The Biden era: What do Arabs expect?

President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States at the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP)
President Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States at the 59th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 29 January 2021

The Biden era: What do Arabs expect?

 The Biden era: What do Arabs expect?
  • YouGov pan-Arab poll commissioned by Arab News late last year had shown Joe Biden as the favored presidential candidate
  • Biden’s advisers would be well advised to heed the views of the region in shaping the administration’s Middle East policy

LONDON: Joe Biden has become the 46th president of the US, having defeated Donald Trump in an election last November whose outcome evidently failed to heal the political rifts plaguing the country. Trump did not attend Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony.

Complicating matters, a worsening coronavirus crisis and heightened security risks cast a shadow over the inauguration, which saw Biden and Kamala Harris take the oath of office respectively as president and vice president.


Read the full report "The Biden Era: What do Arabs expect?" of the Arab News Research & Studies Unit


While Biden will probably have his hands full tackling the pandemic, a sputtering economy and a growing partisan divide, foreign-policy issues are also expected to get high priority, especially considering his long stint as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, Biden will have his fair share of challenges. Nearly half (49 percent) of the respondents in a pan-Arab survey conducted in late September last year by Arab News in partnership with YouGov, the online polling company, said they believed neither Biden nor Trump was necessarily good for the region.

But that does not mean he cannot break free from the legacy of the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president for two terms. Biden’s advisers would be well advised to listen to the views from the Arab region in shaping the new administration’s Middle East policy.

A majority (58 percent) of the Arab News-YouGov poll’s respondents said Biden should discard the approach to the Middle East of his former boss, Barack Obama. The survey, which questioned people in 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa, showed that Obama’s policies remain unpopular among Arabs, who were disappointed by his failure to deliver the “new beginning” he promised during a speech at Cairo University in 2009.

The study — “The 2020 US Elections - What do Arabs want?,” published on Oct. 25, 2020 — also showed that 44 percent of Arabs view youth empowerment as a key driver of global development and believe it should be a priority for the Biden administration.

 




Nearly half of the respondents in the pan-Arab survey said they believed neither Biden nor Trump was necessarily good for the region. (AP)

Arabs’ disappointment with the Trump administration is understandable. In Jan. 2017, he signed an executive order that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the US for 90 days. The ban suspended entry of all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and prohibited any other refugees from coming into the US for 120 days.


Read the full report "The Biden Era: What do Arabs expect?" of the Arab News Research & Studies Unit


The executive order created an environment of fear among students from Arab countries, driving many to seek higher-education options in Europe. During the first coronavirus lockdown in July, the Trump administration also pushed for the cancellation of all visas issued to international students studying in the US, because they were no longer attending classes in person.

This plan was abandoned following pressure from universities that make millions of dollars in tuition fees from foreign students, and from US companies that often hire highly skilled foreign workers who begin their careers in America after graduating from the nation’s top universities. Biden will not be encumbered by these unpopular Trump decisions and Arabs are unlikely to bear him any ill will in this regard.

That said, there are Trump-era policies that will give Biden a strong leg up in dealing with strategic competitors and malign actors. Take Washington’s approach to Iran. A large proportion of the pan-Arab survey’s respondents — 49 percent in Saudi Arabia, 53 percent in Iraq and 54 percent in Yemen — favored maintaining Trump’s strict sanctions and war posture.

It is notable that respondents in Iraq and Yemen — two countries that have intimate dealings with Iran in the sense that they are overrun with non-state actors controlled by Tehran — were strongly in favor of maintaining a hard line.

The survey did show mixed Arab views on the elimination by the US in January 2020 of Iran’s powerful military commander, Qassem Soleimani, the head of Quds Force, the division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations.

Nevertheless, overall the findings suggested a widespread rejection of President Obama’s strategy of addressing Iran’s ambitions through the 2015 nuclear accord, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while turning a blind eye to its regional plans and expansionist agenda. The nuclear deal was viewed by Israel and Washington’s Arab allies as giving a free hand to the IRGC to create havoc in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon,  and Palestine.

Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA in 2017 and applied a policy of “maximum pressure” that is widely regarded as having put Tehran on the defensive, both strategically and financially.


Read the full report "The Biden Era: What do Arabs expect?" of the Arab News Research & Studies Unit


The US secretary of state-designate, Anthony Blinken, told his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week that the new administration has “an urgent responsibility” to do what it could to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. He added that a new accord could address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region as well as its missiles.

As Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow of Chatham House in London, wrote recently, “Iran has a clear strategy of perpetual war against the US and, through its IRGC proxies, collapsing states, building alternative institutions and gaining control.”

