Biden and the Middle East
The Middle East has presented violently unpredictable challenges for recent US Presidents. Already, the Biden administration has begun to confront them by ringing the changes.
The Biden administration has outlined a new US foreign policy whereby economic engagement, diplomacy and countering authoritarianism will replace Trump’s controversial transactional style. But the still-young administration has so far offered a mixed approach to the Middle East, raising questions as to whether the often-turbulent region will benefit from the White House standing up to rising challenges from China and Russia.
‘It’s definitely different in tone and style’, says Nesrine Roudane, an Officer of the IBA Arab Regional Forum. ‘Overall, Biden’s policy in the region is pretty much a return to and continuation of [former US President] Obama’s policy.’
Elham Ali Hassan, also an Officer of the IBA Arab Regional Forum and based in Bahrain, does not disagree. ‘Democratic policy is well-known and we can expect some of the same approach with this administration’, she says. ‘Areas that should be watched are trade and the subsequent economic impact; stability and ancillary military activity; continued support of the Abraham Accords.’
Under the Trump administration, issues like oil and weapons sales took centre stage in the Middle East. The wealthy countries of the oil-rich Gulf felt emboldened that Trump’s policy encouraged them to go on military ventures in Libya and in Yemen on the back of their financial wealth while human rights violators knew they would not face international pressure.
Observers of the Middle East say that the new administration is already carving a different path from former President Trump, who courted dictatorial regimes in the region, but without offering a dramatic departure from legacy US foreign policy goals, which for decades revolved around energy, Israel’s security, trade and containing unfriendly political powers.
‘Fundamental US interests in the region have not changed simply because there’s a new president’, says Aron Lund, a Middle East specialist at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. ‘They were basically the same under Trump, Obama, and so on. However, Trump was generally less inclined to listen to government strategists and policy planners. He had his own way of conducting politics and his own read on what America’s actual interests were. Biden is a far more conventional leader.’
In February, RAND Corporation, an influential US think tank, issued a report saying US policies in the Middle East were ‘outdated’ for over-reliance on aid packages, massive arms sales and a ‘disproportionate focus on the Iranian threat that fail to advance American interests — or help the region's people’.
The think tank proposed an alternative strategy, whereby the US would shift from a dependence on military means to prioritising economic investment, governance, diplomacy and programmes focused on people.
Those recommendations were already being floated by the Biden team on the campaign trail. So far, the White House has made significant changes relating to specific issues such as Iran, Palestine and Yemen. Countries like Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia saw some changes while hotspots such as Iraq, Libya and Syria are waiting for a meaningful shift.
A peace plan for Yemen
Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, has fallen into a major humanitarian disaster. The country has been at war with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their allies since 2015. The global Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the tragedy. The country’s status as a failing state threatens to disintegrate whatever is left of its weak institutions, pushing it further into the hands of the Iran-backed Houthi militias and, potentially, rival groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.
He’s certainly more forthcoming on humanitarian aid and refugees than Trump was
Middle East specialist, The Swedish Defense Research Agency
Over the course of the war, the Houthis improved their military techniques and started using drones and missiles leaving some Saudi cities, including the capital Riyadh, vulnerable to attacks. This has added a new risk to the freedom of navigation through the Gulf of Aden and Bab el-Mandeb, often cited as a US national security goal.
Yemen was among the first areas of focus for the new administration’s policy. Washington repeatedly asked for talks in the troubled country and appointed a special envoy, Timothy Lenderking – a former deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf affairs. Biden has followed through on campaign promises with a temporary suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Washington put Riyadh on notice that it may redefine the meaning of ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ weapons, which carries the spectre of denying Riyadh the use of certain weapons in the conflict.
Biden also opened the door for talks and for humanitarian supplies to reach Yemen through international aid organisations when he reversed a Trump administration decision to designate the Houthis as a terrorist group. Washington says it will back UN mediation efforts – signalling that it prefers preserving Yemen’s territorial integrity rather than allowing the UAE’s policy of controlling certain parts of the country either directly or through proxies.
Despite being relatively modest changes, these shifts have already proven effective. In March, Riyadh announced a major shift: a new push for a peace plan. If a deal is reached and Yemen is stabilised, Washington is likely to assuage Saudi security fears by offering Riyadh a channel for leverage in Yemen, by having future reconstruction efforts tied to Saudi-led aid, and by integrating Yemen’s economy with its richer Gulf neighbours.
