As the US presidential elections are drawing closer, it is only natural for media outlets worldwide to take a greater interest in analyzing the American status quo as well as the prospects of these elections that will be held on November 3rd, 2020. Arab media outlets and TV channels have also shown tremendous interest in the matter, devoting more screen time for discussing the upcoming elections.
This can be attributed to the fact that the candidate that is going to assume office during the next four years, and the party that will win the majority in the US Congress will highly impact policies in the Middle East. On the one hand, there is hope for the current Republican President Donald Trump to get re-elected for a second term, and on the other hand, many fear a Joe Biden presidency.
Some political commentators believe that a Biden presidency promises a return to the Obama era, especially with regard to two key areas where his policies proved to be highly ill-advised; the first being his position on Iran, and the second is his position on enabling some conservative powers to take hold in the Arab region, as his administration did during and after the so-called Arab Spring.
It is clear that the majority in the Middle East hope for a Republican victory, whether this hope is rooted in fear, or based on an analysis of recent historical developments, both justifications do not stand on solid grounds. Many have chosen to dismiss important incidents that have taken place during the course of the past four years that have affected the overall political scene; for instance, Iran’s increasingly hostile policies, and the failure to achieve any of the objectives of the Arab Spring.
It is safe to assume that neither the US side nor the Arab side fully comprehends how many geopolitical factors interact and play a role in shaping the current political scene in the region. Each party comes to the scene with its own assumptions, methods of analysis, and prejudices.
A witness to modern US-Arab and Gulf relations is the late Ghazi al-Gosaibi who cited many incidents in his book "The Accompanying Minister," revealing the US’s lack of sufficient knowledge on Arab matters. For instance, he recounted “Towards the end of his presidency, Richard Nixon visited Saudi Arabia in 1974, and at the ceremony at which he would deliver his speech he almost made a mistake between the name of his host, King Faisal II, and the late King Faisal, but the translator aptly rectified the mistake.”
At the time, a senior official confided in him that Nixon would complete his presidential term and that he would not be affected by the Watergate scandal. However, a couple of weeks later he resigned from office. Another incident proving how uninformed the Americans have been, took place at a lunch at the White House, al-Gosaibi was seated near an important member of Congress.
The congressman told him that he attended this beautiful hall when the Shah of Iraq visited the White House, to which he responded, “You mean the Shah of Iran ?!” The congressman said: “No, no I know the Shah of Iran, his name is Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, I was referring to the Shah of Iraq.” Al-Gosaibi concludes this story by mockingly saying “The reason for all the confusion must be all the glasses of white wine the congressman had downed.”
In recent history, we can observe a lot of such misunderstandings, misinformation and even fabricated stories that distort the image of both sides, which is perhaps normal. Recently, while welcoming some leaders from the Middle East, President Trump has repeatedly made several mistakes and his guests refrained from correcting him out of courtesy.
The United States of America is a huge country with major interests and concerns around the world. However, during recent decades, it has been preoccupied with internal economic and social issues that are on the verge of escalating to the point of creating irreversible rifts. Furthermore, the US has long encouraged policies in many regions that ended in disasters, such as its campaign to resist the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and finally its intervention in Iraq, as well as its intervention during the events of the "Arab Spring."
The latest commotion regarding the emails of Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State in the first term of the Obama Administration, which have recently taken the internet by storm, added to the list of fears Arabs have in terms of Democrats taking over the White House. Many Arabs fear that a Biden presidency will only bring forth the same chaotic outcomes.
In order to reach a rational analysis of Obama’s approach towards the Middle East, we need to consider two factors, one economic and the other political: the first being the US’s ability to reach self-sufficiency in terms of energy whether through modern technologies or fossil fuels; and the second being the US’s involvement in a quasi-civil war in Iraq after getting deeply tangled up in the Afghanistan war.
These two factors prompted the US administration to dismiss the notion of opting for an extensive and active intervention in the Middle East, especially after realizing that the region’s main problem (the Palestinian cause) had reached a dead end.
It is worth noting that the events of the Arab Spring have caught the US by surprise, leading some to say that maintaining a semblance of stability in the region might entail turning a blind eye and allowing the forces of political Islam to reach power. This is on the basis that these forces are the closest to ‘moderation’ in the region especially within key Arab countries, and they are able to push for some kind of reconciliation with Israel on the pretext of religious slogans. This belief is still prevalent even among the Trump administration; the difference is that it is not explicitly declared.
It was against this background that the Obama administration responded to the events taking place, and no other options seemed viable at the time. The United States, in many regions, proved capable of winning a direct war between two organized armies, but it often showed its inability to win a long civil war in places far or even close to its borders, like what happened in Cuba.
The US may be capable of pulling strings by imposing economic pressures, yet the efficiency of its political influence remains questionable. For this reason, it is safe to assume that the upcoming administration, even if it is democratic, will assume a position that is aligned with the interests of regional key players as well as with its own interests, the most important of which are its energy concerns.
In this regard, we can rest assured that this administration cannot go against Saudi Arabia since it is known among experts in energy policies that there are three global players in this field: The United States, the Russian Federation, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the US’s commercial and industrial competition with China make Middle Eastern markets a prized chess piece in the upcoming ‘survival of the fittest’ battle, especially after the disastrous implications of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy. For this reason, the expressed concerns or hopes regarding the results of the upcoming US elections seem exaggerated and reveal a lack of sufficient understanding of the current situation in the region.
In my opinion, it is too soon to be optimistic or pessimistic at this point.
It is important to note that Arab and Gulf countries, have failed to effectively interact with US policies. Let us take Iran as an example, even as hostility continued to mount between Iran and the current administration, Iran still made sure to focus its effective lobbying strategies to defend its interests.
For instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is a constant guest of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Furthermore, Iranian academics, experts, and even merchants seek every opportunity to communicate and engage. Meanwhile, Arab and Gulf countries remain absent with no effective participation in Washington’s think tanks, and this absence must be addressed and rectified immediately.
Finally: John Bolton, in his book "The Room Where It Happened," explains that President Trump believes that Finland is part of Russia, and that he is unaware that the UK is a nuclear power!
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Saudi Arabian outlet Asharq Al-Awsat.