The possible changes in the Middle East to watch for
During his first day in office, US President Joe Biden reversed visa restrictions that had been imposed on citizens of several Muslim countries by his predecessor, Donald Trump. The result of the restrictions was that the number of citizens of the affected countries granted visas fell from 72,000 in 2016 to only 16,000 in 2019.
Biden has signaled a fresh US approach to the Middle East. During his four years in the White House, the Trump administration recognized Israel’s military annexations and then came up with the so-called “deal of the century,” which would have permanently erased Palestinian aspirations from the global agenda. He also restored sanctions on Iran. These harmed the Iranian economy and brought untold misery to its people. But because the sanctions were not part of a coherent policy framework, they came to be seen as a means of seeking regime change.
Under Trump's presidency, US policy on trouble spots such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria was muddled at best. He frequently declared his desire to “bring the boys home,” signaling a military retreat from areas where US interests were being seriously challenged — even as he was compelled to increase the presence of American troops in response to specific threats.
In addition to Trump’s interventions there have been other important developments in the Middle East, including: The effects of the pandemic; the economic recession and the attendant low oil prices; and the expanding presence of several actors — Russia, China and Turkey — who have staked a claim to an enhanced role in regional matters.
Driven by aspirations of reviving its Ottoman glory, Turkey has established a military presence in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and has challenged the energy interests of the littoral states in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia, after having rescued the Assad regime in Syria, has also expanded its regional footprint — both politically and economically — and is now viewed as a credible arbiter in regional security scenarios.
China, while remaining low key in its approach to political matters in the region, has made the Belt and Road Initiative its principal project in the Middle East, one that seeks to embrace the entire regional landscape. This, over time, will make China an important political player in the region — through its energy, economic and logistical ties, it already has substantial stakes in regional stability.
These developments have been accompanied by important changes within regional states themselves. Many countries now manifest a newfound spirit of self-confidence when developing fresh ideas to promote their political and economic interests — as evidenced, for instance, by successful examples of dealing with the pandemic, commitment to shaping a post-oil, technology-based future, and an affirmation of moderation and accommodation in domestic and regional interactions.
Biden will therefore need to define and pursue the role of the US within the parameters set by these new realities. As a result, US policy will need to be collegial, developed through consultation and partnership with principal players in the region.
The first priority of the new administration will be Iran. Beyond a revival of the nuclear deal, Biden and his partners will need to address the root causes of regional insecurity, which have led to a feeling of “existential threat” in a number of states. And because most of the ongoing regional conflicts — in Syria, Iraq and Yemen — are linked, a diplomatic effort is needed that can satisfy all parties.
The Middle East is now ready for such an initiative. Conflicts during the past few years have led to region-wide carnage, destruction and displacement, with no “victory” for any side — and no effective peace process being pursued.
Meanwhile, the normalization of relations between some Arab states and Israel reveals a geopolitical reality that has not yet been fully appreciated in Tel Aviv: That Israel is a Middle Eastern nation and its security interests are best served through engagement and dialogue with its neighbors, rather than depending on a partner on the other side of the world.
US policy will need to be collegial, developed through consultation and partnership with principal players in the region.
Regional security could best be guaranteed through a three-step approach: Firstly, confidence-building initiatives; secondly, behind-the-scenes engagement on security issues among the principal regional states and facilitated, possibly, by the US, Russia and China; and thirdly, a regional cooperative security conference to finalize agreements that will be guaranteed by the major powers.
This will shift the region from its sharply drawn battle lines to an environment that facilitates cooperation in areas that matter to the Middle East as a whole: Health, water conservation, food security, expanded use of digital technology, and setting up new value and supply chains that will unite the region through mutually advantageous linkages.
As the young poet, Amanda Gorman, told us during Biden’s inauguration ceremony: “Then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.”
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies at Symbiosis International University in Pune, India.