A peace plan will give both Riyadh and Washington more direct access to the Houthis and a better chance of slowly separating them from their sponsors in Tehran. The Houthis, though Shiite Muslims like those in Iran, have traditionally been closer to Sunni Muslims. However, Iran’s recent push to spread influence throughout the region lured the Houthis towards Iranian religious interpretations. The Saudis are unlikely to object much to a settlement because of the spiralling military and public relations costs of the Yemen war.
The Biden administration has reversed Trump policy elsewhere too. Biden restored assistance programmes for economic development through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which serves 5.7 million Palestinian refugees and offers education for more than 530,000 children. He also resumed contact with the Palestinian Authority. During his confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that his administration prefers the two-state solution, which entails ending Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and creating an independent Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. ‘He’s certainly more forthcoming on humanitarian aid and refugees than Trump was’, Lund said.
In Israel, the renewed support of the administration for Palestinians may help foster some new deals between Israel and its neighbors
Officer, IBA Arab Regional Forum
Roudane, who is based in Morocco, saw the utilisation of aid as a basis for benefitting the region, not just the Palestinians. ‘In Israel, the renewed support of the administration for Palestinians may help foster some new deals between Israel and its neighbors’, she says. ‘However, Biden himself being a self-described “Zionist” should be a clear sign as to renewed and increased support for Israel as it expands its regional influence, through new bilateral commercial deals, while containing Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood and, hopefully, terrorist organizations active in the region.’
Iran and Syria: necessary force
The US made its first high-profile moves against Iran at the end of February, launching airstrikes against an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia group based in Syria. The strikes killed at least 22 members of the Hezbollah Brigades as they transferred weapons into Syria from Iraq – two countries now under Iranian influence. The strike sent a message that the US can target Iran’s proxy groups. The Washington-based Middle East Institute has written a policy recommendation on Iran that states Washington needed to take such action ‘to demonstrate that the US will roll back non-state militant actors with full force if necessary to shape Tehran’s cost-benefit calculations’.
This is in keeping with mainstream US policy goals. Washington sees its interests served by containing Tehran’s burgeoning ideological influence across the region. Tehran has been a main propagator of anti-American sentiment particularly through its leverage within the Shiite populations. Iran’s model of creating proxies, often armed, has been successful in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Tehran poses a major challenge too on human rights issues, with it being repeatedly labelled as one of the world’s worst offenders.
The US has a national security interest in preventing Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons or furthering its ballistic missile programme. In that respect, it signalled a move back to talks with Iran and urged Tehran to return to the negotiating table, but without acknowledging that it was Washington, under former President Trump, that walked away from a 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Tehran has insisted that the US should take the first step. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said early in March that the deal was only implemented by Iran and that even the European partners were unduly pressuring his country instead of Washington. ‘Instead of posturing, US & E3 must finally live up to their commitments made, but never fulfilled’, the top diplomat was quoted as saying by the Iranian News Agency (IRNA).
Tehran says the Biden administration should demonstrate good will through confidence-building measures and lifting sanctions that were imposed after Trump unilaterally withdrew from JCPOA in 2018. ‘Biden is distancing from his initial statements to play his favorite game’, IRNA said in an analysis.
The biggest single change of course is on Iran, with the effort to get back to diplomacy to restrain nuclear proliferation
Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND Corporation
The White House’s mixed policy towards Iran may be because it is trying not to alarm powerful allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who view Iran as a threat. Tel Aviv has occasionally called for military strikes against Iran, a country with a population of 84 million people.
Analysts acknowledge this mixed approach that was in part similar to Trump’s, who favoured all-out sanctions, but said it was designed to squeeze the best benefits from potential future talks with Iran.
‘The biggest single change of course is on Iran, with the effort to get back to diplomacy to restrain nuclear proliferation – and acknowledgement that other issues like missile development and regional militia destabilization will need to be addressed as well [possibly or probably on separate tracks]’, says Linda Robinson, Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and senior researcher at RAND Corporation.
Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country, is traditionally important in facilitating US interests in the region, such as Israel’s security, trade through the Suez Canal and influence over general pan-Arab sentiment. The rise of US-trained military general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and resurgence of the military came with a high price for human rights. As with Saudi Arabia, Biden has given mixed messages. While the Biden administration has sent public expressions of dissatisfaction over the rights situation under Sisi, it has continued military aid and weapons sales. Cairo officials later appeared confident that whatever public rebuke they’ll get, it won’t be anything that hiring extra lobbyists won’t fix.
