What a Biden presidency means for the Middle East

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What a Biden presidency means for the Middle East 

US President-elect Joe Biden has modest aims and no overarching policy for the Middle East. However, his administration will face a changed region prone to new crises that invite US engagement.  
  • Biden’s administration is likely to bring a degree of stability and predictability to US foreign policy in the Middle East, something that has been lacking in the previous four years.
  • Rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is one of Biden’s rare, specific regional policy goals, but he will have to calibrate it around new regional alliances, roadblocks left by his predecessor, and domestic opposition.
  • Gulf Arab and Israeli leaders will have to adjust their relations with Washington as the unconditional support they received during the tenure of outgoing US President Donald Trump ends.
  • A Biden administration will provide avenues to the de-escalation of regional rivalries, but new threats arising from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to arise and invite US engagement. 

Limited engagement

Biden will seek to re-institutionalise US Middle East diplomacy, but he will be preoccupied with the twin crises posed by COVID-19 pandemic and economic challenges at home. As such, he will abjure any grand efforts to reframe relations with the region of the type made by former President Obama (2009-17) with his address 2009 in the Egyptian capital Cairo. Beyond restoring norms of engagement, sustaining traditional alliances and limiting military deployments – particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he will inherit an ongoing troop drawdown –, no “Biden policy” toward the region exists yet.

Anthony Blinken, Biden’s longtime adviser and likely Secretary of State, predicted in a July 2020 think-tank discussion that a future Democratic administration “would be doing less not more in the Middle East.” Indeed, the guiding principle for Biden’s Middle East policy will be to have as little to do with the region as possible. 

Talking to Tehran

Still, the president-elect has a handful of clearly stated regional policy goals, however, including the US’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the nuclear deal), which Obama secured with Iran and five other states in 2015, and which Trump withdrew from in May 2018. 

Biden will inherit deliberate Trump-era sabotage to these efforts, such as the prospect of an escalated security confrontation with Iran in the remaining weeks of the outgoing administration and a sanctions regime targeting Iran outside the ambit of the JCPOA. These will likely hamper his ability to restore a credible negotiating position with Tehran. Biden will be in a race against time to secure Iranian goodwill ahead of June 2021presidential elections in the Islamic republic, where a hardliner is likely to oust President Hassan Rowhani, whose government entered the JCPOA. 

The incoming administration will not share the missionary zeal of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign in dealing with Tehran. Washington will be more likely to negotiate and compromise, and be more averse to the kinds of escalatory tactics in the region favoured by outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, particularly regarding Iran-backed activity in Iraq. Nevertheless, Biden – and key members of his team, including Blinken – will continue to heed Israel’s perceived threats to its security, meaning that containing Iran will remain a priority.

Shifting alliances, rising rivalries 

Biden will have to confront significantly altered regional alliances and rivalries between regional states since Obama, under whom he was vice-president, left office in 2017.

An undeclared imperative of recent diplomatic and commercial normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain (and increasing reconciliation with Saudi Arabia) highlights a shared perception among these states that they need to collectively confront Iran’s influence. These relationships will continue to alter the strategic regional landscape, and Biden will be involved due to the promises of sensitive arms sales to Gulf Arab states made by his predecessor. 

The new president will treat the Israel-Gulf Arab normalisations favourably and support any progress towards formalising ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv. However, these countries will be leery of the sanctions rollbacks Biden will have to make to resume talks on re-entering the JCPOA, and the much larger sanctions removals that Washington will likely need to make to strike a new deal. Encouraging normalisation while seeking support for US reengagement with the JCPOA will be a tough needle for Biden to thread, and doing so will likely mean limiting support for the Palestinian Territories. 

Tackling Turkey

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi will also likely benefit from Biden’s professed distaste for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his apparent willingness to confront Ankara over its regional adventurism.  

As vice-president, Biden ran point for the Obama administration in Turkey, and he has communicated confidence in his ability to change Erdogan’s behaviour by getting tough: a staunch supporter of NATO, he is likely to lean on Turkey to end activities that undermine the alliance. This could take the form of pursuing sanctions on Ankara for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system, which Trump declined to do. A Biden presidency may offer the Gulf Arab states a way to either continue to confront Turkey or to de-escalate their increasingly rivalry through US mediation: unlike Trump, Biden does not carry the baggage of being seen as biased in Ankara’s favour. 

Wherefore Whatsapp 

Separately, Saudi Arabia will have to face the likely prospect that Biden will curtail US support for its war in Yemen, a domestically popular move that may also force the kingdom to seek an abrupt face-saving end to its involvement. US-Saudi relations will cool, and Riyadh will have to weather much greater criticism over human rights abuses and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi than it did with Trump. As with Turkey, Biden is much less likely to stand in the way of US congressional action to censure the kingdom. 

But Biden will also bring with him an abiding institutional foreign policy consensus that Saudi Arabia, together with the Gulf Arab states, are a fulcrum of stability and security cooperation in the region. His administration will seek Riyadh’s cooperation in pursuing a new JCPOA, its unacknowledged but increasing receptivity to normalising relations with Israel, and its enduring role in energy markets. These imperatives will grant the kingdom opportunities to repair and sustain the bilateral relationship. 

Unknown unknowns

Despite the president-elect’s aim to push the Middle East as far down his agenda as possible, the region often throws up crises that invite – though more rarely, require – significant US engagement, regardless of prior US positioning and intent. 

The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are only beginning to play out across the region. Gulf economies are facing an accelerated period of economic transition that is forcing their governments to redeploy state resources, amend social contracts with their citizens, and pursue new alliances to improve their prospects of post-oil prosperity. 

The risk of disruptive social unrest is increasing in weaker states that face a period of economic depression and surging unemployment, which would in turn prompt deeper authoritarianism and external intervention. Iraq and Lebanon in particular are at risk of destabilisation. 

In 2011, the US was wrongfooted by popular uprisings against longtime partners, such as Egypt’s late president Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011), and its decision to withdraw militarily from Iraq, which only required a much more concerted re-engagement with the emergence of the Islamic State. The Biden administration will be forced to choose between limited engagement and a region undergoing another round of seismic change. 


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