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November 16, 2020


MIDDLE EAST: Biden will not turn on US partners in the region

BY Jon B. Alterman

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( 6 mins)
  • Biden will remain fundamentally sympathetic to Israel, building on his long record as a friend.
  • Saudi Arabia will need to show value to new administration while quietly hedging against a more distant relationship.
  • UAE will hone its image as a prominent voice for peace and moderation in Gulf, which will appeal to Democrats.

Donald Trump sometimes seemed like a president designed for the Middle East. Highly transactional, disdainful of bureaucratic institutions, and disgusted with the priorities and pieties developed over decades of US foreign policy practice, Trump made many of the region’s rulers feel they were freed from the yoke of official US disappointment. In the Gulf, in particular, where family rule is prized, Trump unapologetically sent his son-in-law as his chief diplomat, and largely shut out US embassies from his negotiations.

Several Middle Eastern states – especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – invested heavily in their relationship with Trump, and they worry how they will fare under a Biden administration. While the warmth of the Trump era is over, President-elect Joe Biden will not be nearly as hostile as some in the region fear, nor as some in the United States wish. Biden will not be hostile to the region or its rulers, and he will seek to preserve extensive US economic ties there. A network of security and intelligence relationships will further knit the US to the region, as will a common sense of threat emanating from Iran. Biden’s ties to the region’s leaders will be logical rather than visceral, but the logic will still drive maintaining close cooperation on a wide array of issues.

Leaders of all three states were slow to congratulate president-elect Biden, but they all did so Sunday. Their minor delay almost certainly was out of a hope that Trump would concede, sparing them the indignity of siding against him. Netanyahu has the least to fear, in part because he has had decades of experience with Biden (who is fundamentally sympathetic to Israel), but also because the US-Israel relationship is so robust outside of presidential relations. Netanyahu had his share of sparring with Obama and Clinton, but he used it as a reminder to broaden his appeal in the United States. It was Netanyahu who spearheaded Israel’s ties to evangelical Christians in the 1990s, which reshaped pro-Israel politics in the United States. Netanyahu will come to dealings with the Biden administration from a strong position: less isolated than Israel has ever been in the Middle East; maintaining close ties with Russia, China, and India; and leading a coalition of natural gas producers in the Eastern Mediterranean that not only promises to be a seafaring powerhouse, but which some even hope will export gas to the Arabian Peninsula. He has domestic political challenges that Biden may complicate, but he will not come to Biden trembling.

Saudi Arabia has a more complicated position. One of Biden’s clearest Middle East priorities is reevaluating the US-Saudi relationship, which he and his team view as having gone badly awry in the last four years; another priority, re-engaging with international efforts to constrain the Iranian nuclear program, will also cause dismay in the Kingdom. With soft oil prices, Saudi Arabia has lost some of its swagger on the international stage. More important, though, the Saudis worry how a Biden administration might seek to squeeze them. Restricted arms sales are likely, especially as the Yemen war continues unabated. But on a host of other issues as well, Saudi Arabia is accustomed to a sympathetic hearing in the White House. The Biden team is likely to press the Saudis on human rights concerns, be more passive pushing US businesses partnerships in the aftermath of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, and avoid high-level meetings in the first months of the administration.

The Saudi response is likely to be twofold. First, the Saudis will be eager to show their value to a new administration. Trump proved easy to charm, but Biden will prove much harder. Even so, Saudi Arabia has a wide array of tools at its disposal to make life easier for an American president (from investments to purchases to governmental cooperation), and it is likely to use them. In the longer run, though, the Saudis will seek to quietly hedge against a weaker US relationship, deepening ties to Russia and China and seeking more self-sufficiency in the security realm.

The UAE arguably saw the writing on the wall the earliest, gaining splashy attention over the summer for its peace agreement with Israel while it simultaneously lay the groundwork for an extensive set of arms purchases. Arguably, the UAE has worked assiduously for two years to separate its fate from the Saudis. It has quietly walked away from the worst parts of the war in Yemen, it has greatly facilitated security cooperation, and it won bipartisan applause for its embrace of Israel (which is proving to be deeper and faster than anyone could have imagined). The UAE’s critics still point to the country’s circumvention of the UN arms embargo on Libya, its embrace of authoritarian leaders throughout the region, its aggression toward neighboring Qatar, and its intolerance of dissent at home. On balance, however, most American elites see the UAE as a voice of tolerance and modernity in a region too lacking in both. While the country has proven especially adept at winning the affection of Republican presidents such as George W. Bush and Trump, it has proven capable of charming Democrats as well.

In two major ways, nothing has changed with the Biden election. First, Biden will be the third consecutive American president who believes that the US military footprint in the Middle East must be significantly reduced. In that way, he will continue a trend. But second, energy continues to drive the region’s political economy. Israel is emerging as a major regional energy power, and the lack of pushback to the UAE-Israel deal suggests that ideology no longer drives much in the region. That suggests that the most important determinant of the region’s fate will be energy prices, which fuel the region’s economies. Trump may have hastened that realization, but a Biden presidency won’t do much to change it.

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