Observations of an Ex Pat: Biden and the Middle East

Big changes coming up in America’s Middle East policy and they won’t all be universally applauded. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Israel are already feeling the difference.

This week’s American attack on Syrian-based and Iranian-backed militias may on the surface seem like a continuation of the Trump Era’s unilateralist shoot-from-the-hip America first and only policy. But an examination of the press statement that followed the retaliatory action indicates otherwise.

The Pentagon went out of its way to thank the Iraqi government for its intelligence input and stressed the strike was only conducted after “full consultations” with its “partners and allies.”

On top of that, the Biden Administration has sought the help of the EU in brokering a deal to revive the Iran Nuclear Accord and, of course, the deal itself is a multinational package to deal with the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

However, Washington’s two closest regional allies – Israel and Saudi Arabia – will be none too pleased with Biden’s plans to start talking again with Tehran. They both took the lead in pressuring the Trump Administration to walk out of the nuclear accord and stiffen economic sanctions against Iran.

Saudi-Iranian rivalry for control of the Persian Gulf is ages old. It has been exacerbated in recent years by Iranian-backing for anti-Saud Houthi rebels in Yemen. And then, of course, the two countries are respective leaders of the rival Sunni and Shia factions of Islam.

Iran is also the biggest threat to Israel. And for the Trump Administration unquestioning support for Israel was a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Donald Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognised Israeli control of the Golan Heights, cut off aid to the Palestinians, abandoned the two-state solution and supported Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The Biden Administration will not have the same relationship with Israel. The new president demonstrated it by taking 27 days to make a courtesy call to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. US president. In the call, Biden made some unpalatable facts known. For a start, American aid to the Palestinians is being restored. Next, that the two-state solution is back on the table and Biden wants a resumption of talks between the Palestinians and Israel. Third, Israeli settlements and proposed annexation of The West Bank are – despite what ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said—contrary to international law.

Finally, Joe Biden stressed that he would not countenance Israeli interference in American domestic politics. Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his love for Donald Trump and has appeared on public platforms in the US to support him and other leading Republicans. This is now a no-no.

Telephone diplomacy was also employed by Biden for a “recalibration” in relations with Saudi Arabia. In this instance he pointedly went over the head of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to deal directly with 85-year-old King Salman. This is a major blow to the prestige of MBS who enjoyed a close relationship with Donald Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. It was a two-way street. The Saudis provided quiet diplomatic support to Trump’s Arab-Israeli peace plan and spent billions on American weapons. The Trump Administration turned a blind eye to MBS’s appalling human rights record and supported his genocidal war in Yemen.

Biden basically told King Salman that his crown prince was a murderer. That the CIA had proof that MBS had ordered the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Furthermore, that The US would no longer support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and wanted to see the release from prison of hundreds of dissenting Saudi royals, clerics, journalists, rights activists and businessmen.

Little, if any, of the above will be welcomed by American conservatives. Unquestioning support for Israel is a sacred cow. Palestinians want land claimed by Israel and so Trump’s marginalisation of the Palestinians was applauded. Iran threatens Israel and so Trump’s hard line towards Tehran was enthusiastically backed. Saudi Arabia was a traditional foe of Iran so support for Riyadh was nourished.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and author of the forthcoming book “America: Made in Britain.”

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3 Comments

  • John Marriott 27th Feb '21 - 10:10am

    Besides the rise of militant Islam, predicted, by the way, by that arch ‘racist’, Winston Churchill, back in the 1890s, it’s largely oil and the West’s attempts to get hold of it in the 20th Century and beyond that has allowed what were no more than tribal chiefs roaming the desert with their herds of goats and camels to get such a large piece of the action.

    Following the Sykes-Picot designed carve up of the old Ottoman Empire after WW1, when chiefs became Kings and artificial borders were created, what didn’t unfortunately find a foothold was what we understand as democracy. We’ve tried many times to impose it on the area and, with the exception, ironically, of the State of Israel, it appears to have briefly flowered and then descended into chaos, except where authoritarianism has been able to hold some of these artificial states together. Here again, having oil reserves appears to have helped, although not always.

    There is, to my way of thinking, a clear line to be drawn between those Arab/Muslim states stretching from the western tip of North Africa to the border with India, which have larger indigenous populations and, with the exception possibly of Libya and Iran, have no oil reserves worth a mention and those Gulf State ‘Kingdoms’, that are comprised mainly of desert and ruled by dynasties and whose structure resembles the medieval, where populations are largely imported from other Muslim countries and certain echelons of the western business community. The case of poor Mr Khashoggi illustrates perfectly what happens when you show dissent. Had he been a citizen of any of the states where oil wasn’t a factor, do you honestly think that the reaction from the West would have been so muted.

    I’ve got news for you. The importance of oil ain’t what it used to be, as a certain Ms Sturgeon might be finding out soon. So those ‘Kings’ of the Gulf states might find their bargaining chips dwindling. Is it for another revolution?

  • John,
    The UAE have planned for a post-oil age.

  • David Evans 1st Mar '21 - 11:33am

    Manfarang, Indeed it has, but whether it will contribute to a sustainable planet or just become a playground for the mega rich is debateable at best.

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