Americans are set to go to the polls on November 8. At stake at the federal level is control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, in addition to outcomes affecting legislatures, governorships and other positions at the state level.
According to latest estimates, Republicans have a high chance of gaining a majority in the House, and a 50-50 chance of gaining control of the senate. American voters are most focused on domestic issues, such as high inflation, gas prices, crime, illegal immigration, the question of abortion and a looming recession. Although the Russian war in Ukraine occupies a fair amount of media space, foreign policy issues in general are not playing a significant role in voter decision making.
Foreign policy is generally set by the president and the executive branch, but the bicameral Congress still casts a long shadow on foreign policy. The House controls spending, so foreign policy decisions that require spending – on things like aid to Ukraine or international Covid-19 relief – require house approval. In the carrots and sticks that the US might use in foreign policy, the White House can generally decide on the sticks, but the carrots will require congressional approval.
The Senate has a say in confirming, or blocking, White House nominations to ambassadorial and other high positions of government; and it can use this privilege to influence the executive branch. Congress can also object to or delay foreign arms sales, which can influence White House political calculations, but actually blocking an arms sale requires a very difficult veto-proof majority vote in both houses.
It’s important to note that, two years before the next presidential election in 2024, we can expect that whatever majority the Republicans gain, they will use it to harass, obstruct and weaken the Democratic administration, in order to give the next Republican presidential candidate a wider path to the White House. So expect President Joe Biden’s administration to be more distracted and tied down by congressional investigations and obstructions if the opposing party gains control of either chamber of Congress.
On the foreign policy issues themselves, however, it is noteworthy that despite fierce and deep divisions on domestic policy, Republicans and Democrats are significantly aligned on foreign policy. Both parties have favoured a tough stance against Russia and in support of Ukraine. It is true that Republican positions are divided between hawkish positions that favour more effective military support of Ukraine than the Democratic administration has offered so far, while a minority in the party are less hostile to Russia and beginning to sour on large scale economic and military support for Ukraine. In a time of potential recession, a Republican Congress might balk at sending billions of dollars to Ukraine.
Both parties have taken a tough stance on China and a Republican-controlled congress would likely continue in that vein.
In the Middle East also, the positions of the two parties are no longer far apart. A case in point is Iran: the Democratic administration has almost given up on a return to the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Republicans have opposed a return to the deal all along. A Republican Congress would make a return to the deal even more unlikely.
On relations with the Gulf, both parties understand the economic and strategic importance of relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their neighbours, but are equally upset by the recent OPEC+ decision to boost oil production as well as the continued warm relations between the Gulf and Russia, while Washington sees Vladimir Putin’s Russia as the West’s new mortal enemy. The hosting of Chinese President Xi Jinping in three upcoming summits in Saudi Arabia will also raise concerns in Washington. US-Saudi relations are longstanding and deep, but the tension in relations is real, and the midterm elections will not ease it. The idea that the crisis is only with the Democratic party has been surpassed by events; there are deep wells of concern within the Republican party as well. Vigorous diplomacy on both sides is needed to overcome the current tension, build on common interests and avoid a deeper split.
Both American parties also share broad support for Israel and for the recent Abraham Accords that were concluded toward the end of former president Donald Trump’s term. The next big step in Washington’s eyes would be a potential breakthrough between Israel and Saudi Arabia. But with Israeli politics lurching to the extreme right, and troubled relations between Mr Biden and the Saudi Crown Prince, a breakthrough might have to await the next occupant of the White House in 2025.
So the midterm elections in the US will not have a dramatic impact on current US-Middle East relations. The return, or not, to a nuclear deal with Iran will remain – as it currently is – in Iran’s court. But the protest movement in Iran, and allegations of Iran sending of drones to aid Russia’s war in Ukraine make a return to a deal even less likely. Instead, we might be facing a military escalation within the region as reports surface of potentially imminent attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The uneasiness in US-Saudi relations will likely continue for some time, at least until the Russian war in Ukraine eases or ends, and/or until energy markets ease again. But with escalating Russian bombing campaigns in Ukraine, and Europe facing the energy crisis of an oncoming winter, tensions are likely to get worse before they get better.
The world is indeed going through a transformative set of shocks and challenges. The US and Gulf countries have some common, and some divergent, interests. It is important for both sides to maintain the win-win aspects of their many economic, political, security and cultural relations, while managing the natural strains that develop as a result of some divergent interests. The midterm elections will not change the fundamentals of the relationship, but are worth watching closely as new leaders and new power balances begin to take shape in Washington. But in foreign policy it is still the presidential elections – coming up next in 2024 – that are the elections to watch.