While President-elect Joe Biden has yet to fill out key cabinet and foreign-policy positions for his next administration, top U.S. allies in the Arab Gulf are voicing concerns over a return to a more friendly posture towards Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, including going back to the Iranian nuclear deal.
Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi intelligence and chairman of the Saudi King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, warned Washington on Tuesday of making the same mistakes made the first time round in 2015 as part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
Addressing Joe Biden, he said, “Mr. President-elect, do not repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of the first deal. Any non-comprehensive deal will not achieve lasting peace and security in our region,” reported Al Arabiya.
“Iranian disruptive regional behavior in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, by attacking directly and indirectly the oil installations, is as much of a threat as is its nuclear program,” said Prince Turki.
“I think Gulf states are hoping that Biden will govern as a centrist with an experienced team and will address the weaknesses of the JCPOA,” Ali Shihabi, an author and commentator on the Middle East with a focus on Saudi Arabia, told JNS.
If the Biden administration governs in such a way, then it will “get the support of Gulf states,” he added.
Under the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states developed a transactional relationship. In particular, U.S. President Donald Trump took a less hostile approach to the Saudis on their poor human-rights record and refrained from criticism over its role in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen. Most analysts expect a Biden administration to adopt a more values-based foreign policy that could be more critical of allies like Saudi Arabia.
Biden is also expected to push for greater efforts to combat climate change, which may include more pressure on the oil-rich Gulf states to cut back on production and emissions. Still, these countries are also looking towards diversifying their economies away from a reliance on oil and gas, which could provide new opportunities for cooperation.
Indeed, the normalization deals with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reflect these countries’ desires to focus on investment and developing economic ties, especially in areas such as high-tech. At the same time, the Sunni Arab states’ warming relations with the Jewish state serves as an insurance policy against a future administration that seeks rapprochement with Tehran. If it can’t count on Washington to counter Iranian attacks and aggressive behavior, then an alliance with Israel would be the next best thing, they wager.
Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, said “the Arab Gulf states have been hedging their bets regarding U.S. policy towards Gulf security since the second Obama term.”
“Normalization with Israel, broadening ties with China and Saudi declarations regarding future nuclear development reflects the strategic hedge. In less declaratory fashion, the Saudi and Emirati interest in ballistic missiles also reflect that reality,” he said.
Nevertheless, added Friedman, “many of the Gulf Arab states would probably welcome a return to the JCPOA under the right terms.”
Muslim Brotherhood commits ‘violence and terrorism’
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are also concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots seeking to remake states in the Middle East. Other Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt and Sudan are trying to keep domestic Islamists at bay.
Turkey and Qatar push its Sunni revolutionary ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region.
Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars last week labeled the organization a terrorist group, saying it did not represent Islam and only seeks “to grab the reins of power.”
The council added that the group wreaks havoc and commits “violence and terrorism.”
Saudi Arabia and the UAE designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in 2014.
Eran Segal, a research fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Gulf States research at the University of Haifa, told JNS that it is fair to assume that the Gulf states are concerned with possible policy changes in Washington.
“They are concerned with the change of views regarding the Muslim Brotherhood. It is no coincidence that last week the Saudis stressed again the fact that it is a terrorist organization,” said Segal.
“The Saudis and Emiratis are suspecting that Democrats can create an atmosphere that enables the rise of the Brotherhood in the Sunni world like a decade ago. This is, in my view, what they see as a threat similar to the threat from Iran, if not a bigger one,” he assessed.
The Obama administration had supported the organization and invited its leaders to the White House. It also had criticized the ouster of former Brotherhood Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the military in 2013.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other status quo powers would not want a Biden administration to warm up to the Muslim Brotherhood.
That said, Arab countries that oppose Iran and Islamist influences are closely watching where the next U.S. administration will go on these two critical issues.