November 25, 2020

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Traumatised by Obama’s Foreign Policy, Saudi Arabia is Wary of What’s to Come Under Biden

As the battle over the United States presidency has dragged on, few countries have been unaffected by the continuing tug-of-war – and Saudi Arabia is definitely not one of them.

The prevalent mood is that Riyadh wants President Donald Trump to be re-elected and, given what he did for Saudi Arabia in his four years in office, that desire is understandable.

It was Trump who vetoed the congressional bid to halt arms sales to the Gulf country, not to mention his pressure on Iran’s infamous nuclear programme which had kept many in Riyadh on their toes.

Past Trauma

Now that the Democrats are only one state away from the presidency, Washington’s pro-Saudi policies are subject to change, and Ahmed Al Ibrahim, a Riyadh-based political analyst, says his country will not sit idly by watching how the US returns to President Obama’s foreign policy.

“America is our traditional ally and we will find a common ground with any administration but if Riyadh sees Washington reverting to its previous policies, relations with the US will be cold.”

Saudis could never live in peace with Obama’s foreign policy. In 2011, with the eruption of the Arab Spring in Egypt, his administration supported the overthrow of the then-president, Hosni Mubarak – a staunch Saudi ally – and in doing so, gave a boost to the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical movement which is considered a terrorist organisation by Riyadh.

Several years later, Obama backtracked from his red-line policy on Syria and refrained from striking targets of the Syrian government, an Iranian ally, which raised eyebrows in Riyadh; then he entered into a deal with Iran, allowing it to continue with its nuclear project and lifted sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Bleak Future?

Biden is expected to continue Obama’s line and might even halt other processes started by Trump such as the Gulf’s normalisation with Israel. But apart from a change in foreign policy, he might also take a different approach to the economy, something that can eventually harm Riyadh.

During his pre-election campaign, Biden has promised that the US under his leadership would move away from dependency on oil and gas, opting for green energy.

Such a move would mean losses of $1bn for Saudi Arabia that supplies 7 per cent of America’s oil needs, after Canada and Mexico.

But Al Ibrahim downplays the significance of such a move, saying it could not harm Saudi interests.

“The entire world is now moving to green energy but it might take 50 years or more until it can affect the Saudi market. Plus, we can always offer our oil to other countries, not just the US.”

Al Ibrahim says Riyadh can take a similar approach when it comes to foreign policy.

“The US is our ally but they are not the only ones and if they do no play ball, we will start to open new channels with countries such as Japan, South Korea, Russia and China.”

However, the analyst hopes relations with Washington will not hit a low ebb. But to prevent deterioration, Al Ibrahim believes Washington should respect the Saudi traditions and avoid snooping into its domestic affairs.

“All they need to do is to be a strong ally, be genuine with us, work with the Gulf Co-operation Council and be committed to the idea of hammering the threat of Iran in the region… but even if they don’t do that, Biden and his administration are a temporary phenomenon and I believe that once they are gone in four years, the situation will improve.”

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