An eerie calm hangs over the Middle East as the US presidential election draws near. The political fault lines that crisscross the region seem quieter than usual and political infighting appears to have subsided. But that relative peace reflects little more than the trepidation of regional heads looking to Washington to see if a change in global leadership is afoot.
It is an election that analysts and politicians say could change the political calculus of the Middle East’s major players. From the fate of the Iran nuclear deal to President Donald Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” for Israelis and Palestinians to the relentless rise of unchecked authoritarianism, the outcome of the race could have a drastic impact on the issues shaping the region.
Here’s where former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump stand on the political flashpoints.
Rising authoritarianism from Egypt to Saudi Arabia
Biden has promised to undo what many consider a staple of Trump’s foreign policy: turning a blind eye to autocracy and human rights abuses in favor of crude realpolitik.
To many across the Middle East, America under Trump had finally dropped its veneer of support for democracy in a region peppered with US-backed strongmen. Nonetheless, the effects of the President’s approach have been stark. Authoritarianism has run amok, and the crackdown on activists has been jarring for even the most cynical observers.
In Saudi Arabia, Trump is credited with the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince, and day-to-day ruler of the kingdom. Bin Salman – known colloquially as MBS – spearheaded a rapid succession of reforms but has vociferously stamped out dissent and jailed scores of activists, including some women’s rights defenders. Trump has offered only muted criticism of MBS, even after the 2018 murder of the prince’s best-known critic, Jamal Khashoggi, at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate. Meanwhile, prominent human rights activists, including PEN award winner Loujain al-Hathloul, have continued to languish in Saudi jails on bogus charges.
In a questionnaire by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Biden criticized what he has described as Trump’s “dangerous blank check” to the kingdom and promised to “order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
“I will defend the right of activists, political dissidents, and journalists around the world to speak their minds freely without fear of persecution and violence,” Biden said in a statement marking the anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder this October. “Jamal’s death will not be in vain, and we owe it to his memory to fight for a more just and free world.”
Biden has also promised to end US support for the Saudi-led campaign to crush Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The war there has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and sparked outbreaks of disease and famine.
But the pledge on Yemen’s war runs contrary to Biden’s history. The administration of former President Barack Obama, where Biden served as Vice President, sold billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia, even as it bombed Yemen. As now, the White House under Obama made no meaningful attempts to temper Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, though MBS is widely believed to have cranked up rights abuses in the kingdom.
In Egypt, Biden also criticized Trump’s support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who the US President reportedly once described as “my favorite dictator.” On Egypt, Biden’s criticisms somewhat measure up. Although the Egyptian coup that toppled the country’s only democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsy, and eventually brought Sisi to power, happened during Obama’s tenure in 2013, the former US President ostensibly tried to pressure the Egyptian leader to improve his human rights record, to no avail.
Sisi’s crackdown on critics has been shocking in its scale, with tens of thousands of dissidents believed to have been jailed in recent years. This summer, the death by suicide of LGBTQ rights defender Sarah Hegazi served as a harsh reminder of the brutality that many have endured under Sisi’s rule. Hegazi battled depression and PTSD after allegedly being subjected to sexual and physical abuse in an Egyptian jail. She was imprisoned for raising a rainbow flag at a concert in 2017.
Israel, the Palestinians and the ‘deal of the century’
When Trump ushered in normalization deals between Israel and three Arab countries, it was perhaps one of the high points of his presidency.
The United Arab Emirates led the pack in August, and it was the first normalization agreement between Israel and an Arab or Muslim-majority state in more than two decades. Sidelined from the negotiations was the Palestinian leadership who consider these deals a betrayal. The agreements dealt a blow to their dreams of statehood by riding roughshod over a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that conditioned normalization on an Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 borders. And it added insult to injury after years of Trump muscling through unilateral policies – such as the labeling of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the legitimization of Israeli settlements considered illegal under international law – that undermined their position in the now moribund negotiations with the Israelis.
Biden welcomed the normalization agreements and has said that he would push more countries in the region to take steps to carry out similar deals. But he has said that he is opposed to the unilateralism that has defined Trump’s approach to Israel and the Palestinians.
“Biden opposes any unilateral steps by either side that undermine a two-state solution,” the his campaign’s website reads. “He opposes annexation and settlement expansion and will continue to oppose both as President.”
Biden has also pledged to reverse Trump’s withdrawal of economic and humanitarian support from the Palestinians, and reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, as well as the US consulate in Jerusalem responsible or Palestinian affairs.
But Trump has already helped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu establish new facts on the ground, greatly shoring up the Israeli position for some time to come. If Biden were to try to reverse Trump’s decisions on some of the key sticking points of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations – namely Jerusalem and the settlements – then he could find himself on a collision course with some of Israel’s outspoken supporters in Washington.
And it’s worth noting that Biden has objected to Trump’s methods on the Israel-Palestinian issue, but not his outcomes.
The Iran deal
Biden has said that he would restore the Obama-era nuclear deal – known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – with Iran, which Trump withdrew from in May 2018. Since then, Iran has buckled under the weight of some of the toughest sanctions it has ever faced. A year after Trump’s pull-out, Tehran restarted parts of the nuclear program that the JCPOA mostly dismantled.
“If Iran moves back into compliance with its nuclear obligations, I would re-enter the JCPOA as a starting point to work alongside our allies in Europe and other world powers to extend the deal’s nuclear constraints,” Biden told the CFR.
“Doing so would provide a critical down payment to re-establish US credibility, signaling to the world that America’s word and international commitments once again mean something.”
Biden’s promise to return to the nuclear deal is widely believed to be the reason why Iran has refused to come back to the table with the Trump White House, defying a crippling campaign that has sought to squeeze out further concessions from Tehran. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who played a key role in striking the 2015 deal, has repeatedly said that Iran would not negotiate another agreement.
If Trump is re-elected, however, Iran may find it difficult to resist the President’s overtures and trudge through another four years of economic dire straits. In many ways, Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal can be seen as a defining feature of the Middle East over the last four years, and his return could bring the region into uncharted territory.
When the strongholds of ISIS fell in the first year of Trump’s presidency, the White House began to turn its attention to containing a more powerful Iran. Both US-backed fighters and Iranian-backed forces, with no immediately visible coordination between the two, fought to defeat ISIS. The extremist group’s demise seemed to coincide with the birth of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, setting the stage for a region that appeared to constantly teeter on the verge of a cataclysmic war. Iran launched its largest-ever ballistic missile attack on US positions. And Tehran says that it has yet to avenge Soleimani’s death.
Meanwhile, people in the region have been weighed down by the strains of economic crises, youth unemployment and deepening distrust for their leadership – all exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s Arab Youth Survey found that a majority of young Arabs in crisis-wracked states support anti-government protests and nearly half of young Arabs have considered leaving their countries.
Corrupt leadership and government mismanagement is a major part of the problem, but so is US foreign policy in the form of aggressive and clumsy interventionism in countries such as Iraq, and the buttressing of corrupt and oppressive governments. “On the whole, American foreign policy has not been very successful,” said Rami Khouri, a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. “The way you can gauge that is if you look at the region today, look at the stability in the region, look at the cohesion and integrity of many countries and look at public opinion and then look at leadership.”
“The Trump years just made a bad American Middle East policy worse.”
Obama’s legacy in the region – like many of his predecessors – is not a positive one. For people in the Middle East, his presidency is associated with the conflicts that began in Yemen, Libya and Syria, and continued to rage in Iraq during his tenure. And while people in the Middle East are hard-pressed to expect drastic change in the regional approach of any future White House, they continue to hope that a long streak of foreign policy failures here could one day come to an end.