Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential elections will lead to a significant change in the US’ approach to the Middle East in terms of tone. But it is unlikely to deliver any radical shifts in US policy in the region.
While the Middle East remains important to US interests in terms of energy and security, it is no longer the priority that it once was.
Since 2011, when President Barack Obama ‘pivoted’ US foreign policy towards Asia-Pacific, China has been the number one item on America’s international agenda. This will not change any time soon.
As American energy self-sufficiency has grown, Middle East oil has diminished in its significance to the US. Meanwhile, the deep scars from US interventions in the region during George W Bush’s post-9/11 resurgence in neo conservatism mean that there is no appetite on either side of the US political spectrum for a return to direct military engagement in the region.
But despite its downgrade, the Middle East remains important to US interests and President-elect Biden inherits a host of challenging issues for the US in the region.
Throughout his presidency, Trump’s ‘America First’ approach to international relations has seen him view other countries and international organisations through a transactional lens.
Under his administration, US relations largely have been shaped by his personal relationships with leaders and by what deals he could secure for American companies.
He frequently saw multilateralism as harmful to US interests and removed the US from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), while criticising US allies in Nato.
In the Middle East, Trump built strong relationships with the leaders in Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv as he sought to counter rising Iranian influence across the region, while also securing deals for US defence contractors.
In 2018, he removed the US from the Obama-era international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear programme. At the same time, he implemented tough economic sanctions and targeted retaliatory strikes to exert maximum pressure on the Iranian region.
President Trump’s support for Tel Aviv looks to have killed off Palestinian ambitions for meaningful independence.
Although Trump’s proposed Middle East peace plan launched in January 2020 was universally panned as unfair and unviable, the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan represents major successes for Israel and a new reality for the Palestinians.
Trump’s decision in 2018 to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem sent a clear message as to where he saw US priorities.
Trump’s declaration in 2019 that Isis had been defeated and the subsequent withdrawal of the majority of US troops from Syria and Iraq saw the president upholding his commitment to removing, or at least significantly reducing, the US from entanglements in the Middle East.
His critics, however, saw it as a betrayal of US allies in the region, particularly Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and also opening the path for increased Russian influence in the Middle East.
President Biden will bring a different style to the one followed by Trump over the past four years.
Where President Donald Trump’s approach has centred on unilateral deal-making, Biden’s Middle East policy will see a return to multilateral diplomacy to reduce geopolitical tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, and to counter a resurgence in Islamic extremism.
Biden will also seek to use US influence to pressure Middle East leaders to increase humanitarian effort in Yemen and other conflict areas, and to promote human rights and other democratic freedoms.
Iran will feature at the top of Biden’s regional agenda. The president-elect has said that he intends to re-enter the JCPOA, so long as Iran comes into compliance with the terms of the agreement.
This will see the US once again lining up with the UK, France and Germany to pursue diplomatic efforts with Iran. In return, Tehran will demand an easing of economic sanctions, and possibly even some reparations, which will potentially open up some new opportunities for business in the region.
Biden will also require the commitment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he seeks to de-escalate regional tensions between Iran and the GCC, particularly in Iraq and Yemen.
Riyadh will be at the forefront of regional diplomatic efforts as it seeks to strengthen relations with the new incumbent of the White House.
The Biden administration will provide a less supportive stance to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen than has been seen over the past four years. He will use US influence to accelerate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s efforts to find a diplomatic resolution to the war in Yemen, which is a humanitarian crisis and a political and military quagmire.
Biden supports a two-state solution in Palestine, and will increase US aid to the Palestinians. He will seek to curtail the annexation of Palestinian territory by Israel. But Washington's support for Israel will not waver and he is unlikely to reverse Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Biden will be keen to see further normalising of relations between Arab states and Tel Aviv.
Turkey and the East Mediterranean
The most unpredictable and treacherous waters for Biden may well be found in the East Mediterranean, where conflict is building between Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt and the UAE. Not to mention the EU.
Ankara is seeking to increase Turkish influence around the Mediterranean in Libya, in the East Mediterranean and in Syria. At the same time, President Erdogan is rolling back individual freedoms and cracking down on opponents.
As a Nato ally, the US is committed to supporting Turkey, but Biden will also seek to increase pressure on Ankara to improve its respect for human rights and democracy in its bilateral relations with Ankara.
The government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt is another close ally of the US in the region that has become increasingly tough in its treatment of opponents and journalists. Biden will likely use US military aid and financial support as a lever to increase pressure on Cairo to respect human rights and other democratic freedoms.
President Biden is unlikely to change Washington’s course in Syria and Iraq, where the US retains a small military presence. Biden will not pursue a more aggressive approach in Syria.This will see Russia increase its influence.
In only four years, President Trump has left a huge imprint on the Middle East. And much of the change that he has brought about cannot be undone.
In many cases, such as with Israel and Iran, Trump has perhaps taken steps that more traditional politicians or diplomats may have wished for, but would have been unable to deliver. But there is no doubt that he has changed the region.
Politicians and policymakers around the world now know that US policy can change radically every four years, and that one-time allies can suddenly find themselves isolated, while longstanding foes, such as North Korea, can become apparent friends.
This sense of uncertainty will have huge consequences in the Middle East, where there are so many political and societal fault lines.
Despite the likely efforts of President Biden to restore diplomatic normalcy into the US’ international relations, the legacy of four years of Trumpism is likely to be increasing unilateralism from US allies across the region as they seek to protect their interests in the face of growing influence of state actors in the region such as Russia, China and Iran.
It also could undermine efforts for multilateral action to combat terrorism and extremism.
As President-elect Biden seeks to figure how to exert his will around the world, perhaps he might come to view the threat of a Trump return in 2024 as the biggest incentive for people to work with him.
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