America Can Benefit from the New Middle East | Opinion

President Joe Biden's first moves in the Middle East—bombing Iran-backed militias in Syria, trying to resuscitate and broaden the Iran deal and releasing a controversial and inconclusive report on journalist Jamal Khashoggi—neglect the bigger picture of a region that is leading the world out of the pandemic.

The Gulf states and Israel in particular provide an opportunity for the U.S. to participate in a global economy that will be more centered on the Middle East than it was before the coronavirus. This future must be a cornerstone of U.S. policy.

COVID has threatened the mature economies of the U.S. and Europe, accelerated China's inevitable rise and given opportunity to the region's often more agile and adaptable countries.

There are few countries in the world who have (almost) put the pandemic behind them and are on good terms with both the U.S. and China. Those are the countries who are set to lead the world in the 21st century. They are almost exclusively in the Middle East.

The rise of the Middle East as a gateway between the U.S. and China presents an opportunity for Biden to re-engage with Beijing through the neutral soil of Israel and the Gulf states. Biden should not be afraid of celebrating and building on the diplomatic progress achieved under the Trump administration through the end of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift and the Abraham Accords.

Increased diplomatic and commercial links in the region—and its resilience in the face of the pandemic—reaffirm Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's 2018 statement that the Middle East can become the "new Europe."

COVID may be the milestone where this possibility became more apparent, especially as Europe struggles to form a coherent pandemic exit strategy.

Being the "new Europe" is something that Middle Eastern leaders are understandably motivated by, particularly in light of their relations with both D.C. and Beijing. The middle ground that Europe was for the Soviet-U.S. Cold War, the Middle East is for the China-U.S. relationship—geographically, politically and economically.

It is a position the Middle East is poised to exploit: While the pandemic has significantly impacted the U.S.' major cities, the Middle East has evolved through it. The region's investments in technology, infrastructure and growth have positioned it to be the new gateway between East and West.

Rather than continue to fight yesterday's conflicts and ignore today's achievements—perhaps focused on distancing himself from former President Donald Trump's policies—Biden should craft policy based on the reality that the Middle East is transitioning from a 20th century defined by conflict to a 21st century where the Silk Road is once again the social, economic, cultural and political center of the world.

Dubai
This picture shows an aerial view of the Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai, with the man-made Palm Jumeirah archipelago seen in the background. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

This is a future into which the Middle East is rapidly progressing. Three of the top seven countries with the most vaccinations are in the Middle East, namely the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel and Bahrain. In addition to a successful vaccination campaign, total death rates in these countries and others in the region from COVID have remained low.

All this while key industries, including tourism, have often remained open. This success is not a coincidence; it is the result of long-term forward thinking and planning.

Saudi Arabia has been working to almost triple its non-oil revenues and is investing billions into futuristic cities like NEOM and "The Line." The UAE successfully completed a mission to Mars during the pandemic and recently announced plans to nearly double Dubai's population, all while commentators in London and New York discuss the "death of cities."

Gulf economies also benefit from a low debt to GDP ratio, which will allow them to maintain growth while more developed and leveraged economies struggle in the wake of the pandemic. The U.S. currently has a debt to GDP ratio of over 100 percent; in Saudi Arabia and the UAE the debt to GDP ratio is closer to 30 percent, meaning those governments will have spending power well into the future for public and private projects.

China is busy building deeper links in the region, where doing business is more important than talking politics. It is important to Biden's legacy that U.S. policy makers and investors do the same, and foster both cultural and economic connections to the new Middle East.

To this day, many political and business leaders in the U.S. are driven by impulses that impacted actions between them and the Middle East at the start of the millennium. Twenty years on, the region's leaders and populations are looking to the future, not the past.

The White House must do the same—and accept that young, less populated countries have dealt with the pandemic better than the U.S. It must also adapt to the rise of China, by utilizing the Middle East's neutral ground to increase cooperation with Beijing.

It's high time an American president looked to the Middle East for its entrepreneurship, adaptability and its e-governance, as well as its oil.

Joshua Jahani is a lecturer at Cornell University and New York University, and a board advisor at the investment bank Jahani and Associates specializing in the Middle East and Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.