US election seen from Saudi Arabia: Biden victory could pose serious challenges

US election seen from Saudi Arabia: Biden victory could pose serious challenges

Ahmed al-Omran is a correspondent for The Financial Times in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Kliment: How might the outcome of the US election this fall affect Saudi Arabia?

AO: Saudi officials often say that their relationship with the US is historic and longstanding, and that they have worked equally well with both Republican and Democratic presidents. However, it is clear that the relationship between the Trump administration and the current Saudi leadership is different from anything we have seen before, and there must be some concern in the kingdom that a Biden victory could pose some serious challenges and a rethink of where the relations stand.


AK: What are a few areas where that could be true?

AO: I mean, obviously, you have the issue of arms deals. We've seen the Trump administration continue to push arm sales to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns by [the US] Congress over Yemen and other issues. The Saudis would worry about that considering the neighborhood that the country is located in, and the Yemen War still not reaching a conclusion yet.

The second issue is obviously US relations with Iran, and whether Biden would try to revive the Iran deal. The Saudis were not happy with the way the Obama administration handled that affair, and they welcome the pressure from the Trump administration on Iran.

[Third], with the economic and social reforms that Saudi is pushing — we've seen the US express a lot of support for that, while at the same time we're seeing less and less criticism of the Saudi human rights record in recent years.

So we might see some tension arise as a result of a change of leadership in the US. But I don't think we should underestimate how flexible the Saudis can be.

AK: Within the country, what are most Saudis concerned about these days?

AO: The first issue is the economy. Saudi Arabia is trying to transform its economy and make it less dependent on oil revenues. And they are going through a difficult period with low oil prices and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and the unemployment rate around 12 percent is a source of real concern.

The second issue is social reforms. Saudi Arabia is pushing for more opening, including allowing foreign tourists into the country. And what kind of issues might arise from that? Would the locals be uncomfortable with a large number of foreigners coming into the country, requiring them to change some habits?

And the third issue is the G20 summit. Saudi Arabia has the presidency of the G20 group this year. And they were hoping for a major leaders' summit in November in Riyadh, but there's a lot of uncertainty around that now because of the coronavirus. It must be difficult for Saudis because they saw the G20 summit as an opportunity for Saudi to present its new self to the world.

AK: Could the US election outcome affect domestic politics in Saudi Arabia?

AO: Saudi Arabia wants to move at its own pace when it comes to its domestic policy. Look at an issue like, say, women driving: several American administrations have tried to push Saudi Arabia on this issue. And it didn't happen until the Saudis wanted to move on it two years ago. And then they did it. So Saudi Arabia always wants to appear as if they're doing this on their own without pressure from outside or from activists and others.

AK: Zooming back out to a more global question, how does the deepening US-China rivalry affect Saudi Arabia?

AO: The Chinese are the biggest buyers of Saudi oil, and the kingdom is keen to keep that, even as Chinese economic growth slows down. And we saw the Crown Prince welcomed in China last year in the months when he was facing criticism in the West over human rights issues, which was a source of comfort. Also, we have also heard reports that the Americans are unhappy that the kingdom has allowed Huawei to deploy 5G technology with Saudi telecom companies.

But the US remains the most important Saudi ally. It would be very unlikely that Saudi Arabia would sacrifice their relationship with the US, and their longstanding alliance with the US, for China.

AK: As a Saudi journalist who writes for Western publications, what's the biggest misconception about Saudi society or politics that you see?

AO: You know, we often hear or read about how "the Saudi public is supportive of this policy or against this policy," including what we've seen recently around the issue of normalizing relations with Israel, for example.

I always warn others that you must be very careful about that, because it has always been hard to know for sure where Saudi public stands on any issue. We don't have elections. The country doesn't have normal polling.

And even if there were polling, the margin of expression is limited, so it's hard to really tell if answers are genuine. There are impressions, and many of them are anecdotal.

AK: Does the Saudi government care about public opinion?

AO: Definitely. They don't want to be seen as out of touch. And we know that, for example, the government does monitor social media and other channels where Saudis express themselves to try to detect the sentiments around government policy and decisions, and public debate.