The good news is that Biden does not have to choose withdrawal or capitulation. He has been dealt a strong hand against Iran by Trump which he simply has to play to win, for the sake of the US and its allies and partners, and, in the long term, for the Middle East's security, stability and prosperity.

Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad


Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support
Updated 44 sec ago

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support

Syria strikes: Biden warns of ‘consequences’ for Iran’s militia support
  • Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel
  • Comments follow Friday’s attack on Syria-Iraq border compound by US jets

LONDON: US airstrikes in Syria demonstrate that Iran should expect retaliation for supporting militia groups that threaten American interests, President Joe Biden has warned.
“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” he said when asked about Friday morning’s strikes on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.
The Pentagon said the attack was carried out by two US Air Force F-15E aircraft that fired seven missiles.

The pair destroyed nine buildings used by Iran-backed militias and heavily damaged two others in eastern Syria.
Officials said the strikes were not intended to destroy the groups, but to demonstrate that the US “will act firmly” to avoid greater regional escalations.
The airstrikes were “legal and appropriate” as they “took out facilities housing valuable capabilities used by the militia groups to attack US and allied forces in Iraq,” officials said.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, the leading Republican on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the decision was “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden “used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.”
She said the strikes were designed to deter future actions by Iran-backed militias following a rocket attack on Feb. 15 in Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member.
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said the strikes resulted in “casualties,” but declined to comment on the details.
An Iraqi militia official with close links to Iran said one fighter was killed in the strike and several others wounded.
The group housed in the compound is known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades — an Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group sponsored by Iran.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons. It reported that 22 fighters from an Iraqi umbrella group of militias were killed.
Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed that one of its fighters was killed and warned that it had the right to retaliate.


Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows
Updated 27 February 2021

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows

Tunisia’s main party holds huge rally as government row grows
  • In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s revolution, thousands of Ennahda supporters marched in Tunis
  • The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety and disillusionment with democracy

TUNIS: Tunisia’s biggest political party assembled an immense crowd of supporters in the capital on Saturday in a show of strength that could fuel a dispute between the president and the prime minister.
In one of the biggest demonstrations since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, tens of thousands of Ennahda supporters marched through central Tunis chanting “The people want to protect institutions!” and “The people want national unity!.”
The dispute has played out against a grim backdrop of economic anxiety, disillusionment with democracy and competing reform demands from foreign lenders and the UGTT, the powerful main labor union, as debt repayments loom.
Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party led by Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi, has backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi in a standoff with President Kais Saied over a cabinet reshuffle.
Banned before the revolution, it has been a member of most governing coalitions since then and, although its share of the vote has fallen in recent years, it still holds the most seats in parliament.
“Nationalists, Islamists, democrats and communists,” Ghannouchi told the crowd, “we were gathered together during the dictatorship ... and we must unite again.”
The most recent election, in 2019, delivered a fragmented parliament while propelling Saied, an independent, to the presidency.
When the government collapsed after only five months in office, Saied nominated Mechichi as prime minister.
But they soon fell out, and Mechichi turned for support to the two biggest parties — Ennahda and jailed media mogul Nabil Karoui’s Heart of Tunisia.
Last month, Mechichi changed 11 ministers in a reshuffle seen as replacing Saied’s allies with those of Ennahda and Heart of Tunisia. The president has refused to swear four of them in, however.
Meanwhile, demonstrators protesting last month against inequality and police abuses focused most of their anger on Mechichi and Ennahda.
Ennahda billed Saturday’s march as “in support of democracy,” but it was widely seen as an effort to mobilize popular opposition to Saied — raising the spectre of competing protest movements.
“This is a strong message that all the people want dialogue and national unity,” Fethi Ayadi, a senior Ennahda official, told Reuters.
To add to the tensions, demands by foreign lenders for spending cuts, which could lead to unpopular reductions in state programs, are opposed by the UGTT.
Tunisia’s 2021 budget forecasts borrowing needs of 19.5 billion Tunisian dinars ($7.2 billion), including about $5 billion in foreign loans.
But Tunisia’s credit rating has fallen since the coronavirus pandemic began, and market concerns about its ability to raise funds are reflected in sharp price rises for Tunisian credit default swaps — insurance against default on its debt. ($1 = 2.7 Tunisian dinars)


Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote
Updated 27 February 2021

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote

Libya speaker flags March 8 for government confidence vote
  • It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks
  • Interim PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map

