Sam Menassa

What Middle East Does Biden Want?

Our colleague Nadim Koteich wrote about ‘two Middle Easts’ in this newspaper’s column; one of the two encompasses the countries of moderation and peace, and the second is the axis controlled by Iran. This assessment began crystalizing through meetings between the region’s heads of state and the signing of economic agreements and others in development, technology, and tourism. All of them suggest that a wind of positive change is blowing in the region, and it is hoped that these developments will become a strategic turning point to the benefit of these countries’ peoples.

In this context, hopes have been pinned on President Biden’s upcoming visit to the region. Perhaps it could crown these developments and redirect his country’s compass toward the Middle East once he sees its aspirations and apprehensions firsthand, especially on his trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and his participation in the GCC summit alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdallah II.

Biden’s visit is not only important because it will reheat Washington’s relationship with several Arab countries after it had gone cold, especially the Gulf countries and, most of all Saudi Arabia. It is also significant because making it public declares that the Democratic administration is walking back on its misguided assessments and actions that have shown to be erroneous.

Furthermore, this visit is expected to mark a sharp turn towards the Middle East after the US had failed to stand in the way of China’s expansion or prevent Russia from making headway in the region because of the short-sighted decision to abandon trusted US allies, which began with Barack Obama’s administration that was enchanted by Tehran, its diplomats, and their fake smiles.

The Ukrainian war, the global energy and food crisis, the nuclear negotiations with Iran faltering, and apprehensions about the Chinese and Russian advances in the region… All of these factors undoubtedly played a role in compelling Washington to change its policy for the region and try to rebuild its ties with traditional strategic allies- a reversal of course that is hoped to be sustainable, not exploitative.

Riyadh finds itself in a position of strength. Its gestures to partners in the region ahead of President Biden’s visit are particularly significant in this regard, especially Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s trips to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, and Saudi Arabia’s invitation to Egypt, Jordan and Iraq to attend the GCC Summit. The latter step is crucial for reinforcing solidarity among Arab countries, without which the issues facing the Arabs cannot be straightened out. Especially crucial here is Riyadh and Cairo’s relationship- not to understate the significance of an axis that includes the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco, and perhaps other Arab countries in the future, they are paving a fast and safe path to confronting Iran’s excesses.

These moves send the US administration three messages. First, the Arab-US relationship is a strategic one that both sides should maintain and develop, and the Democratic administration needs to adopt clearer policies for the region. Second, the Arab states have the capacity to adopt a common stance on important issues despite all the challenges currently facing them. Third, Arab national security is a red line that Arab countries will do everything they can to protect.

The region is also witnessing a broader regional shift. Besides its crucial security and defense dimensions at this stage, it is founded on two pillars of the region’s future, peace and the economy. The free trade agreement between the Emirates and Israel signed in Egypt in the presence of President Sisi reflects the deep changes underway, as does the energy-for-water agreement between Jordan, the UAE and Israel, which was signed in Dubai.

These new configurations and the coalitions currently being established indicate that the geostrategic map of the Middle East is changing, which opens the door to questions about the fate of the countries excluded because they have become dominated by Iran, such as Lebanon, Iraq, and to some extent Gaza and its population of more than two million people. We won’t get into Syria, which has gone up in flames and turned into a battlefield of a conflict between several countries, nor Yemen, which lost its happiness once Iranian winds blew into it.

The split in our region between the “two Middle Easts” is one between a Middle East with aspirations for the future that looks to develop technologically, develop renewable energy solutions, curb desertification and water shortages, and pursue economic prosperity, and another, insular ideological Middle East that sees politics as a zero-sum game. It is a split between societies striving to make progress and facilitate civilized engagement with regional issues on the one hand and societies that refuse to open up to anyone who does not share their convictions and strive to fight the entire globe on the other.

No doubt, the situation in Lebanon differs from that in Iraq and Gaza. Each of these countries has its own particular context, but all of them have seen social schisms emerge because of the ideologization of entire segments of society.

Political disagreements are not exceptional; they are a feature of politics of all the world’s countries and societies. Liberals see it as a healthy feature, evidence of healthy politics and the peaceful transfer of power. To be objective, we will not avoid pointing to the fact that even these liberal societies have begun to struggle to manage the acrimony of their domestic political tensions, sometimes resulting in a deep division of society that has ramifications that go beyond politics. However, these schisms are fleeting and resolvable, unlike those of the countries under Iranian hegemony, where ideological forces have built statelets within their states.

Complicating matters further and rendering the situation more dangerous is the fact that these segments of society are essential components of their countries’ social fabric. That means that confronting these statelets and their repercussions for public order and society, sometimes even the polity as a whole, will need a long and complex process. Coming to political solutions reached through dialogue and consensus-building is almost impossible and always brings with it the threat of civil strife.

Moreover, becoming politically subordinate to the Iranian axis ruins these countries’ relations with their neighbors and traditional allies, undermining their economies and vital sectors like health, education, tourism and others. That is evident from the situation in Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza, which has seen its population become socially and culturally distinct from the Palestinians in the West Bank and within Israel after fifteen years of Hamas control.

The existence of “two Middle Easts” is a reality that should not be overlooked amid global shifts, the steps required for the region, and the need to overcome divergences. Indeed, the gravity of the situation should be a major incentive for the regional shift currently underway. The hope is that this shift will be met with humility from the US, which should walk back on its mistakes and address their negative repercussions, especially for the other Middle East under Iran’s control.

Accordingly, three avenues for addressing the issues plaguing the Iranian Middle East: the first is helping the Arab alliance of moderation succeed, as it constitutes a security guarantee for the entire region. The second is safeguarding the political and economic stability of these countries, their peoples and their interests. The third is the US showing seriousness about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during Biden’s visit, seeing it as an entry point for resolving the region’s other conflicts. Without such an effort, attempts at ensuring stability would become an exercise in futility doomed to fail.