So it's definitely something that they think about, they take in consideration. But it's just one factor of many that that come into play when it comes to what decisions get made and what policies are implemented.

AK: Any last thoughts on what might happen after November?

AO: If Trump loses the election, then, Saudi Arabia will be in a position where they have to rethink and reconsider some aspects of their relations. But as I said, Saudis always say that it doesn't matter who occupies the White House. They'll find a way to work with them.

AK: When you look back at 2016 how did Trump's victory change US-Saudi ties?

AO: Well, some of this has to do with Trump himself, his character and his style in as a president, he's more transactional, he's less principled, and he's not bound by the same traditional, let's say, principles of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the US over the years.

This interview is part of the GZERO project Global voices on the US election, which you can find in full here.

This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

More Show less

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent COVID-19 policy developments:

The Biden administration extended an eviction moratorium even after the Supreme Court said they couldn't, what's next?

Well, the CDC imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in light of increased risk from evicted people because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in June ruled that they (CDC) overextended their authority in doing so and mandated that the moratorium expire on schedule in July. A group of progressive activists weren't happy about this and raised a huge stink in Congress, but Congress recessed for their August vacation before they could solve the problem, putting big pressure on President Biden to extend the moratorium even though he said he didn't think that it would pass constitutional muster. The CDC did it anyway, extending the moratorium until October 3rd, which is a time that's short enough to probably avoid it being overturned by lawsuits, but long enough that Congress has time to figure out how to either extend it on a bipartisan basis or put more money into a rental assistance fund that few people have taken advantage of so far. This whole incident shows the power of progressive activists in the Biden administration who were able to elevate the profile of this issue and potentially prevent millions of people from losing their homes this summer.

More Show less

On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer takes a look at the yin and the yang of alcohol's role in high-level diplomacy and society at large. Alcohol can bring people together just as easily as it can tear them apart. From a 1995 Clinton/Yeltsin Summit where a drunk Yeltsin almost derailed Bosnian peace talks, to Obama's Beer Summit and the recent G7 Summit, booze plays a part in how world leaders interact. Globally, alcohol consumption has been steadily increasing, by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to one report. . Low and middle-income nations like Vietnam, India, and China are a driving force behind that trend, with drinking in Southeast Asia rising by over 34 percent between 2010 and 2017. And yet, amidst this global booze boom, the world has only grown more and more divided.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

Equestrian jumpers, and their horses, are disciplined species. They don't appreciate surprises very much.

But many participants were caught off guard during this week's individual jumping qualifiers in Tokyo by a very daunting statue of a sumo wrestler on the hurdle course (which is dotted with statues paying homage to traditional Japanese culture, like geisha kimonos, cherry blossoms, and taiko drums).

More Show less

For Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, protesting at the Games is fine — as long as it doesn't "interfere" with the competition itself or awards ceremonies. The Olympics, in his view, are an oasis of calm in the middle of an increasingly tense world, and "we shouldn't be spoiling that by pointing out the obvious , which is that there are social and political problems." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World on US public television.

India's rape problem: Hundreds of protesters have flocked to the streets of New Delhi for four days straight after a 9-year old girl was raped and murdered in a small village outside the capital while going to fetch water for her family. Some demonstrators burned effigies of India's PM Narendra Modi, saying that the government has not done enough — or anything, really — to address the country's abysmal rape problem: there were more than 32,000 rapes recorded in 2019, certainly a vast undercount given the stigma associated with reporting sexual assaults in India. The scourge of sexual violence against women and girls in India was brought to light in 2012 when a 23-year-old woman was gang raped and murdered while traveling on a bus in the nation's capital, prompting international outrage. Four men have been arrested in connection with this week's attack, though they have not been charged. The city of New Delhi, meanwhile, has ordered an inquiry to probe events surrounding the young girl's death, though Indians who have been sounding the alarm on violence against women for decades aren't expecting much to come of it.

More Show less

It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Does alcohol help bring the world together?

GZERO World Clips

How should athletes protest at the Olympics?

GZERO World Clips

Does alcohol help or harm society?

GZERO World Clips

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal