There are few leaders in the Middle East who would want Joe Biden to take office in January of next year. Considered a disciple of Obama, many consider him as a potential U.S. president who will merely replicate Obama’s policies and ostracise them from the White House as a punishment and a recalibration of U.S. relations in the region.
Indeed, countries like Saudi Arabia – which has the most to lose – will place its de facto young leader in a pickle when faced with Iran being reinvigorated by going back to the so-called ‘Iran Deal’ and the lifting of sanctions, in particular on oil sales in a period where GCC countries can’t even get close to the 65 dollar break even figure on a barrel of crude oil, even with the assumption that a vaccine for Covid will be found in 2021. For a young, capricious and insecure Crown Prince, the idea of Iran being allowed to sell oil again in the marketplace is a mother of all nightmares, given that this will put further economic pressure on him and only feed his enemies in Riyadh with more fodder to destabilise him with their effective Chinese Whispers strategy.
The UAE’s de facto leader Mohamed Bin Zayed (otherwise known as MbZ) was smart to distance himself from MbS in Riyadh. But perhaps not too smart to quickly rush into a disingenuous peace deal with Israel – which will be hard to justify to a Biden administration who will ultimately see it as a way of beefing up defences against Iran. In fact, it is nothing of the sort and in reality a quick fix for the UAE to get high technology weapons to serenade in front of its real enemies in the region, namely Qatar and Turkey. But Biden’s people are unlikely to see through the dark art of double-speak and treachery in a region where there is no stigma whatsoever on lying to your allies. At first, they praised the UAE leader for his “brave” move on signing the deal, but when their experts look more closely in the early weeks and months in office, they will take a different tact.
Human rights will play a central role to Biden’s policies in the region. And so, women’s rights in the UAE will be a subject which will get on the radar. Turkey’s Trump-like leader Recep Erdogan is likely to come out as an enemy due to his abysmal record on locking up journalists. Egypt too, whose leader also praised Trump with almost evangelistic reverence once, will be placed in the cooler. And where to start of Saudi Arabia, a country whose elite have a feral contempt of free thinking, where no real newspapers exist and where there is no word for ‘parliament’ in the local dialect? Allowing women to drive and pop concerts isn’t going to cut the mustard with Biden who has regularly chastised the kingdom and questioned whether U.S. should be selling arms there.
In many ways, though, the outcome, it could argued, might be the same, whether Trump gets re-elected or not in that Iran will have an upper hand in the region no matter what. The Trump camp is banking on a deal being struck with Iran whereby Tehran could have oil sanctions lifted in exchange for its own regional hegemony being scaled back in places like Yemen. And perhaps even Lebanon. If such a deal were to be discussed though, Iran would realise quickly how it had a much stronger hand to play by organising a few shenanigans in the straits of Hormuz to accompany such a dialogue. Indeed, its own hard liners have made it clear that it won’t accept four more years of sanctions and that a military option is more viable. This of course will affect Saudi Arabia’s ability to produce and ship out oil from its ports. Unlikely Iran will buckle further and sign a deal with Trump whose tough policies have only strengthened the hardliners who won’t want to look weak.
The Biden approach is to get Iran back and for the U.S. to come back to the Iran deal (with a few caveats). If this were to gain momentum in the first 100 days of Biden being in office, then the financial impact on the Saudis would be more or less the same. They would lose money by having Iran enter the world market again when oil prices are crippling their economy, still in the grips of a Covid crisis which has affected oil sales globally. And this assumes that the Iranians are ready to get in bed again with the U.S. Expect sunset and sunrise clauses to dominate any new deal.
And so you could argue that both scenarios impact Saudi Arabia financially. The difference perhaps is that Biden’s approach might well produce a silver bullet for MbS and his Kingdom and probably doesn’t involve military actions in the region.
So far, the 2030 vision to jump start Saudi Arabia’s economy has been a disaster. There doesn’t seem to be any takers to fill the gap for what some experts are estimating to be a project running into trillions of dollars. Biden’s hardline policies towards the country to install real human rights reform – which at some point would probably mean ushering in the auspices at least of a pluralistic political model – would at least have a positive effect on attracting investors. MbS appears to be entirely tone deaf to the link between Saudi Arabia locking up women protestors for their campaign to improve their rights or the horrific treatment of the Shia minorities – and the lack of foreign direct investment (FDI) which in real terms is currently zero. The good ‘ol days of Trump which gave MbS a free reign on egregious human rights abuses – including the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – would be over if Biden would take office. The problem for MbS is that he has no policies, no ideas, no solutions to pull himself out of this hole of the economy continuing to fail, post January’s result. He also has no time. The young leader is so paranoid about a coup d’état which would follow yet another confidence crisis among his enemies, that time is the real issue. Not signing up to the Israel-UAE “peace deal” was probably seen as petulant as relations with Trump even fell to an all-time low. But a new era of human rights opprobrium from a U.S. president will be just what the doctor ordered for the investors to look at Saudi Arabia through a new prism. Many will ask though, will MbS be around when it happens?