World Politics

Saudis worry, Iran and Palestinians hope: What a Biden presidency could mean for the Middle East

Key Points
  • While the Biden victory elicited collective sighs of relief for many leaders in Europe, the reaction in the Middle East is far less uniform.
  • U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-Israeli relations saw a dramatic cooling over the course of the last administration Biden worked in, under former President Barack Obama.
  • "Biden and his foreign policy team see the world completely differently than Trump does," one expert told CNBC.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks to reporters about efforts to confront the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic after meeting with members of his "Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board" in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 9, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Joe Biden's presidential election victory is set to usher in significant foreign policy changes, and above all, a dramatically different communication style when it comes to U.S. allies and adversaries.

The world can likely prepare to see a return to standard official procedures under Biden, rather than the "decree-by-tweet" policy often seen under President Donald Trump. 

But while Biden's victory elicited collective sighs of relief for many leaders in Europe, with several experiencing fractious relations with Trump, the reaction in the Middle East is far less uniform.

That's because while some countries benefited from Trump's transactional, business-like approach to diplomacy that largely left issues like human rights alone — particularly for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel — Trump's hard line toward Iran and lack of support for the Palestinians also fostered heightened acrimony and tension from others in the region.

"Biden and his foreign policy team see the world completely differently than Trump does," said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "They want to return to the systematic, institutionalized, alliance-centered and rules-based international order the U.S. carefully built since the end of World War II. Trump doesn't respect any of that." 

Biden's team is 'divided' on Iran policy: Atlantic Council
Biden's team is 'divided' on Iran policy: Atlantic Council

At the same time, there will be areas of continuity. "Both Biden and Trump share the goal of reducing the U.S. footprint in terms of military presence in the Middle East, and that includes reducing the funding and the manpower," Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told CNBC's "Capital Connection."  

"Both are looking for ways to reduce the cost of being involved in the Middle East but not reduce the U.S.'s influence. And that will be the challenge." 

The big question mark: Saudi Arabia 

A looming question is the Biden approach to Saudi Arabia, a partner of the United States since the 1940s.  

"It is no longer guaranteed that Riyadh will remain in Washington's good graces," analysts at political risk consultancy AKE Group wrote in an article late September. 

Indeed, during a Democratic primary debate in late 2019, Biden said his administration would make Saudi Arabia "the pariah that they are."

U.S. President Donald Trump (2nd L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) at the the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 21, 2017.
Bandar Algaloud | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Officials working in the Saudi government have quietly expressed concern over less favorable policies than under Trump and what they anticipate will be a return to former President Barack Obama-era policies — particularly the Iranian nuclear deal known as the JCPOA — and the risk that could present to Gulf Arab states who see Tehran as their primary threat. 

U.S.-Saudi relations saw a dramatic cooling under Obama, who supported some Arab Spring uprisings, oversaw rapprochement with Iran and was somewhat critical of the Saudi kingdom's human rights record.

The U.S. election was followed closely in Iran, with some officials hopeful about a Biden administration's possible willingness to revive the JCPOA and lift crushing economic sanctions in exchange for new parameters to the nuclear deal. But that is thus far uncertain, as it's unclear how much Iran would be willing to compromise. 

Leaders 'burned' by Trump being 'so unpredictable' 

Trump's administration was widely perceived as giving the Saudi kingdom a pass over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in late 2018. It also downplayed reported human rights abuses and signed massive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite congressional opposition. 

Biden likely to place a 'much stronger emphasis' on human rights globally: Atlantic Council
Biden likely to place a 'much stronger emphasis' on human rights globally: Atlantic Council

But that doesn't mean it was all rainbows for the past four years, said Michael Stephens, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

"Some of the more powerful Middle Eastern states prefer Trump, but they've been burned quite significantly by Trump being so unpredictable," Stephens said. "With Biden, I think they will get four years of a policy that they will understand and don't really like and will do a lot to undermine." 

Biden is also likely to adopt a strategic framework that includes Europe, in a significant change from Trump's unilateral approach, analysts say.  

Israeli normalization and Palestinian relations 

"Arab states like Saudi Arabia will be seeking allies as their close relationship with the United States weakens," said Ryan Bohl, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor. This is already evident in the UAE and Bahrain's establishment of ties with Israel, something analysts expect a Biden administration to encourage, though perhaps not with the same intensity as under the direction of Trump advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.   

"For the Biden administration, they will be looking at Saudi Arabia as the big prize on (Israeli) normalization," Fontenrose said. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements as they participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are longtime supporters of Israel, but some Israeli officials worry, given the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations under Obama. 

While Biden is unlikely to reverse any of Trump's major Israel policy moves like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, he has voiced his aim of restoring support for Palestinians that was cut under the current administration. That includes "immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington," Harris said in early November.  

And according to the Israel-UAE normalization deal, the former has pledged to freeze annexation efforts in the West Bank through 2024, the length of the next presidential term.  

More likely, however, the president-elect "will simply move away from Trump's pro-annexation policies and return to the traditional U.S. theoretical endorsement of a two-state solution without doing much to advance it, because there's nothing to work with on either side," Ibish said.  

"Palestinian leaders are definitely counting on Biden ... so that they can repair relations with Washington, which is really important to them."

Reception to UAE-Israel accord has been unprecedented: Jerusalem Deputy Mayor
Reception to UAE-Israel accord is unprecedented: Jerusalem Deputy Mayor