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The view from the White House
Published in Ahram Online on 19 - 01 - 2021

Anxiety over what Donald Trump might be up to as president ended with Joe Biden's inauguration yesterday, though Trump is still likely to stir up trouble in other ways. Back here our concern is rather with Biden's plans for the Middle East. Biden's policy will certainly differ from Trump's. Being a long-term member of the establishment – as Congressperson, member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and vice president – he is hardly a stranger to the region, though Washington think tanks and Democratic voters may have clouded his vision.
Biden's priorities nonetheless remain clear. In the last two years he has written and spoken often about his long-term aim and high strategy: to restore the US's role as global leader. It is an aim that requires uniting the country and conquering Covid-19. Neither is an easy goal, but Biden probably realises that the latter is his key to the former, providing he can complement it with an ambitious project to reform the country's infrastructure. In terms of foreign policy, he is eager to return to the Paris climate accord to restore unity to the Western – democratic – camp, as he calls it, and downshift gears in the game of nations against China and Russia from clash to competition. Though at the heart of this, the Middle East might be lower on Biden's list of priorities, except perhaps for the question of Iranian nuclear weapons, which is bound up with Washington's withdrawal from the costly entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Biden may well take a relatively modest approach to the Middle East following 6 January, when pro-Trump crowds stormed the Capitol, forcing congresspeople to take shelter while they went on a rampage. The experience should make him more sympathetic to the Arab world in the last decade, since white ultranationalists in America are not so different from religious fanatics here. Espousing the same racist-sectarian, xenophobic and conspiracy theory-prone views, the far right (in the case of the Arab world emanating from the Muslim Brotherhood, its affiliates and offshoots) will always produce extremism and violence or terrorism. The assault on the Capitol may also be an occasion to appreciate the difference between freedom of expression and incitement, the right to assembly and the use of life threatening mobbing, peaceful protest and the threat of vandalising public property.
What the new president requires the most in the way of Middle East policy is a firm grasp of the extent of change the region has witnessed. Few in Washington are unaware of the horrors of the last decade: the anarchy unleashed by the so called Arab Spring, the collapse of political systems, the plunge in oil prices and the rise of Islamism to the point of the first modern-era caliphate emerging. Non-Arab regional powers – Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia and Israel – have seized the opportunity to pursue their own strategic ends at the expense of Arab states which have remained intact against the odds but which attempts to partition Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon have left weak and fatigued.
At the same time, the concept of the nation state has gained more of a foothold, with greater sensitivity to levels of decentralisation. Defeated in Egypt and overthrown in Sudan, the radical Islamist tide has ebbed. It has run out of steam in Syria and lost what respect or admiration it may once have enjoyed elsewhere in the region. More generally, the political crises have been brought under control. The Syrian conflict has abated in the framework of a balance of powers in the northwest. Iraq has a stronger leadership under Al-Kadhimi, who aims to bring more stability to government. Libya has seen the last of the bloodshed, with international and regional crisis management setting a course for a permanent solution. Even the Arab-Israeli conflict is moving in a positive direction thanks to the Egyptian initiative to create the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and to the UAE, Bahraini, Sudanese and Moroccan initiatives to normalise relations with Israel. More recently, we have seen Arab reconciliation in the Gulf ending the dispute with Qatar.
Biden should be aware that a major wave of structural reform is underway in the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Algeria, Tunisia and Bahrain, with Sudan and Iraq now following suit. The movement extends from economic reform, urban and demographic development to renewing religious thought and modernisation. It is being steered by technocratic governments with strong and capable leadership. The World Bank, the IMF, WHO (with respect to the Covid-19 response), international rating agencies and other international organisations have testified to far more progress than the US media and think tanks acknowledge. The reforms and the ability to sustain them in a regional Arab framework will bolster up the negotiation power of each Arab country vis a vis the rest of the world in general, and Washington in particular.
If, other than Iranian nuclear power, Biden does not turn his attention to the Middle East during his first year, it should be remembered that Washington has been withdrawing from the region since George Bush Jr's second term. Military failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and the collapse of Arab Spring attempt at political engineering have given impetus to this tendency. Perhaps both Washington and the Arab world are shifting towards Europe and Asia, but be that as it may US foreign policy requires some time to come to terms with Trumpism as a form of opposition and how it utilised democracy as a form of political blackmail. On the Iranian question, which Biden may have to confront sooner than he wants to, Tehran will probably take use the opportunity to exert pressure in the hope of gaining strategic advantages. For his part Biden has the sanctions that the Trump administration imposed as a bartering tool towards an amended nuclear agreement. How all this unfolds remains to be seen, but it should not be long now.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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