On Wednesday 27 January, a day after he arrived at the State Department as the 71st Secretary of State, Antony Blinken gave his first press briefing.
Blinken made it clear that, under President Joe Biden, the new American administration would be conducting a review of the recent arms deals approved by the Trump administration.
When it comes to arms sales, he said, “it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy, so that’s what we are doing at this moment.”
In the final quarter of 2020, the Trump administration had called a national emergency over 2019 tensions with Iran, overriding congressional approval procedures in a $ 8 billion arms deal with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
At issues in the pause of arms sales to both the Saudis and the Emiratis are the sale of 50 F-35 fighter planes and 18 Reaper drones to the latter, and precision-guided munitions to the former.
It is interesting to note that recent sales of American-made armaments include $300 million of munitions and $31 billion of Boeing-made cruise missiles to Saudi Arabia in addition to $10 billion of F-35A fighter planes, $10 billion of medium-range air-to-air missiles and $2.9 billion of MQ-9 Reaper drones to the UAE.
In his confirmation hearings last month before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken said that Biden “has made clear that he will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia, and I think we will work on that in very short order… although the US will continue to help defend the Saudis against attacks by rebel Houthis in Yemen.”
The Biden administration is also reviewing the designation of the Houthi movement as a terrorist organisation, made by the previous administration at the end of last year to please the Saudis.
In a very quick reaction to Blinken’s briefing, in which he discussed the future of arms sales to the UAE, the Emirati ambassador to Washington remarked that his country would be better prepared to “take on more of the regional burden of collective security, freeing the United States for other global challenges” should the UAE obtain the F-35s it has asked for.
Drawing up a list of strategic priorities in the Middle East and the Gulf would be an incredibly challenging task for the Biden administration. Last year the then Democratic Party candidate appeared on television promising to regard Saudi Arabia as “the pariah that they are”. But how President Biden and his administration plan to reconcile their moral principles with the strategic realities of the region is not clear.
It goes without saying that the United States cannot afford to alienate its main strategic allies and partners in the Middle East and the Gulf without endangering its alliance system in the region and thereby undermining control of its overriding strategic concern in the Middle East, which is how to contain Iran and rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan of July 2015 (the Iranian nuclear agreement).
This is all the more relevant since the Biden administration has already promised to consult with its allies and partners in the Middle East about renegotiating the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran. The White House, what is more, is committed to expanding the Abraham Agreements of last year between Israel and four Arab states (the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco).
The Saudis have so far held out, however, indicating that their diplomatic recognition of Israel remains predicated on a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state. In other words, they have decided to stick with the official Arab Peace Plan of 2002, proposed by the late Saudi King Abdullah.
It is conceivable that they had postponed taking that step till Biden entered the Oval Office, since it would be a powerful bargaining chip with an administration that might bring up human rights and democracy in the context of American-Saudi relations.
Yet in the first 100 days under Biden, domestic issues and the reparation of US-European relations, badly tested under the previous administration – as well as how to deal with Iran in the next four years – will be centre stage.
But charting a steady and consistent course in Middle East policy is equally important, and it requires a realistic approach that integrates strategic priorities and realities on the ground with the ideals of human rights and democracy in Arab countries that have been long standing allies and partners of the United States.
The Biden administration is aware that any irreconcilable differences with those countries would play into Iranian hands.
Meanwhile, Washington’s Arab allies and partners including Egypt should not close the door to discussing human rights and democracy with the Biden administration. Both sides should seek a sustainable agreement in order to promote their strategic partnership in the region. Both stand to gain from projecting a unified front vi-a-vis Iran and its nuclear ambitions, which in my view do have a military side to them.
A mutual reassessment of the future of Arab-American relations is in order. And, as far as both sides are concerned, for best results transparency will be the name of the game.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly