Donald Trump knit close ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia. The new U.S. administration under Joe Biden is reassessing relations with the Middle East.
Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a dinner in Jerusalem, Israel, 9 March 2010. (EPA/BAZ RATNER POOL)
In his inaugural speech on January 20, America’s new president, Joe Biden, listed crucial tests he believes the United States must face in the coming years.
The challenges ranged from climate change to COVID-19, from systemic racism to “America’s role in the world”.
Nowhere is America’s role in the world more decisive than in the Middle East, which for decades has been one of the main foreign policy concerns for U.S. presidents.
Trump was popular among some Middle East governments.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, leaves a complicated legacy in the region.
On one hand, he did drive some change in the region. In August, his administration brokered an agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize diplomatic ties. The accord saw the UAE become only the third Arab country — after Egypt and Jordan — to normalize relations with Israel after decades of hostility. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have now done the same.
Even before the agreement between the UAE and Israel, President Trump was immensely popular among some Middle East governments, particularly Israel and the Gulf.
“Trump Heights, Trump Square, Trump train terminal: Israel isn’t shy about honouring Donald Trump, who is widely admired among Israelis for his staunch support of their country,” a recent Reuters analysis noted.
Iran agreement was criticized by Israel, Gulf states.
Israelis’ admiration of Trump stems largely from his administration’s decision to quit a 2015 multinational agreement with Iran, which restrained Tehran’s nuclear programme and lifted all nuclear-related economic sanctions, freeing up tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue and frozen assets.
At the time, the agreement drew the ire of both Israel and the Gulf monarchies, all of which see Iran as their primary rival in the region.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the agreement a “capitulation” and a “bad mistake of historic proportions.” Even though the deal aimed to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Israeli officials expressed concerns that the large influx of funds benefitting Iran would help empower Israel’s enemies in the region, including Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon and Syria.
The states of the Arabian Gulf accused the Obama administration of failing to consult them before entering into the deal. Saudi Arabia and the UAE consider Iran their primary rival in the region and believe the deal emboldened Iran to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy. Both countries regularly express concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for proxy militia groups in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with a nuclear arsenal. Israel neither confirms nor denies it has atomic bombs under a U.S.-blessed policy of “nuclear opacity.”
With the new U.S. administration, many Middle East governments will be worried about a possible shift in Washington’s stance towards Iran. In a recent front-page story, Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper wondered whether Biden would stand with America’s Arab allies or “renew [ties] with their enemies.”
Biden has pledged to reassess relations with Saudi Arabia.
Nowhere are concerns over Biden’s Middle East policy more evident than in Saudi Arabia, one of Trump’s staunchest allies in the region. Many Saudis took to social media to let their feelings be known.
“The only thing worse than COVID-19 would be Biden-20,” one Saudi Twitter user was quoted as saying.
There’s reason for Saudis to be concerned. In a policy platform aimed at Arab-Americans ahead of the election, the Biden campaign accused Trump of giving the Saudis a “blank check” to pursue “disastrous” policies, including the ongoing war in Yemen, a widespread crackdown on dissidents and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
President Biden has repeatedly vowed to reassess the U.S. relationship with the kingdom, and at one point vowed to make them “the pariah that they are.”
In an interview with the Dubai-based Arabian Business, former U.S. diplomat Douglas Silliman, now president of the Arab Gulf States Institute of Washington, said that some senior Saudi officials fear that Biden will be “Obama 3.0” and return to his former boss’s policies.
Former President Barack Obama was a driving force in bringing about the nuclear deal between Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
“In Saudi Arabia, there is real concern about the direction that Biden might take,” Silliman said, adding that in his view the progressive left of Biden’s Democratic party will press the new U.S. administration to promote human rights in the region and end Saudi military operations in Yemen.
‘U.S. policy can change only so much.’
Such concerns, however, may largely be unfounded.
Kim Ghattas, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of a book on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, told the BBC that Biden’s team has learned from what went wrong with the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East.
“They may take things in a different direction because they’ve learned from the mistakes, and because the region today is a very different place,” Ghattas said.
That assessment was echoed by Silliman, who said that day-to-day diplomatic realities may mean that policy towards Saudi Arabia can only change so much.
“Once you get into the White House and are dealing with an important country that is a friend, if not historic ally of the United States, your perspective has got to change,” Silliman said. “My guess is that the rhetoric from the campaign is going to be moderated some as they realise they [need to have] Saudi Arabia on board.”
Prospects for 2-state solution are clouded.
Much the same is true for Israel. While some in the Biden administration may want to reverse Trump-era policies, it is unclear to what extent they can do so. Earlier this month, Anthony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, signaled the new administration’s willingness to return to Obama-era policies, although he sounded pessimistic on the prospect of that in the short-term.
“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said.
He was referring to the proposed resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the creation of an independent State of Palestine alongside Israel, west of the Jordan River. Successive U.S. administrations, including Obama’s, have advocated the two-state solution, but Trump’s policies called the approach into question.
“Realistically, it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that,” Blinken said.
For many young people in the region, a more tangible change in policy came on January 20, when Biden reversed a Trump-era ban on immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries, mostly in the Middle East.
Biden’s decision gives hope to thousands of families seeking to be reunited with loved ones already living in the United States.
Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in San Francisco, said that “tens of thousands of impacted individuals will now have the chance to be with their families during cherished and challenging times.”
(For other News Decoder stories on the Iran nuclear agreement, click here.)
Three questions to consider:
- Why is Donald Trump popular in some parts of the Middle East?
- How is President Joe Biden different from Trump when it comes to policy towards Saudi Arabia?
- What do you think the United States can do to resolve tensions between Israelis and Palestinians?
Bernd Debusmann Jr. is a Washington DC-based freelance journalist. Until July 2020, he was Deputy Editor and Chief Reporter for Arabian Business, a Dubai-based economics and politics magazine. Previously he worked for the Khaleej Times, a UAE newspaper; as a producer on the Reuters Latin American TV desk in Washington; as a Reuters text reporter in New York and later in his native Mexico, first for Reuters TV and then as a freelance journalist.