The Biden administration has said it will uphold human rights and accountability abroad even in Saudi Arabia. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been one test of that rhetoric. The crime was a sample of how dissidents have been treated in Saudi Arabia ever since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) came to office in 2015. He has been concentrating power and business in his hands while overseeing a harsh crackdown on political or business rivals. The Biden administration released a much-anticipated report on the Khashoggi murder, blaming minor Saudi officials and refrained from imposing consequences on MbS. The killing has been described by Middle East observers as the most challenging crisis in US-Saudi relations since 9/11. Biden may have chosen to keep his channels with Riyadh open instead of taking a punitive stance.
Riyadh is a central part of US efforts to contain Iran. The oil-rich desert country is pivotal for energy security and the stability of the global energy market, even though Washington no longer directly needs Saudi oil. Observers are still monitoring how Biden will balance civil liberties and rule of law in the country, as promised on the campaign trail, while not pushing MbS towards greater ties with China or Russia. ‘On Saudi Arabia, distance has been signaled, support to offensive military action in Yemen stopped, and peace talks prioritized’, said Robinson. ‘I agree that we are still waiting to see how strong a human rights policy will be adopted, in keeping with pledges.’
Libya: the Russians are coming
Other parts of the Middle East have seen no marked change in US policy so far.
Libya, which was, until a few months ago, in the midst of an internecine civil war, hasn’t appeared on the White House radar yet. Biden is faced with two challenges there. One is that the Russians are increasing influence, particularly in the East, and are rumoured to be working on setting up a permanent air base on the Mediterranean, which could carry consequences for both NATO and the EU. This may again push Washington closer to Turkey, the only NATO power that is already building military muscle in the Western part of Libya to balance Russian influence.
Another test for the White House is to stabilise the country that has been a theatre for destabilising intervention from regional powers under Trump. This has caused humanitarian problems as well as uncertainties for Libyans, including the potential for a split in the oil-rich nation.
Syria too has fallen under near-complete Iranian and Russian influence, with no clear message on future courses of action from the White House. ‘The administration is also looking for a way to “punish” [Russian President] Putin for the Trump administration, in accordance with the Democratic narrative’, says Roudane. ‘Increased tensions between the two countries over Libya and Syria are to be expected, in my opinion. In Libya, Biden’s policy is aimed at pushing back Russian forces, mainly.’
During media appearances, top Biden officials have said they will continue to support Arab-Israeli détente primarily through Trump’s much celebrated Abraham Accords, which saw four Arab countries – Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the UAE – signing deals with their former enemy. One of the problematic aspects of the Abraham Accords was how the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the long-disputed Western Sahara. The issue, however, has heated up again ever since Biden came to the White House. Several US senators wrote to the new administration urging it to reverse the recognition but with no concrete response from Biden as yet.
‘The earlier administration’s abrupt resolution on December 11, 2020 to formally acknowledge the Kingdom of Morocco’s illegitimate claims to sovereignty over Western Sahara was shortsighted, undermined many years of constant US coverage and alienated a major variety of African nations’, wrote the senators. The State Department, however, said it doesn’t have any updates or guidelines on the issue. ‘I am glad that, after some hesitation, the Biden administration has not reopened, for the time being, the question of US support of Morocco’s claim over the Moroccan Sahara region, which, so far, has attracted renewed interest by international investors’, says Roudane.
She notes that the deal with Israel was working well on the economic front despite local opposition. ‘The recent proposals to legalize the medical use of hemp in Morocco, an industry led by Israel, is a concrete example of developments stemming from the recent accords that have led to intense political backlash at the Islamic Party leading the [Moroccan] government, creating a wave of high-profile departures from the party’, she says.
It remains to be seen how the new administration will deal with public dissatisfaction in the region as seen in many surveys. The Arab Barometer, one of the few regular surveys devoted to Arab public opinion, found last year that trust in government, parliament and civil society are low and have fallen since the Arab uprisings. ‘Perceptions of the degree to which basic freedoms are guaranteed has dropped precipitously over the last five years’, according to the 2020 survey.
Before Covid-19 hit, the region was under a new wave of anti-establishment protests that erupted in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Egypt, too, saw sporadic protests that were quelled quickly. The reasons for those protests – such as corruption, inequality, poverty and mismanagement – have not changed. If anything, they are likely to have been heightened by the pandemic, long lockdowns and the negative impact on trade and the economy. The Biden administration will need to consider carefully whether, and how, this should figure in future Middle East policy.
Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org