In his first day in the Oval Office US President Joe Biden signed an executive order reversing multiple immigration policies promoted by his predecessor in the White House, including the 2017 travel ban on people from a number of predominantly Muslim countries.
The move received little attention in the Arab media which, like the regimes in the most influential Arab capitals, had made little secret of their preference for Donald Trump.
“It may not be a big thing but it is still an indication of where countries in the region stand and where the Biden administration stands,” commented a Cairo-based Western diplomat. “It shows their different priorities at least.”
It is clear, according to one Washington-based Arab diplomat, that the Biden administration wants to signal its commitment to liberties and non-discrimination. And the signalling extends beyond overturning Trump’s travel ban on a group of Muslim majority countries to include the new president’s choice of his foreign policy team.
“Selecting Antony Blinken as secretary of state is significant in this respect,” according to the Arab diplomat. Blinken served as deputy national security adviser from 2013 to 2015 and deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017 under Barack Obama.
Biden’s nominee for the top diplomatic job in Washington has made his positions clear, both through tweets and then during his approval hearings. He has underlined that the US cannot turn its back on human rights and democracy; that it will have to find ways to re-engage Iran within new parameters; get its regional allies, including Turkey, to act as such, and find effective ways to put pressure on China and Russia.
On Tuesday Blinken’s nomination was confirmed by the US Senate.
Blinken is not the only member of Biden’s foreign policy team providing food for thought for governments across the Middle East. Samantha Power, Bill Burns, and Jack Sullivan, Biden’s choices for USAID director, CIA director and national security advisor, are all cut from the same cloth as Blinken.
“For the most part they are seasoned diplomats,” says an Egyptian diplomatic source. “They know that when all is said and done US foreign policy in the region is designed to serve the interests of the US in this part of the world. While they might be inclined, at least initially, to prioritise a debate with Middle Eastern states on human rights, it’s equally likely that debate will quickly peter out.”
According to this diplomat, Washington’s top priority in the Middle East will continue to be security-oriented.
“We are talking about the security of Israel, Washington’s top ally, the security of the Gulf, host to a considerable US military presence, and the security of the Mediterranean, the southern border of NATO.” On these issues “there is a lot more room for agreement than disagreement.”
According to regional diplomatic sources, Israel and Saudi Arabia are already sending clear messages to Washington about their expectations with regards to Iran. The return signals, the same diplomats say, have been “quite reassuring”.
The Biden administration is not looking to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal without it first being tweaked. The US will “accommodate the concerns of countries in the region”, especially with regards to Iran’s missile capacity which is particularly worrying for Gulf states.
Even in the most optimistic assessments, the diplomats argue, the file will take a year to fix. And it is a year during which the US will be working on other important security files, including Libya and the situations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
“Obviously, the US will not be able to overlook the role of Egypt in these files,” says the Egyptian diplomat. And Cairo, he adds, has already let Washington know it is willing to work “in a positive way” on the relevant issues.
For Egypt, the Biden administration’s pursuit of security issues around the region could be an excellent opportunity for Egypt because “on this front what we agree on with the US is a lot more than what we disagree on.”
Fixing Eastern Mediterranean security, argues the Egyptian diplomat, “simply means pushing for a more rational approach from Turkey vis-à-vis the region, and more active engagement in finding a way to manage the Palestinian cause.”
Cairo is already working closely with Jordan, France and Germany to re-launch Palestinian-Israeli talks, and is working with Jordan to manage the differences it has with Turkey over the Eastern Mediterranean.
“We told the Jordanians what we expect of Turkey, especially with regard to its intervention in Libya. We think that Turkey is getting the message and if it shows a willingness to respond positively then we will reciprocate,” says the diplomat.
He also expects the Biden administration to put pressure on Turkey to “abandon its imperial dreams”.
“It is clear from Turkey’s behaviour in the last few weeks that Ankara has got a clear message from the European Union that it needs to behave in accordance with the requirements of regional stability. We think the Biden administration, as part of its scheme to consolidate trans-Atlantic relations, will also expect Turkey, a NATO member, to act in line with the collective requirements of regional security.”
Saudi Arabia’s recent opening up to Turkey reflects the new foreign policy parameters Riyadh is adopting following the inauguration of Biden, say regional diplomats. This new opening comes with an implicit understanding that Ankara and Riyadh will reach an accommodation over a host of regional issues, including a commitment from Turkey to stop interfering in the internal affairs of Riyadh’s allies.
Meanwhile, says the Egyptian diplomat, Cairo expects Washington to act to curb the support Ankara offers militant Islamist groups in Libya and Syria and keep a close eye on Turkey’s backing of militant Islamist groups in East Africa and the Red Sea.
“We are very interested to work with the US on Red Sea security, and under Biden, or any other administration for that matter, Washington has no choice but to push for a deal to end the prolonged crisis over GERD.”
According to the Egyptian diplomat, Cairo “is well aware that Ethiopia has some inroads in the Biden foreign policy team and Ethiopia probably has more support in the US Congress today than we do but we are working on building alliances and we know we can.
“And the fact is Washington knows it cannot place Egypt at risk when it comes to water resources. Everybody in the US, and in the EU, understands that a severe drop in water supplies poses a direct risk to Egypt’s stability.”
Cairo-based Western diplomats agree that for the EU and the US the stability of Egypt is a crucial issue. They also agree that given the troubled situation in Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Iraq and several East African states nobody would be willing to rock the boat when it comes to Egypt.
Yet even so, Cairo is busy bracing itself for an unwanted conversation on the human rights/democracy file.
“In all honesty we have been making some changes and I think there is a mood for improvement now that Egypt is a little more relaxed about the war on terrorism,” insists the Egyptian diplomat.
Human rights, he says, are, after all, “a fixed element” in the US foreign policy. “It is just that they were overlooked by the Trump administration. We know how to take pressure and we know how to push back, and we know how to get compromises done.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Pursuing compromise