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Biden and the Middle East: Misplaced optimism

The Arab region in general will not rank high on the list of foreign priorities for the incoming US president
US president-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, on 19 November (AFP)

There has been a state of optimism in the Arab world since the announcement of Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election.

Even if the optimism is justified, especially in light of the disasters and political tragedies that the Arab region has witnessed and lived through over the past four years under President Donald Trump, this optimism is somewhat exaggerated. Some believe that the region under Biden will witness radical changes, breaking with Trump’s negative legacy - but I don’t think that will happen.

We need to dismantle the various issues that Biden is expected to engage with over the next four years in order to understand whether the situation will remain as it is, or undergo radical change. 

Pivot to Asia

During the Biden era, the Arab region in general is not expected to rank high on the list of US foreign priorities. There are many reasons for this, including Biden’s vision, which does not stray far from the view of former US President Barack Obama on global issues and international conflicts, with Asia and the Pacific given priority over all other matters. 

The US relationship with China is an important file for any US administration, whether Republican or Democratic. As the rise of China represents an economic and security threat to the US, the Obama administration moved its foreign-policy compass towards China and the Pacific region. For Biden, China will continue to represent a top priority. 

Optimists in the Arab world should be wary of getting too hopeful about the incoming Biden administration and the potential for regional change

The issue has become even more urgent in the wake of Trump’s more hostile policies towards China over the past four years. Observers will be watching as to whether Biden can put an end to what the average US citizen sees as Chinese encroachment and hegemony in global markets, at US expense. Some saw Trump’s China policies as a historic victory, due to the imposition of tariffs on US imports from China. 

The importance of accountability for China might be one of the few issues that has consensus among Americans of all orientations, but there are differences in how the issue is approached and handled. While Republicans, especially under Trump, use the confrontational method through the well-known strategy of “maximum pressure”, the Democrats prefer dialogue and cooperation with Beijing.

Iran, Israel and Arab authoritarians

In the Arab region, the three issues expected to dominate Biden’s agenda are the US relationships with Iran, Israel and the authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

We may witness an important shift in US policy towards Iran, especially on the nuclear file and Trump-era sanctions, which resulted in unprecedented levels of pressure on Tehran since the unilateral US withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.

It is expected that Biden will bring the US back to the nuclear deal, but with new conditions - unless the Trump administration, in alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, launches military strikes, as Trump has reportedly contemplated.

Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem in 2010 (Reuters)
Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem in 2010 (Reuters)

As for the US-Israel relationship, and in particular the issue of a two-state solution and normalisation with Arab countries, we can expect the status quo to continue. Despite Biden’s embrace of the two-state solution and rejection of Israeli attempts to impose a fait accompli on Palestinians, Biden is not expected to prevent Israel from annexing parts of the occupied West Bank.

US pressure on more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, as Trump pushed with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, may diminish. But this does not mean the Biden administration would impede any such normalisation. On the contrary, Biden welcomed the Gulf normalisation deals with Israel.

The issue of Israel’s security and qualitative superiority is a subject of agreement among Republicans and Democrats alike; none can imagine this changing under the Biden administration.

Condemnation without action

As for the US relationship with Arab authoritarian regimes, particularly with respect to support for human rights and democracy, while Biden may not support human rights violations - especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - he is not expected to exert great pressure on these countries if the violations continue.

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A Biden administration, for example, would not likely cut off military aid to Egypt, or halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia or the UAE as an objection to the Yemen war or their miserable record on issues of democracy and human rights - despite Biden’s pledge to the contrary during his election campaign. 

Statements and condemnations may be issued from time to time, but it is unlikely that they will translate into real policies and actions. While Biden will not consider someone like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi his “favourite dictator”, as Trump did, he will not likely sever the relationship or punish Sisi seriously for his flagrant violations of human rights in Egypt.

Perhaps optimists in the Arab world should be wary of getting too hopeful about the incoming Biden administration and the potential for regional change. If it is true that the number of bad guys around the world will decrease due to Trump’s departure from power, this does not necessarily mean that the good guys will make a comeback with Biden coming to power.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Khalil al-Anani
Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Washington DC. He is also an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. You can follow him on Twitter: @Khalilalanani.