President Biden seeks to strike balance in unpredictable Middle East
Hope for major change swept the region when Joe Biden became US President and early signs suggest he’s willing to stand up to major powers like Saudi Arabia. Global Insight assesses the challenges he faces.
Header pic: A man walks through a graveyard in Marib, Yemen, 28 February 2021. REUTERS/Ali Owidha
When Joe Biden won the United States presidential election, the Middle East – and the rest of the world – was hopeful that he would simply overturn the Trump administration’s long list of controversial policies: policies favoured by the ruling regimes but unpopular with the public. And while the new administration has indeed signalled significant shifts in important areas, its key priorities remain markedly similar to previous administrations – energy, trade, bolstering friendly regimes and Israel’s security.
For those looking for early signs of change, the Khashoggi case provided indicators of the balance being struck by the Biden administration. On 11 February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a much-anticipated report on the brutal murder of the Saudi journalist in 2018. Arab social media, the only outlet for public opinion, was jubilant that some form of justice over the murder had finally been delivered. However, while the report linked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the crime, he did not face repercussions. Instead, the Biden administration announced sanctions and visa bans on Saudi Arabian citizens.
In Egypt too, where human rights were an afterthought under Trump, the Biden administration took steps forward but also appeared to take steps back. President Biden had previously raised expectations when, in July 2020, he tweeted about Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi: ‘No more blank checks for Trump’s “favourite dictator”.’
After Biden won the election, Washington criticised Cairo for human rights abuses after members of the extended family of Egyptian-US human rights activist Mohammed Sultan were rounded up on the back of his activism. A few days later, the US Department of State controversially announced the sale of $200m of weapons to Cairo. The announcement said this ‘will support the foreign policy and national security’ of the US – an unmistakable signal that realpolitik will play an important role for the Biden administration, alongside ideals that prompt them to raise rights concerns.
Regarding Iran, Biden’s White House wants Tehran to come back into compliance with obligations under a 2015 nuclear agreement, originally reached when he was Vice President – the deal was unilaterally scrubbed by the Trump administration. Here again, Washington appears non-committal to a reversal of Trump’s maximum pressure policies. New Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, did say Iran might get ‘some sanctions relief’, but didn’t promise going back to the pre-Trump status quo.
For the US, as for most countries, China and Russia sit at the top of the foreign policy agenda. Nevertheless, the administration is likely to face added pressure from Israel over Iran. Backed now by newly found allies in the Arab Gulf, Israel has been consistent in upping the ante on Tehran over its nuclear programme, which it sees as an existential threat. The United Arab Emirates and, less visibly, Saudi Arabia, may go as far as cooperating militarily with their former enemy in taking down Tehran’s programme if and when needed. To balance those demands, Biden’s approach is likely to keep Trump’s sanctions-only direction, but with an added layer of diplomacy. Real movement on that front will have to wait until Iran’s presidential elections in June.
‘The war in Yemen must end’
One of the most destabilising elements of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy was giving a greenlight for authoritarian regimes to launch regional military adventures. The most devastating has been Saudi Arabian and UAE involvement in Yemen – a war that has caused one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises, with over 200,000 dead.
Despite moves towards political reconciliation among warring Libyan factions, Egypt, Turkey and the UAE are digging in and continuing their weapons supplies. In this context, it is significant that the Biden administration has already stated that it is suspending sales of $23bn worth of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE.
In his first major foreign policy speech, President Biden said emphatically, ‘the war in Yemen must end’. Washington says it has ‘a fair plan’ for a nationwide ceasefire and provisions to address the dire humanitarian crisis, involving talks with the Iran-backed Houthi militias. Biden has appointed US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking for that purpose and has reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation.
There are two other legacies of the Trump administration that will be particularly difficult for Biden to navigate. One is the decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The other is the Abraham Accords, the series of agreements that links some of the worst human rights offenders in the region to Israel, despite their unpopularity on the ground and their disregard of Palestinian claims to land and to return to their homes. The US State Department has, however, moved to restore relations with the Palestinian Authority which were cut under the Trump administration and sought to kill the two-state path. Blinken says he sees Israel’s long-term security best served under a two-state solution. President Biden also brought back funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which offers aid for Palestinian refugees: US funding was previously suspended by the Trump administration.
As well as these specific issues, America’s new president faces the challenge of how to confront the increasingly authoritarian regimes in place across the Middle East. The restless Middle East, with its large pool of young people who bear the brunt of authoritarianism and still crave change and justice, has not failed to repeatedly surprise both their own leaders and the international community. To avoid any such surprises, the Biden administration will need to strike the right balance between pragmatism and more ethical considerations likely to deliver on the hope that swept the region – and the rest of the world – when he was elected.
Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org