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The Biden administration and the Middle East: Aspirations and current realities

Ahmed Abul Gheit

Published: Updated:

President Joseph Biden takes the helm as the president of the United States at a critical moment in history, both at the American domestic level and the global level. As we know, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the world is currently facing serious and unprecedented challenges that could have unforeseen implications and repercussions.

In light of all these dangerous risks and unpredictable variables, this moment in history requires an exceptional and astute leader. With his rich background and his proven experience, I believe President Biden has what it takes to play this historic role, whether at the national level or on a global scale.

On January 20th, President Biden delivered his inaugural address which carried clear indications of a promising future. His words reflected his firm commitment towards inclusion, unity, building a social consensus, and overcoming polarization. Under the current climate, these values and principles are highly important for the United States as well as countries worldwide, especially with dangerous tensions mounting between major powers.

This is not to mention the rise in right-wing populism and the spread of racist movements, the economic consequences of the pandemic, as well as challenges like climate change, environmental degradation, and others. There is no doubt that all of these pressing issues require an undivided and proactive American leadership.

The United States plays an influential and critical role in promoting global stability. In this context, I would like to address a key aspect of this role, which is the US’s foreign policy towards the Arab region.

Read more: What will Joe Biden’s priorities be for US foreign policy?

The Palestinian cause is one of the main issues that will require the new administration to adopt a different approach. No one can deny the fact that Palestinians have long been marginalized and unfairly treated, not to mention that all attempts to reach a final solution have been undertaken unilaterally without following any terms of reference agreed upon by both sides, which meant that Palestinian demands have been dismissed entirely by the Israeli side.

There is a pressing need to restore the Palestinians’ confidence in a peaceful political process, as it is the only way for them to achieve their national aspirations of establishing an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. Further efforts are needed to restore confidence in the two-state solution as the basic framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after it has been undermined during the past period.

The hope is that the new US administration will restore this confidence as a neutral mediator through a peace process in which both international and Arab parties participate, whether within the framework of the International Quartet (after expanding it to including Arab members), or in any international framework that guarantees the mobilization of efforts in support of achieving peace in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the recent peace agreements signed between Israel and several Arab countries are likely to help in fostering a positive climate of mutual trust which will facilitate reaching a final solution and resolving the conflict. It is important, however, to ensure that the Israeli side is fully aware that these agreements are not an alternative to reaching a settlement or the two-state solution.

Read more: If elected, Biden to restore Palestinian aid, reopen PLO office in Washington: Harris

Despite all the discouraging issues afflicting the Arab region, many important positive steps have been taken recently that need to be emphasized and developed during this upcoming stage. For instance, the reconciliation summit that I attended in Saudi Arabia’s ancient city of AlUla on January 5th is a major step in the right direction.

Everyone who attended this Gulf summit or read the declaration that ensued can agree that all the parties involved are determined to take serious steps to resolve inter-Arab disputes and strengthen Arab relations during these difficult times. Perhaps unifying and intensifying Arab efforts in the upcoming period can serve as a promising basis for successful cooperation with the new US administration, as well as establishing trust between all parties.

For the past decade, our region has been suffering from instability and turmoil that weighed heavily on the security of the region’s countries as well as their economic and social conditions. Many countries have not yet recovered from the steep cost of regional conflicts which resulted in devastation, destruction, and dramatic loss of human life, like in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

Meanwhile, in other Arab countries, like Iraq, Lebanon, and Sudan, the people and the government are still struggling to reach political and social stability amid mounting pressures that have multiplied due to the pandemic. It is safe to assume that the decline in commercial and economic activity, as well as the decline in oil prices and the revenues of the tourism and travel industry, will not only affect oil-exporting countries. In fact, this will have clear negative consequences for the overall economic and social conditions in the Arab region for years.

Among the most dangerous threats facing the region is the constant escalation of internal conflicts in a number of countries and the increase in human loss as a result of these conflicts. In Yemen, the UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has made massive efforts to convince warring parties to agree on a joint ceasefire declaration, as well as other humanitarian and economic measures to build confidence and pave the way for a comprehensive political agreement.

There is no doubt that the diplomatic weight of the United States is highly needed in this regard to help push these initiatives forward and turn them into a reality that can give millions of individuals hope and promise of a better, conflict-free future with no more loss in human lives. It is clear that the Houthis, who are responsible for fueling the conflict, have no regard for human life, not to mention their dismissal of the political process by relinquishing political decision-making in favor of well-known regional parties that resort to delaying and obstructing the process in order to prolong the conflict.

