How the Middle East Can Hedge Against a Biden Presidency | Opinion

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are in for a rude awakening if former Vice President Joe Biden defeats President Donald Trump in November and Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate in addition to the House. The only thing that might save them: normalizing relations with Israel.

For now, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem preoccupied with whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will declare sovereignty over roughly 30 percent of the West Bank, consistent with the Trump peace plan proposal. The UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al Otaiba, even penned a column for a leading Israeli newspaper warning that a sovereignty declaration would be a setback for Israeli-Gulf ties. Somehow, while President Trump's decisions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, move the American embassy there and defund the UN agency for Palestinian refugees merited little more than pro forma foreign ministry press releases, the Emiratis are waging a full (royal) court press to stop Israel from asserting sovereignty over a slice of the West Bank.

With only a few months left until the November presidential election, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) might need to readjust their priorities. Without peace treaties with Israel, their support in Washington could soon collapse. Wasting time and energy fighting an Israeli sovereignty declaration in the West Bank—which may not even happen—will not insulate them from a Democratic takeover next January.

A Biden administration will be tempted to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, returning to the Obama-era strategy of seeking a balance of power between the Islamic Republic and its Sunni Arab neighbors. The revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e., Iran nuclear deal) would be compounded by congressional efforts to cut off arms sales to the Gulf—or condition them on Saudi Arabia and the UAE ending all operations in Yemen and ending their embargo on Qatar. A renewed push for sanctions on Saudi leaders in response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is also likely. Biden and his advisors would face enormous political pressure to acquiesce from the more radically pro-Iran, anti-Gulf faction of the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, with Iran once again flush with cash from U.S. sanctions relief and importing advanced conventional arms from Russia and China, MBS and MBZ will have only one true ally in the Middle East: the State of Israel. Sovereignty questions in a strip of land more than 1,000 miles away will seem irrelevant when compared to an existential struggle for survival in a region where the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism seeks hegemony.

But what if MBS and MBZ had an ace in the hole—a political backstop to lock in American security guarantees for another half-century and give a would-be Biden administration some ammunition to push back on the most radical proposals in Congress? To make their case for continued U.S. arms sales and political support, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi should demonstrate their ability to advance the U.S. vision of Arab-Israeli peace and regional integration.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden Mark Makela/Getty Images

In effect, the Saudis and Emiratis should borrow a winning strategy from Jordan and Egypt, both of which have peace treaties with Israel. Jordanian officials claim that Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley would jeopardize Jordan's treaty with Israel, but King Abdullah knows that his influence in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees would wash away if the treaty were ever abandoned. Even in the rockiest of times for Cairo—the election of the Muslim Brotherhood to power and an ensuing military coup—U.S. military assistance to Egypt survived, albeit with conditions, because of the Camp David Accords.

The move would come with other potential benefits, too. Announcing a peace agreement with Israel would hand President Trump a timely and historic foreign policy victory—facilitating Middle East peace—a transformational accomplishment of such magnitude that voters otherwise distracted by the novel coronavirus will take note. Should Trump win in November, the Gulf would gain important new chits with an unencumbered second-term president.

Conventional wisdom of the pre-Iran deal era posited that the Arab world could not normalize relations with Israel until all Palestinian-related issues were resolved. But the last four years should have dispelled any lingering fears in Gulf capitals that normalization with Israel would spark an "Arab street revolt."

The Palestinians already point fingers at Saudi Arabia for undermining their cause—most recently criticizing a television series that promotes ties with Israel. Iran already declares that the Gulf states "betray Palestine by helping Israel." And yet—even with the United States recognizing the holy city of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State of Israel—the momentum toward normalization continues to pick up steam.

If there is a cost to Sunni Arab regimes for publicly associating with Israel, those costs are largely sunk. The secret relationship is no longer secret. The question is whether Gulf leaders have the vision and political will to reap the untapped strategic benefits by formalizing a relationship that everyone already knows exists.

If MBS and MBZ want to establish a politically impenetrable course for U.S.-Gulf relations, now is the time for them to make peace with Israel.

Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official and U.S. House and Senate aide, is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.