War, Reagan built upon his Democratic predecessor Jimmy Carter’s policy of containment toward Tehran. This is best seen in the double edged policy of tacitly supporting Baghdad in its war against Revolutionary Iran (1980-1988), while supplying weapons to Tehran in what has become known as the Contra scandal.[6] Such approaches speak to the importance that Republican administrations placed on Washington’s alliance with the GCC countries given US interests in the region.


The current Trump administration has adopted a similar approach. Trump has continued and expanded US arms sales to the GCC countries. This year, the US authorised an $800 million sale of Patriot missiles and upgrades to Kuwait.[7] In 2019, the US approved a $3 billion sale of apache helicopters to Qatar and a $2.5 billion sale of Patriot missile systems to Bahrain.[8] In the same year, Trump evoked his emergency powers – stating a national emergency due to the Iranian threat – to circumvent congressional objections to sell $8 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.[9] Moreover, in 2018, Trump severed ties with Iran as Washington withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposed a ‘maximum pressure’ policy on Iran, much to the dismay of the European Union (EU).[10] More recently, in January 2020, Trump ordered the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) clandestine regional operations.[11] At the same time, Trump has also opted for dialogue in the region. He has called for a diplomatic solution concerning the Qatar crisis and helped to establish the normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain under the Abraham Accords.[12] These policy approaches maintain the close US-GCC relations in pursuit of US interests, much like past Republican Presidents.


Democrats and the Gulf Region


Similar to the Republicans, Democratic administrations have emphasised strong ties with the GCC countries to maintain US security and stability. In the 1980 State of the Union Address, President Carter stated that the US is prepared to use military force to safeguard the Persian Gulf region from outside forces.[13] Deepening relations between the two parties ensued; for example, the US signed its first military cooperation agreement in the region with Oman in the following months.[14] Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too continued to work closely with the GCC countries; Clinton expanded US naval and military assets in the region as part of the ‘dual containment’ policy of Iraq and Iran.[15] Obama forged arms deals with the Gulf countries, including the $29.4 billion F-15 fighter jets sale to Saudi Arabia.[16] Additionally, between 2010 and 2017, the US spent $580 million to further develop the Naval Support Activity in Bahrain.[17] On top of this, Obama implemented a drone-intense strategy, known as ‘counterterrorism plus,’ that called for a light military footprint to reduce costly military engagements in the Middle East.[18]


Concerning Iran, Democratic administrations appear to have a more mixed record in terms of their approach to the Islamic Republic. Carter engineered the US containment strategy towards Iran, which led to several economic sanctions on Tehran; however, two years later, he signed the Algiers Accords that bound the US to non-interference in Iran to resolve the US hostage crisis.[19] Clinton too imposed several economic sanctions on Tehran; for example, the Executive Order 12957 and 12959 of 1995, which declared a US ‘national emergency’ due to the Iranian threat, as well as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996.[20] Yet, towards the end of his presidency, Clinton hinted that he would welcome dialogue with Tehran, although this never materialised.[21] Building upon this, Obama expanded sanctions against Iran in 2013 to target its car industry and currency.[22] Simultaneously, Washington engaged in dialogue with Tehran and signed the JCPOA in 2015, a historic deal; although, it should be noted that a year later, Obama prolonged Clinton’s Executive Order 12957 (re: national emergency with respect to Iran) and warned that Iran still posed a threat to the US.[23] Such approaches underscore the continued importance of the GCC for the US, while also focusing on engaging in some form of negotiation with Iran.


As a former member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President under Obama, Biden helped formulate many of the aforementioned initiatives. He voted against US military action in the Gulf War while voting for the US invasion of Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.[24] Under Obama, Biden also opposed the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the surge of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and the US intervention in Libya.[25] Concurrently, as Vice President, he has been a proponent of the ‘counterterrorism plus’ strategy, which saw a significant increase in the use of drone strikes in several countries such as Yemen.[26] Equally, Biden promoted diplomatic ties with Iran, assisting with the formulation of the JCPOA.[27] Such past decisions therefore place him within the current Democratic mainstream.


Biden’s Current Stance vis-à-vis the Gulf Region


Biden’s current party platform appears in line with his past decisions. The 2020 Democratic Party Platform calls for re-establishing a diplomatic agreement with Iran to prevent a build-up of nuclear arms while ‘push[ing] back against Iran’s other destabilising actions’ to promote regional dialogue and peace.[28] It further details that the US will continue supporting the Gulf’s modernisation and attempts to ease regional tensions. This could imply that the US will continue calling for a diplomatic solution regarding the Qatar crisis, as well as continue to support normalisation between Israel and the Gulf states. Biden has already stated that he will ‘build on’ the UAE and Bahrain normalisation deals in line with his official programme that calls for ‘Arab states to move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps toward normalization with Israel.’[29] However, a Biden presidency would depart from some of the Trump era policies; the Platform elaborates that the US will end support for the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen.[30] Biden’s current rhetoric takes it further and he has even referred to Saudi Arabia’s leaders as ‘pariahs’ during a Democratic primary debate in November 2019.[31] He also said that he would reassess the Saudi-US relationship in light of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, ending arms sales to the Kingdom.[32]


Taking into account the Democratic Party and Biden’s past approach, his current Platform appears largely to be a continuation of this despite his more critical rhetoric of Saudi Arabia. It is unlikely that Biden will go as far as to cease all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Instead, he may merely place more pressure on the GCC countries on issues such as Yemen while continuing to strengthen ties with the region and build on the Abraham Accords to both assuage domestic pressures and uphold US interests.


