Can Biden Bring Anything New at All to the Middle East? | Opinion

I've been researching different parts of the wider MENA region as an "outsider-insider" for some two decades. A few days after the Biden administration takes office, it will be the 10th anniversary of the Egyptian revolutionary uprising of 2011 – an uprising I experienced, during which Joe Biden was Vice-President. A decade on from that, the region's politics are now deeply impacted by a new geopolitical 'cold war' – the MENA's own sluggish struggle between two axes struggling for dominance in the region, alongside older rivalries. Against the backdrop of those enmities, one may ask: what's the likely meaning of a Biden-Harris administration for the region itself? What can American allies inside, and outside, the region expect? A decade on from the uprising, can activists on the ground expect anything new?

I spent much of the past decade in the region; an Englishman in the Arab world, and an Arab in Europe, being a Brit of mixed race. I witnessed the Arab spring uprisings, the revolutionary waves, and the counter-revolutionary reactions, on the ground therein; and was also privy to policy debates on the same, particularly in London and DC, where I work. When Mr Biden took office as vice-president, it isn't that the region was simple – but it was less complex than today. The two axes alluded to above include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as one pole of influence; and Turkey and Qatar as the other dowel. There's a certain irony with a Biden presidency already – because both of those axes would have been pleased to have continued with a second Trump administration, and Mr Biden already has his dedicated detractors in both camps.

Take the first axis, for example. Donald Trump called Egypt's president 'his favourite dictator," without any irony. Biden, in contrast, called out that same leader on the campaign trail, for human rights abuses. There are already reports of Cairo contracting new lobbyists to prepare for the Biden era—indicating Cairo expects a type of pressure not seen since the Obama administration. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Mr Biden has already caused a lot of consternation in Riyadh for his comments about the Khashoggi affair, pledging accountability. Both the Saudis and the Emiratis, who both enjoyed very good relations with the Trump administration, have come under a lot of fire from within the Democratic camp owing to the Yemen war, and the grisly humanitarian disaster that exists therein.

But it isn't just that axis that will be uneasy with a Biden administration. In Turkey, there has also been a lot of resentment towards Mr Biden. Mr Erdogan had significant access to the Trump administration, with good relations with Trump himself—to the point where direct communication was very frequent. On the campaign trail, however, Biden called Erdogan an autocrat, and an extensive interview with Biden by the New York times a year ago shows a politician with a lot of discomfort with Ankara—and the feeling is likely to be mutual. Biden has shown a lot of sympathy with Kurdish forces in Syria – who are in direct opposition to Ankara—and expressed clear support for opposition to Erdogan. None of that was unnoticed in Turkey.

So, if either of the two poles of influences were hoping for a new friend in the White House, those hopes will have been dashed. Biden won't be a friend to either of them—not in the deeply close way that Trump was to some elements of them.

But, here there won't be any surprises, and on some level, many in those capitals may well prefer that. The same is going to be true for many other countries in the wider MENA region, who had no choice but to deal with a Trump presidency, and will be now grateful to engage with someone less erratic here on in. The same is true for American partners outside of the region. London, Brussels, Paris, and other Western powers have privately and publicly expressed a lot of hope that the Trump years can be put behind them, and that a more responsible and unsurprising Biden administration can be a more reliable partner.

On the other hand, it's dubious anyone in the region is going to be particularly sanguine about the prospects for radical change in terms of the relationship between the US and their countries—and that goes for civil society as well as state actors. Rights activists, independent journalists and academics across the region have long been stuck between a rock and a hard place. Non-aligned to either of these poles, they were at the heart of the beginnings of the revolutionary uprisings when those upheavals began a decade ago. And as the two axes became more and more polarised, the situation for that non-aligned part of civil society became more and more difficult. Devotees of both axes often accuse such non-partisans of being in league with the opposing axis—while they are, by definition, not in league with any axis. It's a peculiar reproduction of George Bush's infamous "you're either with us or against us" rhetoric.

I know first-hand how the attempt to stay independent makes one a target for fatuous acolytes of both axes, who insist on falsely portraying critical analysis as being in service of the opposing axis. (If all the accusations were to be believed, I've apparently been a Zionist-Qatari-Emirati-Turkish-Saudi-British-Egyptian intelligence agent/apologist...as well as being a Star Trek fanatic, along with many other dubious accolades. And somehow all at the same time. Only one of those labels happens to be true—but I would say that, wouldn't I?)

Such targeting can be as puerile as such online trolling. But the effort to prioritise fundamental freedoms and rights often carries a much higher price than hate mail. I've been spared most, if not all, of that price, as a British academic – but not always, and from elements of both axes. Even so, the situation is usually exponentially worse for domestic activists or journalists without western citizenship.

For those civil society activists on the ground, for whom space has shrunk consistently, they hope that while a Biden administration might not necessarily help them, American allies in the region will not be able to expect an empowering atmosphere. And in that regard, they're likely to be right. We can expect that a Biden administration is going to be expressing a lot of public dissatisfaction with different elements of these two axes – and that will be a significant difference from the Trump era.

On some files, that will mean different outcomes. Trump's intense attention on the Palestinian-Israeli file led to aggressive efforts to have Israel normalised by Arab states without corresponding shifts by Israel to uphold international law – to the point of veritable extortion of Sudan, a country that deserved assistance and help after decades under a brutal dictatorship. Many western diplomats, from the UK to elsewhere, were privately shocked and dismayed by the treatment visited upon the Sudanese, let alone Sudanese civil society.

Biden won't be doing anything similar in that direction. But while he's unlikely to embolden the Israelis as Trump did, a Biden administration won't move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv, either. Palestinians will have fewer enemies in a Biden administration – but I'm not convinced they'll have more friends.

There will be outstanding files for a Biden administration to engage with, whether it wants to or not, and that will include Libya (where both of the axes are deeply involved); the Renaissance dam in Ethiopia, which worries Cairo tremendously; Turkish engagement in the eastern Mediterranean; Iran; along with other files, let alone others that might change due to as yet unknown moves carried out in the last weeks of a Trump administration. There are scores of European powers, from London to Brussels to Paris to Berlin, who are keen indeed to see a constructive American role under Joe Biden.

But will a Biden administration be more substantial in its engagement? I'm not entirely sure. Yes, it will be more predictable, much like the Obama administration – but it will also be an administration that is less interested in the MENA region in the first place. With perhaps the exception of re-establishing some kind of deal with Iran, Biden's primary focuses won't be on MENA – unless, of course, a crisis erupts. His focus will be on repairing the damage to the international system that Trump presided over, and there's a lot of work to be done on that front. He'll be aiming to rebuild alliances with European allies that Trump strained, and reinforce trust with NATO; he won't be rolling back on China, but will probably build on some of the measures the Trump administration began, which had a substantial bipartisan support.

All of those efforts are going to take up bandwidth, which just means less high-level attention to be expended on the MENA region. That's a trend that frankly predated Trump—and the MENA region—axes and all—is going to have get used to that, sooner, rather than later.

Dr HA Hellyer is a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute @hahellyer.

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