US President Donald Trump was back campaigning this week, attending a Florida rally after an almost two-week interruption since he tested positive for Covid-19.
Trump returned to the presidential race less than three weeks from polling day, scheduled for 3 November, and as his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has already killed quarter a million Americans is increasingly in the spotlight.
According to most polls, Biden is leading Trump — in some the incumbent is trailing by almost 10 points — though, as the 2016 US presidential elections made clear, the pollsters sometimes get it very wrong.
“Don’t count too much on poll results,” warned a former US official earlier this month. “They are quite misleading… some people respond that they will vote for Biden because they think this is the politically correct thing to say, but they actually end up voting for Trump.”
According to a Washington-based Arab diplomat, “Trump is aware that he is not in a very good position and he has been trying very hard to get at least two more Arab states to announce plans to normalise relations with Israel before the elections, so he has a foreign policy triumph to show voters.”
But this is unlikely to happen in the next few weeks, says the diplomat, given “the concerned Arab capitals will not want to pass a free gift to a president who may well be exiting the White House.”
In September, Trump watched over the signing of normalisation agreements between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel and has on several occasions said other Arab countries would soon sign similar agreements. But the most obvious candidates, Oman, Kuwait and Sudan, have so far been dragging their feet.
Oman and Kuwait have had to consider sensitive internal political balances just new leaders are taking over, while Sudan is still bargaining over aid and the removal of the country from the US list of states sponsoring terrorism.
A source from the Freedom and Change Movement in Khartoum said that while Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the chair of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, is “very keen to secure a deal before the US elections” it is less because he is confident that Trump will win a second term but because he wants to placate the UAE and fears that should Trump lose, a deal with Biden will be harder to secure.
“Trump just wants security cooperation to combat terrorism and normalisation with Israel while Biden will raise democracy and human rights issues. And it may well be that the UAE will be less generous with its aid and investments if the agreement drags on and on,” says the source.
Trump’s return to the campaign trail has raised hopes in Arab capitals that support his re-election. “The UAE embassy is working really hard and is coordinating very closely with the Israeli embassy,” said one Washington-based official source.
The UAE has invested a great deal in offering Trump support since he entered the White House in 2016 because, says a UAE source close to the Emirati Foreign Ministry, of his “firm positions against Iran and against all political Islam groups”.
During his four years in office Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal that leading Western capitals brokered with Tehran in 2015.
According to the UAE source, “Iran is the Arab Gulf countries’ worst enemy of which they see Trump as their ally in overcoming this evil.” Such was the context within which the UAE slowly but surely pursued normalisation with Israel, and is now promoting normalisation calls across the Arab world.
Meanwhile, Trump never hesitated to give a nod of approval to the oppression of political Islamic groups in the Arab world.
With the exception of a good working relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which informed diplomats qualify as strictly transactional, Trump has consistently accommodated the view of Israel and his Arab allies that every Islamist movement is a potential terrorist group. Such accommodation inevitably created a new security paradigm in the region, with hostility shifting away from Israel for its occupation of Arab territories to focus on Iran.
Arab diplomatic sources say there is a genuine concern in Arab capitals that if Trump fails to gain a second term in office Biden will re-engage with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and press for political Islam groups to be allowed a place within more pluralistic political systems.
In their campaigning both the Republican and Democratic candidates have made their positions clear. While Trump has made no reference to the two matters — democracy and human rights —Biden has addressed the issues at least three times.
Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources say Biden’s position is more or less that of the Democratic Party which will pay lip service to democracy and human rights but will never let them derail relations.
In the words of one, “I think it would be really exaggerated for anyone to think that Biden will arrive in the Oval Office with a plan for democratisation in the Arab world — or indeed that it is something he would consider at all during his first year in office.”
Iran, Western diplomats agree, would be Biden’s top priority. If elected, he will try to reduce the tensions between Washington and Tehran, much to the liking of his European allies and the dismay of Israel and Washington’s Arab Gulf allies.
Biden will also have to attend more to relations within NATO, and with China, leaving the Middle East more or less on the backburner.
In the words of a Palestinian Authority official, however, one thing that would be expected “if Trump leaves the White House” is an end to “the unprecedented bias towards Israel and contempt of international law that we have seen during the Trump administration”.
Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, technically still a disputed territory between Israel and the Palestinians, suspended US aid to Palestinian refugees, and concocted a political settlement plan that the Palestinian leadership said was a catastrophic attempt to undermine Palestinian rights and any hope of a Palestinian state.
Political science professor Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed says that if re-elected Trump will push ahead with his pro-Israel policies and deviate even more from the established parameters of peace-making in the Middle East, while a Biden presidency would seek to promote a less biased US position on the Arab-Israeli struggle.
“Realistically, though, if elected Biden is unlikely to roll back anything Trump has granted Israel, including the US Embassy in Jerusalem and the promotion of normalisaiton with Arab states,” argues
Al-Sayed. Biden might try to re-establish links with the Palestinian Authority and pay “a bit more attention” to matters of democracy and human rights “but without going very far in this direction”.
Iran, Al-Sayed believes, will top the Middle Eastern agenda of both Trump and Biden. While Trump would try to push for a new nuclear deal with Tehran that places the Iranian regime under tougher restrictions, Biden will try to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear deal.
“It really is all about Iran,” insists Al-Sayed. And for Biden to initiate wider changes as far as US regional policy is concerned, the Democrats would need not only to win the White House but to keep control of the House of Representatives and make major inroads in the Senate.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly