Politics

Op-ed: Biden has a historic opportunity in the Middle East to foster peace and economic progress

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Key Points
  • It was no accident President Joe Biden's Mideast goals were modest and aimed at avoiding resource-draining distractions.
  • But the emergence of historic opportunity in the Middle East has taken the White House by surprise.
  • A positive series of loosely connected events offers the best opportunity in memory for reducing tensions, ending conflict and building economic progress.
  • Weary of the cost of their disputes, countries long at odds are talking — Saudi Arabia with Iran, Turkey with Egypt, the UAE with Qatar, Israel with any number of Arab states, alongside a number of other emerging combinations.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during a visit at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia, May 3, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

President Biden's long years of Senate and White House experience taught him that the Middle East could be quicksand for his presidential ambitions.

 So, it was no accident his Mideast goals were modest and aimed at avoiding resource-draining distractions from his domestic ambitions and international priorities: recharging the U.S. economy and rallying European and Asian allies to deal with China. 

The old logic was that U.S. withdrawal from Mideast affairs would leave a dangerous vacuum. The new thinking was that by keeping some distance one could encourage greater self-reliance. 

What has taken Biden administration officials by surprise is how quickly historic opportunity has emerged. A positive series of loosely connected events across the region offers the best opportunity in memory for reducing tensions, ending conflict, building economic progress, and advancing Mideast integration.

Their combined effect should be to prompt the Biden administration to recalibrate its "do-no-harm" approach to the region and lift its ambitions. For starters, it should focus on the four leading indicators of change and explore how to build upon them.

  • First, the region's two most bitter adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are engaged in secret talks to manage the region's most incendiary conflict.
  • Second, Turkey this week added Egypt to the list of countries with which it is trying to reduce tensions – including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel.
  • Third, signatories to last year's Abraham accords are building further upon their historic normalization agreement, with the UAE and Israel set to open free trade talks next month.
  • Finally, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are engaged in trilateral talks to deepen their economic ties, underscoring the potential for growth-generating regional integration.

To help any of this along would not require the sort of military deployments, endless commitments or costly investments that have so soured Americans to the region.

What it would take is a heightened level of diplomatic and economic creativity, and the dusting off of history books to study how the U.S. helped Europe end centuries of conflict after World War II and build the institutions and cooperative habits that endure until today. 

The process should begin by studying the dynamics of what's unfolding, staying out of what's working well and engaging where doing so would support fragile progress.

Weary of the financial and reputational cost of their disputes, countries long at odds are talking — Saudi Arabia with Iran, Turkey with Egypt, the UAE with Qatar, and Israel with any number of Arab states, alongside other emerging combinations.

Warring parties in Libya and Yemen, though far from solutions, are looking for ways to de-escalate. National leaders have stepped up their efforts at economic growth, sensing the demands of a well-educated, rising generation that understands global standards.

Most intriguing, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding secret talks since January, apparently without U.S. involvement, and brokered by Iraq.

In a dramatic change of tone, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said:  "We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interest in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world."

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has many reasons for changing course. Among them was the shock of a highly sophisticated Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations in September 2019, costing Riyadh some $2 billion.

The event not only exposed the kingdom's vulnerabilities and Iran's growing capabilities, it also raised doubts about U.S. security guarantees even from as close a friend as President Donald Trump, who did not retaliate on Riyadh's behalf. 

"The concern that Biden will make overly nice with Iran," says the Atlantic Council's Kirsten Fontenrose, "while drawing down from the region and de-prioritizing the bilateral relationship is crucial to Saudi's calculus right now."

Reeling economically and isolated politically, Turkey also has been mending fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel—who have been wary of Istanbul's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups they consider extremist.

And building off last year's historic Abraham Accords, a senior Mideast official says Israel and the UAE will start talks next month on a free-trade agreement, just one of many efforts to seize the momentum of normalized relations. 

Continuing to act as an outsized regional elixir for economic modernization and political moderation, the UAE this week liberalized its residency requirements to attract wealthy expats, and it has set the goal of doubling its GDP within the decade, in particular through technological investments. 

Separately and inspired by the Abraham accords, officials from Israel, the UAE, Greece and Cyprus met in April, with the backdrop of the east Mediterranean, to deepen their cooperation on everything from energy to fighting the pandemic.

Taken individually, these indicators  may appear more tenuous than transformational. Tie them together and build upon them more methodically, however, and the Middle East could have the beginnings of the sort of conflict de-escalation, economic cooperation and institution building that Europe enjoyed after World War II.

With growing security threats in the Horn of Africa and new uncertainties regarding Afghanistan's future, the U.S. would like to be able to call upon steadier Middle East partners to better address growing uncertainties elsewhere in their broader neighborhood.

No one should expect the Middle East in the short-term to sprout its own equivalent of the European Union, NATO or the CSCE, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that provided the venue for talks between the Cold War's rival factions.

One also should not expect the U.S. to play the galvanizing role it did then, when it had half of global GDP, much of Europe was in rubble and the Soviet Union was rising as an adversary to counter.

That said, it would be wrong to underestimate the positive potential U.S. influence.

The Trump administration's support for the Abraham Accords helped unlock growing cooperation among the signatories: Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

The Biden administration has endorsed the agreements, most recently in a conversation this week between President Biden and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed. Biden administration officials, however, should invest more into building upon the accords.

President Biden's resumption of efforts to negotiate with Iran, his focus on human rights issues, and his reluctance to feed the region's divisions also plays a positive role, as long as negotiators don't set the bar too low to lift sanctions on Tehran.

What the Biden administration must avoid is listening to the wrong-headed conclusion of some analysts that U.S. disengagement from the region would accelerate progress. What's needed instead is consistent support for the region's rising forces of modernization and moderation, which have gained but still have far to go.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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