Election 2020

UAE, Bahrain Brace for a Chillier Biden Approach

Biden will shift focus in the Middle East, but Israeli-Arab normalization will continue.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 15.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on Sept. 15. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will inherit his predecessor’s signature foreign-policy achievement: the historic Abraham Accords that normalized Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Quietly supported by Saudi Arabia, the pact represents a giant stride toward peace and stability in the Middle East. But it contains some built-in limits for Persian Gulf countries, which may find a chillier reception from the Biden administration next year.

Rather than the seductive tune of F-35 stealth fighter sales to the Emiratis that smoothed the road toward UAE-Israel rapprochement under outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump, the Biden administration will be talking about uncomfortable subjects like rejoining the Iran nuclear treaty, the region’s record on human rights, and the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. As a candidate in August, Biden praised the Abraham Accords as a “historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East.” Later, though, he said U.S.-Saudi ties require a reassessment, a step that could deter the biggest and wealthiest of the Gulf countries from joining the new diplomatic alignment with Israel.

This would be no surprise for Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s famously pragmatic ruler who was quick to congratulate Biden on his victory on Saturday. Mohammed bin Zayed hedged his bets from the start, recognizing that Trump could be a one-term president, and knows Biden from the time the president-elect served in the Obama administration. The savvy crown prince stayed away from the White House signing ceremony in September, sending his foreign minister to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the peace agreement predictably ignited condemnation from Palestinians. The UAE and Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, have a strong footing in Washington and have for decades nimbly managed productive relationships with both Republicans and Democrats in the Oval Office. While ties with Israel may not advance along the trajectory Trump greased with F-35 sales, the Gulf states have broad agendas beyond fighter jets—and will find ample opportunity for warmer ties with the Biden administration after what is likely to be a transition period.

In the meantime, the process of normalization in trade, investment, travel, and tourism will continue. With the once boycotted Israelis now welcomed in the Gulf, lift lines at Dubai’s indoor ski slope should be thick with Israeli tourists at Passover next year no matter what decisions the Biden administration takes.

Jonathan H. Ferziger is a Jerusalem-based non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. Twitter: @jhferziger

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