TRIPOLI: The Libyan parliament will discuss holding a vote of confidence on a new unified government for the divided country on March 8, its powerful speaker Aguila Saleh said.
Oil-rich Libya has been mired in chaos since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in a popular uprising backed by a NATO air campaign a decade ago.
Its Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in Tripoli, while eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar supports a parallel administration based in the east.
“Parliament will convene to discuss a vote of confidence on the government on Monday, March 8, at 11 am in Sirte if the 5+5 Joint Military Commission guarantees the security of the meeting,” Saleh said in a statement late Friday, referring to a city halfway between east and west.
The military commission is a forum bringing together five representatives from each side.
“If that proves impossible, the session will be held in the temporary seat of parliament in Tobruk at the same date and time,” he said, adding that the military committee would need to advise the parliament in advance.
It was unclear whether the vote itself would take place on March 8 or whether the meeting would be limited to talks.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah on Thursday said he faced a Friday deadline to form his government according to a UN road map.
He said he had submitted to Saleh a “vision” for a cabinet line-up that would help steer Libya to elections in December, and that the names of proposed ministers would be disclosed in parliament during the confidence vote.
Parliament has 21 days to vote on the line-up, according to the road map.
Dbeibah was selected early this month in a UN-sponsored inter-Libyan dialogue, the latest internationally backed bid to salvage the country from a decade of conflict and fragmented political fiefdoms.
Saleh said Friday that Dbeibah should choose “competent people with integrity, from across the country, in order to achieve (national) consensus” for his government.
“Everyone should be represented so that (Libya) can emerge from the tunnel,” Saleh said.
If approved, a new cabinet would replace the Tripoli-based GNA, headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, and the parallel administration in the east.
The premier will then face the giant task of unifying Libya’s proliferating institutions and leading the transition up to December 24 polls.


Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias
Updated 27 February 2021

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias

Iraqi interpreters face death threats from Iranian-backed militias
  • Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed
  • Militia groups responsible for attacking bases targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door

LONDON: Eight Iraqi interpreters who worked with British forces fighting Daesh have said they fear for their lives after receiving threats from Iranian-backed militias.
Seven of the interpreters have gone into hiding as they believe their identities have been exposed to anti-coalition groups targeting bases used by US and UK troops, The Times reported.
The interpreters stopped translating for British forces at the Camp Taji military base in March 2020 after troops who were training Iraqi forces began to leave the country.
Two interpreters told the British newspaper that their full names, identification numbers and vehicle registrations were handed over to Iraqi Security Forces and the information was handed over to checkpoints in Baghdad. This meant that the data ended up being accessed by Iranian-backed militias.
Militia groups responsible for attacking bases where coalition troops were stationed targeted one of the interpreters and posted bullets through his door. They had told Iraqis working with coalition forces to work with them instead.
The interpreters have moved, except for one who could not afford to do so. Some have left their families amid concerns that they would be found and killed.
The UK’s Ministry of Defense said it was investigating the allegations. It is understood that the British military believes there were no data breaches and that standard security was followed.
Another interpreter said that Iranian-backed militias increased their targeting of coalition bases after the death of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
He said that tougher security requirements after the attacks meant that interpreters had to supply their full documentation, including vehicle details, to the coalition.
“They told us they would not pass this information to the Iraqi government, but it was then circulated for all the checkpoints throughout Baghdad. Many of these checkpoints are joint with the Popular Mobilization Forces — the legal name of these militias, of which many of them have loyalty to Iran,” he told The Times.
He is appealing to Britain to give him and his family sanctuary. “We are not a huge number, there are only eight of us with our families.”
The Ministry of Defense said: “While we do not employ interpreters in Iraq directly, we take any breach of personal security extremely seriously. We hold our contractors to the highest standards and are investigating.”


Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals
Updated 27 February 2021

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals

Bahrain announces extension of Covishield-AstraZeneca dosing intervals
  • The vaccine was approved for emergency use for vulnerable groups in the Kingdom starting Jan. 21
  • The vaccine was produced by AstraZeneca in cooperation with the University of Oxford

DUBAI: Bahrain has announced it is increasing the number of weeks between the first and second dose of the Covishield-AstraZeneca vaccine from four to eight weeks, state news agency BNA reported.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the longer dose durations between eight to 12 weeks are related to greater vaccine effectiveness, the Ministry of Health’s Undersecretary for Public Health Dr. Mariam Al-Hajeri said.
The vaccine was approved for emergency use for vulnerable groups in the Kingdom starting Jan. 21. The groups include the elderly and those with immune complications, she said.
The vaccine was produced by AstraZeneca in cooperation with the University of Oxford and is manufactured by the Serum Institute of India under the name ‘Covishield’.