2 October 2020




[1] Stork, Joe. “Reagan Reflags the Gulf.” Middle East Research and Information Project, Middle East Report 148, September/October 1987,


[2] Coates Ulrichsen, Kristian. Rebalancing Regional Security in the Persian Gulf. Houston: Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, February 2020.


[3] Bush, George W. H. “Address to the Nation Announcing the Deployment of United States Armed Forces to Saudi Arabia.” George W. H. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, August 8, 1990.


[4] Bush, George W. “President Bush Meets with Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” The White House President George W. Bush, April 2002.


[5] Gulf News. “US President Bush arrives in Dubai.” Gulf News, January 14, 2008.


[6] Lawson, H. Fred. “The Reagan Administration in the Middle East.” Middle East Research and Information Project, Middle East Report 128, November/December 1984.


[7] Defense Security Cooperation Agency. “Kuwait – Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) Missile Segment Enhancements (MSES) with Canisters.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, May 28, 2020.


[8] Defense Security Cooperation Agency. “Qatar: AH-64E Apache Helicopters with Spare Parts and Related Equipment.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, May 9, 2019.; Defense Security Cooperation Agency. “Bahrain – Patriot Missile System and Related Support and Equipment.” Defense Security Cooperation Agency, May 3, 2019.


[9] Blanchard, Christopher M. Saudi Arabia: Background and U.S. Relations. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2020.; United States Senate. Roll Call Vote 116th Congress - 1st Session. S.J Res. 36.; United States Senate. Roll Call Vote 116th Congress - 1st Session. S.J Res. 37.; United States Senate. Roll Call Vote 116th Congress - 1st Session. S.J Res. 38.


[10] Trump, Donald. “Remarks by President Trump on Iran Strategy.” The White House, October 13, 2017.; BBC. “Iran nuclear deal: Europe strives to keep agreement.” BBC, May 11, 2018.


[11] Trump, Donald. “Remarks by President Trump on the Killing of Qasem Soleimani.” The White House, January 3, 2020.


[12] Nissenbaum, Dion and Stephen Kalin. “Trump Makes Fresh Attempt to Resolve Saudi, Qatar Feud.” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2020.; The White House. The Abraham Accords. The White House, 2020.


[13] Carter, Jimmy. “State of the Union Address 1980.” The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, January 23, 1980.


[14] Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “U.S. Relations with Oman.” U.S. Department of State, November 27, 2019.


[15] Coates Ulrichsen, Kristian. Rebalancing Regional Security in the Persian Gulf.


[16] Miles, Donna and Karen Parrish. “F-15 Sale to Saudi Arabia Part of Broader Effort.” U.S. Department of Defense, December 31, 2011.


[17] Katzman, Kenneth. Bahrain: Unrest, Security, and U.S. Policy. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2018.


[18] Schulenburg, Rupert. “Obama and ‘Learning’ in Foreign Policy: Military Intervention in Libya and Syria.” E-International Relations, September 5, 2019.


[19] Blakemore, Erin. “U.S.-Iran Tensions: From Political Coup to Hostage Crisis to Drone Strikes.” History, January 8, 2020.; “Algier Accords.” January 19, 1981.


[20] “Executive Order 12957—Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to the Development of Iranian Petroleum Resources.” Code of Federal Regulations (1995).; “Executive Order 12959—Prohibiting Certain Transactions With Respect to Iran.” Code of Federal Regulations (1995).; Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. H.R. 3107, 104th Cong. August 5, 1996.


[21] “Despatches: US/Iran: The Start Of A Thaw?” BBC, December 17, 1997.


[22] “Executive Order 13645 - Authorizing the Implementation of Certain Sanctions Set Forth in the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 and Additional Sanctions With Respect To Iran.” Code of Federal Regulations (2013).


[23] Obama, Barack. “The Historic Deal that will Prevent Iran from Acquiring a Nuclear Weapon.” The White House President Barack Obama, 17 January 2016.; The White House President Barack Obama. “Notice -- Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to Iran.” The White House President Barack Obama, March 9, 2016.


[24] U.S. Congress. House. Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. S.J.Res. 2, 102nd Cong. January 12, 1991.; U.S. Congress. House. Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. H.J.Res. 114, 107th Cong. October 11, 2002.


[25] Rose, Charlie and Joe Biden. “Transcript: Vice President Joe Biden.” Charlie Rose, June 20, 2016.; “Transcript of July Democratic Debate 2nd Round, Night 2: Full Transcript July 31, 2019.”, July 31, 2019.


[26] Council on Foreign Relations. “Candidate Tracker: Joe Biden” Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.


[27] Ayesh, Rashaan. “Biden: ‘I would leave troops in the Middle East’.” AXIOS, January 15, 2020.


[28] Democratic National Committee. 2020 Democratic Party Platform. Democratic National Committee, July 27, 2020.; “Joe Biden and The Jewish Community: A Record and A Plan of Friendship, Support and Action.”, n.d.


[29] Jewish News Syndicate. “Biden praises UAE, Bahrain normalization deals with Israel.” Jewish News Syndicate, September 16, 2020.; “Joe Biden and The Jewish Community: A Record and A Plan of Friendship, Support and Action,”


[30] Democratic National Committee. 2020 Democratic Party Platform.


[31] The Washington Post. “Transcript: The November Democratic Debate.” The Washington Post, November 21, 2019.; Biden, Joe. “Joe Biden Delivers Foreign Policy Address in New York.” YouTube, July 11, 2019.


[32] The Washington Post. “Transcript: The November Democratic Debate;” Biden, Joe. “Joe Biden Delivers Foreign Policy Address in New York.”

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