Looking back at the last four years, it is clear that President Donald Trump emboldened the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to be more hawkish throughout the Middle East.
Since January 2017, these two Arab states have viewed Trump’s presidency as an invaluable and unique opportunity for bold moves in the region to achieve longstanding objectives that would have been too risky to undertake during all pre-Trump U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike. Now, with President-elect Joseph Biden taking over, the big question is what steps his administration will take to curb their maximalist foreign policy ambitions.
Along with Saudi and Emirati military interventions in Yemen and Libya, the three-and-a-half-year-old blockade of Qatar should be close to the top of the Biden agenda. From the perspective of Biden and others who served in the Obama administration, the siege of Qatar and the resulting de facto breakup of the Gulf Cooperation Council as an effective sub-regional institution were unfortunate but foreseeable developments.
The Gulf crisis of March-November 2014, when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha to protest Qatar’s alleged meddling in their internal affairs, made clear the potential gravity of intra-GCC tensions. In fact, according to then-Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, Trump’s predecessor worked hard to prevent the GCC rift over Qatar from escalating, as it did shortly after Trump’s famous visit to Riyadh on his maiden voyage abroad as president in May 2017.
Although the Trump administration, after briefly supporting the blockade, has attempted to reconcile the parties in the interests of rallying all six GCC member states against Iran, such efforts have proved futile. Some analysts believe Washington should apply more pressure on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt to lift the blockade, even to the extent of slowing or halting arms sales until these Arab states settle their rift with Qatar whose Al Udeid Air Base has served as U.S. Central Command’s forward operating base in the region since 2003.
“One of the first Middle East moves the Biden administration should make is to publicly call upon Saudi Arabia to end the boycott immediately, backed by an intention to take the matter before the United Nations Security Council if necessary,” according to the Atlantic Council’s Christopher Hunter. “Such a move should be part of a broader global restoration of the primacy of the rule of law and democratic principles and an explicit rejection of the permissive global environment Trump created for lawless rulers to act on their totalitarian tendencies without fear of consequences.”
Similarly, Michael Eisner and Sarah Leah Whitson of the recently launched Democracy for the Arab World Now have predicted a harder line from Biden. “A Biden administration will not have the same patience for their antics, and might well employ levers to pressure [Saudi Arabia and the UAE] to end the blockade that President Trump wouldn’t consider,” they wrote.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia may reconcile with Qatar in order to buy some goodwill with the Biden administration. Officials in Riyadh are nervous about how the 46th American president may revisit the U.S.-Saudi partnership and punish the kingdom’s leadership for various actions which it took during Trump’s presidency such as the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, as well as its catastrophic five-year-old military intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
Some pundits maintain that signing a diplomatic accord with Israel is a move that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, has to take to prevent a “collapse” in the Riyadh-Washington partnership in the post-Trump era. Yet any deal with Tel Aviv would come with major political risks for the Al Saud rulers—both domestically and regionally. With the majority of Saudi citizens favoring rapprochement with Qatar, ending Riyadh’s involvement in the blockade would entail far less risk for MbS and those around him.
However, when it comes to the UAE, the picture is different. From Washington’s perspective, the Emiratis are not implicated in the Khashoggi affair. The UAE is no longer directly involved in Yemen, and Abu Dhabi signed the Abraham Accords with Israel. These factors mean that, compared to Saudi Arabia, the UAE has to much less to worry about in terms of detoxifying its reputation in Washington—particularly among Democrats who will be in control of the White House and at least one chamber in Congress in just two months.
The UAE may thus have less incentive to repair its relationship with Qatar in order to please the incoming administration and U.S. lawmakers. The costs would be higher too given the extent to which Abu Dhabi has rigidly framed the Qatari “threat” in ideological terms, which makes it more difficult for the leadership to abandon its campaign to isolate Doha.
Biden’s accession to the presidency will likely force Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to give up hope that an unconventional and transactional White House, which has already swung from one side to the other on the blockade, might swing back toward them if given an opportunity. However, MbS’s reluctance to break with his mentor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, will make it more difficult for the Biden administration to pry the Saudis away from the harder-line Emirati stance. The Saudi leadership may instead propose military disengagement from Yemen as a sufficient “gesture” to gain credit with the new administration without antagonizing the Emiratis.
As such, members of the Biden administration tasked with Middle East policy will inherit a dispute that originated in the “alternative facts” free-for-all of the opening months of the Trump presidency and which looks likely to outlast it. The Gulf rift is thus illustrative of the consequential shadow that the Trump administration will cast over its successor as crises that began on Trump’s watch have solidified into intractable impasses.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy based in Washington, DC. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project.
President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump join King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in the inaugural opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.