The Biden administration’s approach to the Middle East will differ from that of the Trump era in many significant ways. A return to multilateralism, and a commitment to institutions and human rights will please some of the region’s actors – but not all of them. The Middle East’s authoritarian regimes got along well with the Trump administration. They will miss it.
By Galip Dalay
The Middle East is in top-gear preparing for the Biden presidency. Saudi Arabia is patching up relations with Qatar to de-escalate tension in the Gulf. Israel appears to have assassinated Iran’s top nuclear scientist in order to shut the window of opportunity for international diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program – and, in general, to deter progress on Iran’s relations with the West. This puts Iran in a serious bind. If it does not respond, its reputation will suffer; and if Iran does respond, it will complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to re-engage on the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is sending mixed messages. His recent promises of reforms stand in stark contrast to his policies. Nevertheless, Erdoğan is likely to adjust his policies to the new reality in the U.S., too.
Adjusting to the Biden presidency
In the Middle East, the U.S. remains an indispensable actor for regional security and order, despite the fact that the region’s relations with international powers have an ever-more multi-polar character, for example, with Russia on security and China on economics. But the U.S. represents more than primus inter pares. The U.S. put its imprint, if not hegemony, on the politics of the region during the Suez Crisis of 1956 – and it has remained there ever since.
Not only U.S. action, but also its inaction matter a great deal in the region, arguably sometimes even more so, as the evolution of the Syrian crisis attests. The place that the U.S. occupies and the void that it leaves behind can have a formative impact on regional politics. In this respect, just as the Middle Eastern actors adjusted their foreign policies to the Trumpian world, they will readjust them to the Biden presidency. But are these two figures really so different from each other when it comes to their foreign policy visions, particularly in approaches to the Middle East?
Withdrawal, unpredictability, the personalization of relations, and diplomatic deficit characterized U.S. policy towards the region under Donald Trump. But Trump wasn’t the first president to act this way in the Middle East. Despite the fact that Trump presented himself as the anti-Obama in international affairs, his propensity to downsize the U.S. presence in the region followed in Obama’s footsteps. The difference is that Trump did this clumsily.
Trump: Everyone for himself/herself world
The U.S. still maintains formidable military capabilities and diplomatic networks in the region. It thus maintains primacy over other actors. However, under Trump, the U.S. not only downsized its commitments to the region, it also reduced its diplomatic engagements and initiatives. Trump effectively sent the message that it is every nation for itself and “might makes right” – confirming the decline of the international institutions, norms, and principles.
Many regional powers have adjusted themselves to this Trumpian world. One example: the Arab Gulf states’ blockade of Qatar would not have happened had it not been green-lighted by Trump. The U.S. downsizing coupled with Trump’s approach to international affairs set off scrambles among regional players for more influence and power in the MENA region. In other words, not only has Trump shown little regard for the rules of law and human rights in the domestic politics of the Middle Eastern states, he has also demonstrated little concern for the rules, norms, and institutions in the conduct of the intra-regional politics.
Likewise, in a region where power is widely personalized, Trump’s propensity to personalize U.S. relations with the region was well received by many. From Egyptian Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Mohammed bin Zayed, from Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman to Turkey’s Erdoğan, many regional leaders have cultivated close personal ties with Trump and utilized these channels to override institutional mechanisms in the U.S.
At the regional level, Trump pursued decidedly anti-Iranian and pro-Arab Gulf-states-plus-Israel policies. Short of a war, he put in place a hard containment or “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran. Instead of attempting to change Iran’s behavior or policy, Trump sought regime change. In line with this, he envisioned a form of regional order centered on the Arab Gulf states, Egypt, and Israel. This regional realignment was driven by anti-Iran, anti-Turkey, and anti-political-Islam sentiments. Plus, this block is unequivocally against the Arab Spring and the regional change that it brought. Whereas the Arab states’ fear of the Arab Spring stems from their own insecurity and illegitimacy, Israel is opposed to the same phenomenon, believing that if successful, this regional transformation would give birth to a new regional system, in which its regional role would be constrained.
Obviously, some of these countries, such as Israel and the UAE, feel less urgency to recalibrate their foreign policies. Joe Biden is unlikely to reverse either the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or the Abraham Accord, which formalized Israel’s relationship with UAE and Bahrain – with no reference to the Palestinians. Arguably, the UAE’s normalization of its relations with Israel will shield it from some of the challenges that Saudi Arabia is likely to experience in its relations with the U.S.
Synthesizing Obama’s vision with a Trumpian world?
Just as Trump liked to project himself as the anti-Obama, Biden is already being fashioned as the anti-Trump in both domestic and foreign policy. On international affairs, he sends the message that he will strengthen ties with allies and multilateral institutions, institutionalize relations, promote democracy and human rights, revitalize diplomacy, and bring predictability to U.S. foreign policy. If this is put into practice, will we see a dramatically different U.S. policy in the Middle East?
Biden will certainly bring more predictability, commitment to institutions, and diplomacy into his Middle Eastern policy. Although he will not pursue a politics of regional transformation, Biden will probably adopt the language of human rights, good governance, and democratization. However, Biden is unlikely to scale up the U.S. commitment to the region. The U.S. retreat from the region started under Obama, and Biden will not reverse it. Arguably, the strategic value of the Middle East is decreasing for the U.S. and a Biden presidency will not change this.
Another dividing line between Biden and Trump will be their approaches to Iran and Russia. Trump was fixated on Iran and did not pursue an anti-Russian policy in the Middle East in earnest. In contrast, Biden will be more inclined toward finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. Biden’s diplomatic overtures to Iran may take the concerns of the Arab Gulf states into consideration. While Obama did not pay much attention to their fears, Biden is likely to try to accommodate them. Moreover, Biden is likely to pursue a more anti-Russian policy in the region. This, however, does not mean that the U.S. will not seek some form of an understanding with Russia in Syria.
Finally, the approach to Turkey is set to change. During the Trump era, Erdoğan established close personal relations with Trump, which shielded Turkey from the wrath of the U.S. institutions on many accounts. The divergence between Europe and the U.S., and between Trump and the U.S. institutions, increased Turkey’s room of maneuver. This will change and probably generate friction in relations.
On top of this, four issues will test relations from early on: Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile systems, the Syrian Kurds, the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, and Biden’s possible stand on domestic developments in Turkey itself. Unless there is a major policy recalibration in Ankara, that opens the way for more engagement between the sides, of others, in the Black Sea region and Libya, Turkish–U.S./Western relations will go from bad to worse.
A Biden administration will not increase the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. However, different politics, strategies, more diplomacy, and style will prove consequential without an increase in the U.S. military commitment to the region. The new administration will have to grasp that the Middle East is undergoing a major restructuring, in which the region’s relations with the international powers have become more multipolar and regional powers more important. The Biden administration will have to factor these changes into its MENA policies.
Galip Dalay is an expert specializing on Middle Eastern and Turkish politics and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.
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