2020 Regional Expectations of the Biden Administration

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region


The victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential elections has elicited strong views across the region. Coming after four years of a tumultuous US foreign policy approach, the prevailing sentiment is one of caution and uncertainty. Generally favoring Mr. Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East, many in the Arab world and Israel have received the news of former Vice President Biden’s election with some misgivings about what course of action the new president-elect will pursue. Convinced that Trump’s imprint on the region may be indelibly left behind, some argue that Mr. Biden may be unable to turn the clock back to the Obama years, although it is clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are unlikely to find Mr. Biden as sympathetic to their demands.

Among those alarmed by Mr. Biden’s election, Lebanese political analyst Christiane Waked, writing for one of the UAE’s main dailies—Khaleej Times—warns that a win for Mr. Biden may risk plunging the region, and especially Iraq, back into chaos and under the heel of Iran: “The whole peace process plan that the Trump administration had mapped out for the Middle East is now jeopardized with the election of Joe Biden. In fact, the Iraqi factions allied with neighboring Iran have already expressed their content with the new US President-elect because they know that Biden victory could possibly mean a detente with Iran…. Even if Joe Biden is yet to unveil his foreign policy, no one in Iraq should forget that he voted in favor of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Also it is good to refresh our memories of his 2006 proposal to divide the country into three autonomous regions of Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish paving the way to more sectarian feuds in Iraq…. For Iraq to get back on its feet, regional and international factors must play in its favor but with the election of Joe Biden, it looks like Iraq will still have to struggle for quite some time.”

Perhaps ironically, the same argument is also made about what Iran may expect from a Biden administration, even though in an op-ed, Raghida Dergham—a columnist for The National—argues that Mr. Biden’s instincts are to return to the pre-Trump US policy regarding Iran: “One country whose leadership will be anxiously waiting and watching is Iran…. It is not a foregone conclusion that a Biden administration will be all that eager to reactivate the nuclear deal, which Mr. Trump walked out of in 2018. This is in part because, despite providing indications that the Biden team might be willing to reach out to the Iranian regime, it is not clear with whom exactly it will get in touch with – the civilian camp led by President Hassan Rouhani, or the increasingly powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Interestingly, the Biden team has spoken about the need for Iranian “compliance” in the context of the nuclear deal as a precursor to talks.”

The Iranian question is of course likely to become one of the new administration’s main concerns, but Al Ahram’s Ezzat Ibrahim cautions that Mr. Biden should not make the mistake of assuming the region is the same as it was four years ago: “Reconsidering the US position on the Political Islam groups and confronting Iranian intransigence will be among the most important issues that the new administration should focus on in its relations with the Middle East, because they represent the core of the disputes and clashes with major capitals in the region. It will not suffice for the new Biden administration to renew positions taken from previous periods, because the scale of the changes in the Middle East has been enormous, and what was valid ten years ago is no longer able to deal with the challenges of the status quo.”

One of Mr. Trump’s legacies in the region and more broadly was his cozy relationship with authoritarian and populist leaders, including Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a trend Turkish commentators like Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party, believe is unlikely to be continued. This means, as he points out in a recent Arab News op-ed, that Turkey’s president is in for a much colder reception from President-Elect Biden: “The era when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had easy access to US President Donald Trump is coming to a close. President-elect Joe Biden, in the early stages of his election campaign, warned that dark clouds were overshadowing Turkey-US relations, saying “Turkey is the real problem” and that “Erdogan will pay a heavy price.” The list of outstanding issues between the two countries is long, but the most important ones are the purchase by Turkey of a Russian-manufactured air defense system, Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 superfighter program, the Kurdish problem, the Halkbank court case, and the extradition of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.”

Despite very different upbringings and personalities, another regional leader that leveraged his relationship with President Trump to ensure his own political survival is Israel’s prime minister. With Trump gone, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shimrit Meir proposes that the Israeli government be willing to change the conversation to suit the incoming administration: “With Biden set to occupy the White House, the Jewish state finds itself in uncharted waters, and the faster it copes with the new reality the better it would be for us, the incoming U.S. administration and the entire region…. After recovering from the initial shock, here are five things Israel can do to better cope with this new reality…. 1) No provocations – the quicker we realize U.S. President Donald Trump’s stint in the White House is over, the better. Although these four years strengthened Israel strategically and weakened its arch-nemesis, Iran, it is mud in the fire now…. 2) Separate the wheat from the chaff – or in other words, ‘Iran Iran Iran’. Everything else, including the Palestinian issue, is less critical…. 3) Lowering our profile to the bare minimum – it is great time to remember that we are not the center of the world…. 4) Economic aid to the Palestinians — the PA’s lifeblood — restoration of security coordination and stabilizing the situation in the West Bank are good for everyone. The rest is inevitable, and we better not waste our breath on it…. 5) Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is not as closely affiliated with Trump as Netanyahu, could bridge the gap with the Democrat administration.”

There are those, however, including Amer Al Sabaileh, a Jordanian academic and freelance columnist for the Jordan Times and the Ammon News agency, who believe that, despite a change in rhetoric, we should not expect “significant changes” in US policy, since Mr. Biden’s hands may be tied: “The heritage of the Trump Administration will be difficult for Biden not to address, particularly when it has produced the upper hand in some situations, and conflicts and deeper issues in others. With the major global issue of containing China’s economic and political expansion, relations with Russia and Iran may be secondary, but it all depends on Biden’s appetite to continue the confrontational approach he is inheriting from the Trump administration. The complexities of the situation on the ground on multiple fronts require a pragmatic and realistic approach, and as such it is very difficult to see significant changes in the Middle East in the short term, even if the rhetoric changes.”

Writing for the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Abdel-Moneim Said, director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo, goes so far as to suggest that, while Mr. Trump may exit the stage, Trumpism may persist: “Whatever the results that emerge after these exciting days, Donald Trump’s four years in the White House will not pass like wisps of clouds barely visible against the intense blue of a summer afternoon sky…. Trumpism will not fade just because there is a new president, regardless of his name or party. The main junctures of US history, from the post-revolutionary period through the Civil War and two world wars, to the Cold War and the period following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, involved interactions between the past, present and a future that heralded unprecedented technologies. Trump’s Twitter mania was no anomaly; it was a concrete manifestation of a historical dialectic in which Trumpism unveiled itself.”

Putting aside all speculation about what the incoming Biden administration’s regional policies may or may not be, Sam Menass, general director of Radio Voice of Lebanon, opines on the pages of Asharq Alawsat that standing by while awaiting the next move by the US administration may be the shortest way to disaster. Rather than worry about election outcomes, regional leaders and governments, especially Arab ones, need to come together to draw a coherent framework for engaging with the US: “We will not be able to define what we want from America and what we can offer to solve the regions’ problems unless rational and pragmatic Arab voices are loud and clear in Washington’s decision-making circles. They must express a clear vision of what is to be done to build a new partnership. We can’t just sit back and wait for the presidential election results to be declared. What is required, to repeat, is that we leave the Americans to deal with their issues alone and work on solidifying an Arab position and influencing American policy.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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