In Syria, international and regional political competition is still ongoing. The conflict-ridden country is being torn apart by competing foreign agendas, which have turned nearly half of its population into refugees and displaced persons. This situation is unsustainable and, if it is left unaddressed, major repercussions will follow that will seriously jeopardize regional stability. We must act quickly in order to save what is left of the country, and the first step is to establish the necessary consensus between the influential forces involved in this conflict with the aim of reaching a peaceful solution and achieving stability, based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.

In Libya, we are witnessing more tangible efforts for building unity and consensus among the Libyan parties, and multiple talks and agreements that are being prepared in anticipation for holding elections at the end of this year. We cannot deny the integral diplomatic role the United States can play in resolving this issue and capitalizing on the opportunity at hand.

This role is also required in Lebanon, which suffers from political paralysis and a frightening economic decline, brought about by major internal conflicting interests and political polarization fueled by unfavorable external influences. It is important for the United States to play a positive role in order to assist the parties involved in their pursuit of achieving political and economic stability. There is a key factor present in all these conflicts and issues which is the unwanted devious intervention by certain regional players.

Read more: Beirut port explosion: Five months on

Recent conflicts have weakened the Arab regional order and made it vulnerable to dangerous interference that is unprecedented in both scope and intensity from regional parties that are looking to expand their influence in our region. Frankly, I am referring to Iran and Turkey, which over the past years have acted as “regional bullies.”

This intervention has indeed ended with these two countries imposing their direct military presence on the national soil of a number of Arab countries. This situation needs a comprehensive and strict solution; because it increases the risk of conflicts in our region and makes existing conflicts more difficult to resolve and more likely to worsen over time.

Iran and its nuclear program represent a major challenge for US foreign policy in the Middle East. In this regard, it is important for me to emphasize that any international efforts towards addressing the “Iranian issue” must take into account Arab concerns. In this context, Arabs’ main concern is the Iranian stance, which is not only characterized by recklessness and open hostility towards some Arab countries; but rather, excessive self-serving actions as well.

As for what Arabs strive for, it is merely to establish a normal neighborly relationship with Iran based on mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs, given that Arabs and Iranians share a long history of cultural and religious ties. It may be appropriate to recall that the approach that the Obama administration took concerning the nuclear deal was not sustainable because it did not address the concerns and fears of the many parties that were affected. I believe that the new administration has a window of opportunity to find a different way to address this issue that greatly impacts regional security through addressing the concerns of all parties.

Upon observing the internal affairs of Arab countries, we immediately notice that sincere efforts are being made by promising Arab leaderships in order to change their societies for the better and to give the youth, who constitute an overwhelming majority of the population, a better future. In light of the many challenges posed by groups that threaten the social fabric of our societies, many Arab leaders are dedicating major efforts to create an environment that is suitable for modernization.

During his inaugural address, President Biden spoke of uniting the social fabric as the overriding goal for any society that is facing challenges. There is no denying that Arab societies are facing a serious threat to jeopardizing their unity at the hands of forces that use an extremist religious rhetoric and do not hesitate whatsoever in exercising extreme violence against civilians.

The true struggle for the future of our region is not a religious one. Rather, it is a struggle between those who advocate for modernization, rationality, and the values of citizenship on the one hand, and those who support the ideology and violent approach of religious radicals and theocracy advocates on the other hand. I am confident that the new administration, with its extensive experience in foreign affairs and national security regarding the Middle East, knows all too well which side the United States must take in this decisive conflict. Siding with the supporters of modernization does not mean agreeing with them on all terms as we hope that we will successfully work side by side to tackle specific issues in order to win this battle for the future of the region.

Our grueling experiences over the past decade provide us with valuable lessons that we should bear in mind when determining right from wrong. Intense pressure from the West to accelerate the pace of change has led to the social and political collapse of several Arab countries, not to mention all the evident humanitarian crises that resulted as a consequence. Therefore, it has become clear that political pressure and using the media for political influence does not necessarily serve the declared goal of pushing through political, economic, and social reform in the countries of the region.

I am certain that the Biden administration has the expertise, knowledge, and vision necessary to achieve this goal for the sake of a better future.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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