US Presidential candidates: Who bodes best for GCC businesses?

Published March 6th, 2016 - 09:26 GMT
unless Clinton wins the November election, businesses in the region will be taking a step into the relative unknown. (File photo)
unless Clinton wins the November election, businesses in the region will be taking a step into the relative unknown. (File photo)

Away from the headline-grabbing sound bites and personal feuds, there is a serious business angle to the United States presidential race that the Gulf Cooperation Council needs to pay attention to.

Trade between the United States and the region has been on the up and up for years now, buoyed by good relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular.

According to the United States Census Bureau, trade in goods with the UAE hit almost $23bn in 2015, up from $22.1bn the year before. Trade in goods with Saudi Arabia hit $19.7 in 2015, up from $18.7bn in 2014.

Last year, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority revealed that the total volume of trade between Saudi Arabia and the US in 2014 was $62bn.

More than 1,000 American firms have a presence in the emirates, while high-value trade between the two countries is thriving. Emirati companies Taqa Global, Mubadala and Emirates Airlines, and US companies General Electric, Boeing and The Carlyle Group are all benefitting from the strong relationship.

Trade channels are clearly wide open, helped no doubt by US President Barack Obama and his administration’s trips to the region, as well as royal visits to the White House by His Highness King Salman and others.

But with Obama leaving the top job in November, the US is preparing itself for a new era. And so should the Gulf.

Whoever wins the election, their focus in the Middle East will be centred on security and oil. The issues of terrorism and ISIL have dominated televised debates and each candidate’s campaign. But how should Gulf businesses view each candidate's prospects?

With other topics dominating the agenda, very little has been said about Middle Eastern trade by the leading runners; Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

But there are clues to how easy or hard the region may find the potential working relationship.

Clinton may be seen as the natural fit by Gulf leaders and businesses, continuing with the policies left by Obama having served as secretary of state between 2009 and 2013.

Familiar to the region, its key players and its strengths as a trade partner she is unlikely to disrupt the status quo. In fact, her close ties to Wall Street and commitment to capitalism may see her seek increased trade opportunities.

Her Democratic Party opponent Bernie Sanders, however, is likely to take a somewhat different approach. With a focus on domestic issues, wealth and income inequality and social progammes, Sanders has repeatedly stated his key priority to keep jobs at home.

As such, he has expressed concerns over free trade agreements, suggesting business with the Gulf might not be high on his agenda. This, and a track record of putting people before companies, suggests the region’s businesses might prefer a different candidate to take the hot-seat.

On the other side of the party divide, Ted Cruz has described himself as a “full-throated advocate of free trade", but has been known to change his stance from time to time. Otherwise, he has given little away about how he would approach trade ties with the Gulf, so would be something of an unknown quantity for regional businesses and governments.

Then there is Donald Trump. Despite snowballing support at home, the straight-talking real estate mogul lost a lot of friends in the region when he made controversial comments calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

Demagoguery aside, Trump is something of a wildcard. As a businessman, he may wish to maximise trade opportunities, but he has a penchant for antagonism. For example, when he offered to defend Saudi Arabia against ISIL but only for a price.

Ultimately, unless Clinton wins the November election, businesses in the region will be taking a step into the relative unknown. More importantly, however, so will the candidates themselves.

With so little experience on the world stage, and little to no evidence of how they would approach trade relations, a Sanders, Cruz or Trump win could make businesses in the region slightly anxious. This leaves Clinton as the most likely candidate to curry favour in the Gulf.

By Neil King

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