Solving the Qatar Crisis might be harder for Biden than Trump
By Dr Andreas Krieg & Sebastien Boussois
[originally published in French on Marianne https://www.marianne.net/agora/tribunes-libres/ces-gros-problemes-qui-attendent-joe-biden-dans-le-golfe ]
When America’s news networks finally called one of the closest presidential races in U.S. history for Joe Biden on Saturday, four years of frustration among at least half of American voters gave way to jubilant crowds on the streets of major U.S. cities. The expectations from the new President-elect could not be higher with many hoping that both domestically and internationally Biden can undo the damage the Trump administration leaves behind. Yet, the trajectory that America finds itself on as a superpower in decline is not due to Trump who in many ways has just overseen a process that has been unfolding for nearly two decades.
When looking at the Middle East, and the Gulf in particular, the new president will have few options available to himself to fundamentally change America’s engagement with the region. Biden is constrained by a degree of geostrategic path-dependency that might allow him to strike new chords with Iran but will not change Washington’s dependency on the Arab Gulf states. And it is because of this equal dependency of Washington on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the Biden administration will continue to struggle with overcoming the Gulf Crisis. In fact, although Trump might have been a catalyst for the ongoing blockade against Qatar by its neighbours, his administration also held the key to solving it.
While Trump’s personal ideology might have favoured authoritarians over liberals, it would be naïve to think that with a Democrat in the White House the counterrevolutionary trend that has swiped across the region for years could be reversed. The key proponents of the strategy of authoritarian stability, Abu Dhabi’s strongman Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), might have few ideational synergies with the new Biden administration, but they provide key capability and capacity to America in a region of dwindling relevance to U.S. national interests. Since the Obama years, America’s pivot towards Asia meant that Middle East security was partially or wholly delegated to the Gulf – a trend that Biden will not reverse.
On the contrary, the Biden administration might disproportionately prioritize China and East Asia over the Middle East, leaving the Gulf to itself. Re-joining the Iran Nuclear Deal or entering into new negotiations with Tehran only serves one purpose: de-escalating unnecessary tensions in the region. Yet, it was “maximum pressure” that triggered the Trump administration in recent months to renew their engagement with all parties to the Gulf Crisis in an attempt to get the blockade against Qatar lifted. Qatar having to pay tens of millions of dollars of overflight payments to Iran because of the blockade was something that did not sit well with the anti-Iran hawks in the White House. The new President-elect is unlikely to see Qatar’s rapprochement with Iran as anything else than an asset.
Biden is Less Transactional
Moreover, Trump’s transactional regional policy meant that America’s partners in the Gulf were willing to make concessions in return for promises of new defence deals. Especially Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince has been on a short lead by Trump knowing that the incumbent U.S. President had shielded the kingdom’s future king from severe consequences following the murder of Saudi journalist Khashoggi. Personal loyalties also played an important role in the personal relationship between Abu Dhabi’s strongman MbZ and the Trump White House, which meant that both sides could ask for favours. Although the Emirati lobbying apparatus had extended its tentacles into conservative and right-wing circles close to the Trump administration for years, over the past year the White House had increasingly asked Abu Dhabi to make concessions in the entirely unnecessary blockade against Qatar.
However, unlike Saudi Arabia, the UAE have played both sides, with Abu Dhabi having nurtured good ways into Democratic circles as well. Biden although outspoken against the Saudi Crown Prince, has good ties to the Emirates but without the transactional means to call in favours as Trump was able to. Taken into account that Biden’s priorities are likely going to be in East Asia, it is unlikely that Biden will dedicate as much attention to the Gulf Crisis as Trump did in the past twelve months.
Hence, as the blockade of Qatar is in its fourth year and the ideational differences between Qatar and its authoritarian neighbours appear still irreconcilable, the Gulf Crisis will likely move into its fifth year without any major developments. Biden’s belief in multilateralism alone will not bring neighbours together who have been entrenched in a highly polarized and divisive war over narratives. If America ceases to exercise pressure on the instigators of the blockade in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi despite the prospect of their loss of face, mediation by local actors is unlikely to bring about any meaningful breakthrough.