What would a Biden victory mean for the Middle East?

With Joe Biden currently leading in the polls for presidential elections in November, a victory for the Democratic challenger would have immediate implications for US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa. It is continuity on key issues that will define a new administration’s approach to the region though, including on the JCPOA and Israel.

Greater predictability and a shift in tone will be the main change from the Trump era, but we could see a hardening stance on areas such as Saudi involvement in Yemen.

A change in tone

A key focus for a Biden administration will be on more consistent external communications – in contrast to the Trump administration. In June 2017, for example, Trump’s apparent support on Twitter for the Saudi- and Emirati-led boycott of Qatar contradicted the stance of his own State Department. More recently, Trump’s apparent backing for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar in early 2019 contradicted the public stance of his defense and state departments.

Joe Biden lacks his rival’s enthusiasm for tweeting and will likely delegate diplomatic disputes to his Secretary of State and the professional diplomatic corps of the State Department, for which he has promised increased funding.

This greater predictability will be reinforced by Biden’s expressed desire to work more closely with international partners, allies and institutions on global issues. Events like the assassination of Qassim Soleimani, a unilateral action undertaken without consultation with the Iraqi government or other US military allies, will therefore become less likely.

Yet policy changes in the Middle East will be limited

For all the undoubted change in tone and increased predictability that a Biden presidency would bring, specific changes for US foreign policy in the Middle East are likely to be limited.

On Israel and Palestine, for example, it is unlikely that Biden would reverse Trump’s decisions to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and recognise the Occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory. The recent UAE-Israel normalisation deal was welcomed by Biden.

Even on relations with Iran, Biden is unlikely to expend much effort attempting to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the Trump administration withdrew in May 2018. In the wake of the Soleimani assassination, relations are now at such a low ebb that a more constructive US-Iran relationship will require political capital that Biden will prefer to direct elsewhere.

Aim (if not the reality) of strategic disengagement to continue

One policy change that the Biden campaign has made a firm commitment to is ending US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. This itself is part of a promise by the Biden campaign and the Democratic party to end “forever wars” in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This pledge, however, is caveated – with the Biden campaign stating that military power in the region will still be needed for containing Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

This overall aim of ending "forever wars" is shared, at least rhetorically, by Trump – who spoke of his opposition to what he typically refers to as “Endless Wars” across the Middle East and in Afghanistan. Like the Democrats, he simultaneously maintains that US military force should still be used against IS and al-Qaeda. As an example – Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria in October 2019 – later turned into a re-deployment – was justified on the basis that “100% of the ISIS Caliphate” was defeated.

In this sense, Biden’s overall strategy of military disengagement from the Middle East would not appreciably shift from that of Trump. Biden would also be continuing a trend which began under his former boss Barack Obama, who initiated the strategic ’pivot’ of US diplomatic and military resources away from Europe and the Middle East and towards China and East Asia.

Of course, the issue of whether military disengagement is possible without allowing a resurgence of Salafist-jihadist groups will continue to trouble policymakers – both Republican and Democrat. Just as important, and left unsaid by either presidential candidate, is whether the United States will be comfortable ceding ground to other regional, resurgent powers – a likely consequence of a military pullback.

Regional leaders would prefer Trump, but Biden won’t rock the boat

A Biden victory would not be welcomed by regional leaders – for different reasons. The Saudis would struggle to uphold US support for its intervention in Yemen and resent Biden’s more dovish stance on Iran. Turkey would miss Trump’s more transactional conduct of diplomacy, which saw them enter Syria in 2019 without effective opposition. Egypt’s president al-Sisi would find his regime under intensified scrutiny, instead of being described as President Trump’s “favourite dictator”.

But fears of a Democratic Party victory are likely misplaced. Biden will not be as openly friendly with authoritarian leaders in the way that Trump has, but his track record as vice president (2009-17) suggests that pressure on governments in the region on human rights issues will not be a priority. Biden’s softer line on Iran may concern the Gulf monarchies, but a less bellicose stance doesn’t mean that he would abandon local partners if Iran blocked the Strait of Hormuz.

In short, hard power priorities for the US in MENA – the maintenance of energy supply and minimising price swings – will not change, regardless of whether a Democratic or Republican administration is in charge.

Hamish Kinnear

MENA Analyst, Risk Insight