Ahmed Abul Gheit
Ahmed Abul Gheit is the Secretary General of the Arab League.

Biden and the Arab Region… Reality and Ambition

President Joseph Biden takes the helm of the United States, at a crucial moment whether at the local or international scene, as the world is facing an unprecedented common challenge, in terms of cruelty, magnitude and repercussions: the Covid-19 pandemic.

We are facing a moment fraught with various dangers and open to different possibilities. It is a moment that requires a capable leadership. I believe that President Biden, with his background and proven experience, is qualified to play a historic role, whether in the US home or in his country’s influence on the world.

The speech delivered by President Biden on Jan. 20 carried clear indications to the way to the future. It reflected a sincere tendency to restore unity and consensus, and overcome polarization. These are values and principles that America and the world need today, in light of the dangerous competition between major powers, the rise of right-wing populism, the growth of racist movements and the economic decline in the wake of the pandemic, in addition to climate change, environmental degradation and others. All of those are pressing challenges that undoubtedly require an cohesive and proactive US leadership.

The United States plays an influential and critical role in global stability. I would like to write here specifically about a key aspect of this role in the world – the one pertaining to the US policy towards the Arab region.

The Palestinian file is perhaps one of the issues that will require the new administration to take a different approach.

Any fair observer will realize the bitterness the Palestinians feel about the injustice and marginalization they have been exposed to, and the attempts to impose a unilateral vision of the final solution, which is not based on any of the known references, but totally reflects the Israeli vision.

There is an urgent need to restore the Palestinians’ confidence in the peaceful political path, as the only way to fulfill their national aspirations for an independent state according to the 1967 borders. There is also an urgent need to restore confidence in the approach of the two-state solution as the basis for settlement, a matter that has been shaken and questioned during the last period.

The new US administration will hopefully restore confidence in its role as a neutral mediator in a peace process, in which international and Arab parties engage, whether within the framework of the International Quartet (after expanding it by including Arab voices), or in any international framework that guarantees the mobilization of the efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

The peace agreements recently signed between a number of Arab states and Israel may contribute to creating a positive climate of trust, thus helping address the essence of the conflict. What’s more important is that the Israeli side should not imagine that these agreements are an alternative to the settlement and the two-state solution.

The Arab region - despite its problems - is not a land that only cultivates despair and pain. There are important positive steps underway that must be built upon in the next stage. The reconciliation that I personally attended in the Saudi city of AlUla on Jan. 5 is a major milestone in the right direction.

All those who attended this Gulf summit and examined its outcome, sensed the parties’ determination to overcome this difficult stage in intra-Arab relations and perhaps establish a new phase, in which joint Arab action would regain the necessary momentum and confront common challenges. This opens a promising horizon for cooperation with the US administration based on understanding and trust between all parties.

Our region has been suffering from a decade of instability and turmoil that has weighed heavily on the security of its countries and their economic and social conditions. The wounds have not healed and the human cost of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya is inconceivable.

In other Arab countries, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan, peoples and governments are struggling to reach a balance of political and social stability, amid pressures that have multiplied due to the pandemic and its impact. The decline in commercial and economic activity, the drop of oil prices and the revenues of the tourism and travel industry will not affect the oil-exporting countries alone, but will have clear negative consequences for the overall economic and social conditions in the Arab region for years.

The most dangerous problem facing the region remains the continuation of internal conflicts in a number of countries, which are causing exorbitant human losses.

In Yemen, UN envoy Martin Griffiths is exerting a remarkable effort to make the warring parties agree on a “joint declaration” that includes a ceasefire and other humanitarian and economic measures in order to build confidence and pave the way for a comprehensive political agreement. There is no doubt that the diplomatic weight of the United States is required to push forward these initiatives and turn them into a new reality that gives millions of people hope that this conflict would end, especially as its humanitarian costs are increasing by the day, while the party causing it - the Houthi militia - seem indifferent. Indeed, the group has abandoned its independent political voice in favor of well-known regional parties that seek to prolong the conflict.

In Syria, the international and regional rivalry is still ongoing. The country is torn apart by foreign agendas, after nearly half of its population has become refugees and displaced. It is an unsustainable situation that strikes at the heart of regional stability. We have to move quickly in order to save what is left of this country. The first step is to build the necessary consensus between the influential forces and those involved in this conflict based on a peaceful solution within the framework of UN resolution 2254.

In Libya, we are seeing a clearer desire for consensus between the parties. Talks and agreements are underway to organize the elections at the end of this year. The US diplomatic role is required in order to seize this current opportunity.

Moreover, this role is needed in Lebanon, which suffers from political paralysis and a frightening economic deterioration, due to the prevailing conflicts of interest and severe internal political polarization fueled by unfavorable external influences. It is important for the United States to assume a positive role in order to help this prestigious Arab country to reach political and economic safety.

One common factor is present in all these conflicts and problems: the malicious regional interference.

Conflicts have weakened the structure of the Arab system, and made it vulnerable to dangerous and unprecedented interference by parties that seek to have a greater influence in our region.

I am talking here, frankly and clearly, about Iran and Turkey, which over the past years have practiced a kind of “regional bullying” against Arab countries, reaching the point of imposing a direct military presence on the national soil of a number of states. This situation needs a comprehensive and firm solution, because it increases the risks of conflicts in our region, and makes existing battles more complex.

Iran and its nuclear file represent a major challenge to US foreign policy in the Middle East in general. In this regard, it is important for me to emphasize that any international resolution to the “Iranian file” must take into account Arab concerns.

What preoccupies the Arabs, in the first place, is the Iranian behavior, which is not only characterized by recklessness and open hostility towards some of our countries, but excessive selfishness as well. The Arabs want a normal neighborhood relationship with Iran - with which we share a long history and cultural, civilizational and religious ties - on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs.

It is important to recall in this regard that the approach pushed for by the Obama administration, in the form of the nuclear agreement, lacked an element of sustainability, because it did not address the concerns and fears of many parties.

I believe that the new administration has an opportunity to find a different way to address this issue of extreme impact on regional security, in consultation and consensus with all concerned parties.

If we move from regional interactions and problems to the internal conditions of Arab countries, we immediately notice that there is an effort by promising and sincere Arab leaders to change societies, and to give the youth, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, a better future.

Many Arab leaders are waging a fervent struggle to create an appropriate environment for modernization, against currents and groups that threaten the social fabric.

President Biden, in his keynote speech on Inauguration Day, spoke of the unity of the social fabric as the principal goal of any society in facing challenges. The truth is that our Arab societies are, in turn, facing a serious threat to their cohesion at the hands of forces that adopt an extremist religious rhetoric, and do not hesitate to practice maximum violence against the civilian population.

The real fight over the future of our region is not between religions or sects. Rather, I see it between advocates of modernity, rationality and the values of citizenship and the national state on the one hand, and between the ideology and approach of violent groups and supporters of religious rule on the other. I am confident that the new administration is well aware of which side the United States should take in this decisive conflict.

Backing the supporters of modernization does not mean a complete convergence of vision. We will hopefully succeed in working together by curbing the differences, without affecting our ability to cooperate and move together in order to win this major battle over the future of the region.

The experience of the past ten years, despite its difficulty and cruelty, provides us with lessons that allow us to distinguish between right and the wrong.

Intense Western pressure to accelerate the pace of change has led to the explosion of a number of Arab countries, at the political and social levels, with all the security and humanitarian consequences that this entailed.

The approach of political and media pressures does not fulfill the aim of political, economic and social modernization in the countries of the region.

I am certain that President Biden’s administration has the expertise, experience and vision to conduct this necessary review for the sake of the future.