A Bernie Sanders presidency could be a nightmare for Saudi Arabia

Mohammed bin Salman has put all his eggs in Trump’s basket, but what happens if the US leadership changes?

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders celebrates after being declared the winner of the Nevada Caucus as he holds a campaign rally in San Antonio
US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders celebrates winning the Nevada Caucus, during which he called the leaders of Saudi Arabia "murderous thugs" [REUTERS/Callaghan O'hare]

Picture for a moment Senator Bernie Sanders winning the US presidential election this November and then heading to a scheduled meeting next year with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS).

In a clash of persona and style, President Sanders would most likely make a lengthy statement about his “political revolution”, while sitting next to MBS, and the White House press corps crowded into the Oval Office would awkwardly ask him how he was going to manage a meeting with rulers he once called “murderous thugs”.

Would that be the Saudi leadership’s nightmare scenario for a post-Donald Trump presidency?

Sanders, who is currently the frontrunner in the Democratic primaries, made this bold statement about the Saudi leadership during a town hall meeting in Nevada on February 18, just as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was stepping on to a flight for a three-day visit to Riyadh.

There is a great deal at stake when it comes to US policy towards Saudi Arabia if Sanders or any other Democratic candidate ends up beating Trump in November. A Democrat back in the White House would bring back bad memories for Riyadh.

President Barack Obama approved the push to oust Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak after the January 25 Revolution, reduced US dependence on Middle Eastern oil, engaged Tehran in a nuclear deal and stated that Washington would no longer battle Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

All hell broke loose in Riyadh during the Obama administration, leading to a gradual power grab by MBS at home. The emerging Saudi leadership reacted to Obama with two major policy shifts. First, it adopted a rather atypical hawkish foreign policy to challenge what it had perceived as two primary foes: the Iranian regime and the Islamists.

The Saudi leadership briefly supported the Syrian opposition in Syria from 2011 to 2013 against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. It helped Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrow the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, and entered the civil war in Yemen in March 2015 to confront the Iranian-backed Houthis, among other regional policies.

Second, it recognised that the traditional approach to influencing US policy via Congress and other mainstream institutions was no longer paying dividends. The alternative was to try to influence presidential hopefuls and this opportunity presented itself in the 2016 US election.

The Saudi bet on Trump yielded tremendous results as the incumbent American president realigned US interests with Saudi Arabia while attempting to deter, rather than engage, the Iranian regime, by withdrawing the US from Iran’s nuclear deal.

MBS has a direct line to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, which has helped the Saudi leadership weather several political storms, most notably the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018.

The deadly shooting by a Saudi military serviceman that killed three US sailors at a Naval air station in Florida last December did not trigger a Twitter tirade from Trump.

Trump would almost certainly never grant any other foreign leader the same sort of free passes he has given to MBS.

While indeed he is the best White House ally the Saudi leadership could have hoped for, the Saudi infatuation with Trump carries immense risk if the incumbent president comes up short in the elections this autumn. Even if Trump wins, the risk will be there after the end of his second term in 2024. 

Whether deliberately or unintentionally, MBS has gotten under the skin of the Washington establishment because he has often bypassed its institutions. Trump also improved MBS’s chances of ultimately taking the throne in Riyadh at the expense of maintaining US relations with other factions within the Saudi royal family.

Trump and MBS have personalised US-Saudi relations through transactional rather than institutional routes. Which brings us to the big question: What might happen if Trump loses the election?

All leading centrist and leftist presidential candidates, except Michael Bloomberg, tend to project negative views of the Saudi leadership. This reflects the general mood among liberals in primaries influenced by a left-leaning Democratic base. A Democratic president would most likely mean a return to the Obama approach, which would include a complex re-engagement with the Iranian regime on the nuclear deal and an inclination to no longer give the Saudi leadership an easy pass.

A Sanders presidency would go further than the Washington establishment in keeping a check and balance on Saudi policy, which might create friction between the White House and key national security agencies.

Sanders, who has advocated against the interests of the US defence industry and corporate America, could use foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia as a way to demonstrate how his call for wealth distribution at home might impact US policy abroad. Hence, a Sanders presidency will make the case that the less the US defence industry has control of the US economy, the less its impact will be on US foreign policy. 

If Sanders, or another Democratic president, were to challenge the Saudi leadership, Riyadh would most likely leverage its strongest pressure tool, its wealth, in retaliation.

Saudi Arabia spent $18bn on US weapons in 2017, has nearly doubled its ownership of US government debt under Trump to just under $180bn, and is now the biggest source of capital for US startups. It could threaten to shift its resources to China and Russia, among other places.

Any Democratic president would have to make these calculations before deciding on an approach towards Saudi Arabia.

A centrist Democrat could seek to contain any bilateral crisis to mitigate the economic impact, but it might still be hard to close the trust gap between the two sides.

The US could, for example, take measures to significantly impact Saudi Arabia, which might range from reopening questions about the Khashoggi case to rescinding the security umbrella it provides to Riyadh.

However, while the US has the upper hand in this increasingly complex relationship, it does not necessarily have the political will to set the limits of US-Saudi relations because of the fatigue felt by policymakers and the general public with Middle East conflicts. The challenge has been, and will most likely remain, that Washington has no Middle East strategy and is not ready to get militarily entangled once again in this region.

The US is now competing with Saudi Arabia as a top oil exporter and is looking forward to shifting its economic focus to the Asian markets alongside its strategic focus on deterring China and Russia. Trump has delayed this strategic shift because of the renewed push inside his administration to prioritise the deterrence of Iran and to reinforce US military presence in the region. Any Democratic president would most likely want to expedite this shift away from the Middle East.

Meanwhile, MBS is making the same mistake with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; putting all his eggs in one basket without contemplating a world after Trump. Most significantly, he has turned the US support for Saudi Arabia from a bipartisan issue in Washington to an increasingly partisan one.

The Washington establishment is taking notes and the Democratic candidates’ statements on Saudi Arabia might be the tip of the iceberg if Trump vacates the White House.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.