Saudis worry, Iran and Palestinians hope: What a Biden presidency could mean for the Middle East

While the Biden victory elicited collective sighs of relief for many leaders in Europe, the reaction in the Middle East is far less uniform.

Nov 12, 2020 - 06:54
Nov 12, 2020 - 07:00
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Saudis worry, Iran and Palestinians hope: What a Biden presidency could mean for the Middle East
While the Biden victory elicited collective sighs of relief for many leaders in Europe, the reaction in the Middle East is far less uniform.
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Joe Biden’s presidential election victory is set to usher in significant foreign policy changes, and above all, a dramatically different communication style when it comes to U.S. allies and adversaries.

The world can likely prepare to see a return to standard official procedures under Biden, rather than the “decree-by-tweet” policy often seen under President Donald Trump. 

But while Biden’s victory elicited collective sighs of relief for many leaders in Europe, with several experiencing fractious relations with Trump, the reaction in the Middle East is far less uniform.

That’s because while some countries benefited from Trump’s transactional, business-like approach to diplomacy that largely left issues like human rights alone — particularly for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel — Trump’s hard line toward Iran and lack of support for the Palestinians also fostered heightened acrimony and tension from others in the region.

“Biden and his foreign policy team see the world completely differently than Trump does,” said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “They want to return to the systematic, institutionalized, alliance-centered and rules-based international order the U.S. carefully built since the end of World War II. Trump doesn’t respect any of that.” 

At the same time, there will be areas of continuity. “Both Biden and Trump share the goal of reducing the U.S. footprint in terms of military presence in the Middle East, and that includes reducing the funding and the manpower,” Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told CNBC’s “Capital Connection.”  

“Both are looking for ways to reduce the cost of being involved in the Middle East but not reduce the U.S.’s influence. And that will be the challenge.” 

The big question mark: Saudi Arabia 

A looming question is the Biden approach to Saudi Arabia, a partner of the United States since the 1940s.  

“It is no longer guaranteed that Riyadh will remain in Washington’s good graces,” analysts at political risk consultancy AKE Group wrote in an article late September. 

Indeed, during a Democratic primary debate in late 2019, Biden said his administration would make Saudi Arabia “the pariah that they are.”

Officials working in the Saudi government have quietly expressed concern over less favorable policies than under Trump and what they anticipate will be a return to former President Barack Obama-era policies — particularly the Iranian nuclear deal known as the JCPOA — and the risk that could present to Gulf Arab states who see Tehran as their primary threat. 

U.S.-Saudi relations saw a dramatic cooling under Obama, who supported some Arab Spring uprisings, oversaw rapprochement with Iran and was somewhat critical of the Saudi kingdom’s human rights record.

The U.S. election was followed closely in Iran, with some officials hopeful about a Biden administration’s possible willingness to revive the JCPOA and lift crushing economic sanctions in exchange for new parameters to the nuclear deal. But that is thus far uncertain, as it’s unclear how much Iran would be willing to compromise. 

Leaders ‘burned’ by Trump being ‘so unpredictable’ 

Trump’s administration was widely perceived as giving the Saudi kingdom a pass over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018. It also downplayed reported human rights abuses and signed massive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite congressional opposition. 

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