There has been widely diverse reaction to the impending exit of U.S. President Donald Trump from the White House.
Many Arab leaders congratulated Joe Biden on his election victory, while others in the Middle East remained mum or expressed cynicism over U.S. policy even if he pursues a divergent diplomatic approach to the region’s myriad problems than his predecessor.
The incoming Biden administration will face many complex foreign policy challenges in the region: from wars in Libya and Yemen to reassuring the United States’ Gulf Arab allies that Washington can protect them from arch-foe, amid his plan to negotiate a return to the international nuclear deal with Iran in exchange for a resumption of compliance.
While Trump maintained close relationships with what critics say are increasingly authoritarian leaders in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, Biden has promised to assume a tough stance on human rights which could alter current relationships.
Egypt, one of Washington’s biggest allies in the Middle East, was among the first Arab nations to congratulate Biden. In a statement by his Spokesperson Bassam Radi on Saturday, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that he looks forward “for cooperation and joint action to strengthen the strategic bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States for the interest of the two countries and peoples.”
“The President stressed the aspiration for cooperation and joint action to strengthen the strategic bilateral relations between Egypt and the United States, in the interest of the two friendly countries and peoples,” the statement added.
Sisi’s government has denied allegations of human rights violations. Reuters reported that critics of the Egyptian regime expressed hope for a shift in Washington’s policy by reposting a tweet by Biden from July in which he criticized Cairo’s crackdown on political activists, and pledged: “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.’”
Meanwhile, Egypt’s tightly controlled television networks have reportedly tried to minimize the impact of a Biden victory by maintaining that Cairo will ‘adjust and adapt.’
The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, also congratulated President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.
“I look forward to working together to continue strengthening the friendship between our countries.” Sheikh Tamim wrote on Twitter.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has congratulated US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on their victory in the US election, reported the Gulf News paper published in Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed posted a Twitter message, wishing “Congratulations to the President-Elect of the United States @JoeBiden and Vice President-Elect @KamalaHarris. We look forward to strengthening our five-decade enduring and strategic relations.”
The official statement added, “His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also offered his congratulations.”
“Congratulations to @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris on winning the US elections,” Sheikh Mohamed wrote on Twitter, expressing, “Our sincere wishes for further development and prosperity for the American people. The UAE and USA are friends and allies with a strong historic partnership that we look forward to strengthening together.”
Jordan’s King Abdullah II also congratulated the U.S. President-Elect.
“I look forward to working with you on further advancing the solid historic partnership between Jordan and the United States, in the interest of our shared objectives of peace, stability and prosperity,” he posted on Twitter, alongside a photo of himself with Biden.
The Jordanian monarch reportedly holds strong personal ties with the next U.S. President. He had been angered by the Trump Administration’s Middle East peace plan, and denounced it as a threat to regional security.
Israel signed a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom in 1994, with whom it shares the longest of its borders. The majority of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian origin, and bilateral ties have often been strained over Israeli policies.
Lebanon, which is considered a U.S. ally despite often-fraught relations, was also quick to wish Biden success. Lebanese President Michel Aoun congratulated the Democratic leader, while expressing hope for a “return to balance in Lebanese-American relations will return for the good of the friendly Lebanese and American peoples.”
Just last Friday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on Gebran Bassil, the leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian political bloc, the Freedom Party Movement (FPM), founded by President Aoun. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Bassil, who is also Aoun’s son-in-law, contributes to a prevailing system of political corruption and has “aided and abetted” the Iran-backed, Hezbollah terror group’s “destabilizing activities.”
Bassil has been a major target of mass Lebanese public anti-government protests over endemic corruption and state mismanagement.
The FPM condemned the sanctions as a “slander campaign” and claimed that U.S. law is being “exploited to retaliate against a political leader for complying to his principles, convictions, and national choices.”
Hezbollah responded by accusing Washington of committing “a blatant and blunt interference in the internal affairs of Lebanon.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis tweeted, “Congratulations to US President-Elect @JoeBiden. Joe Biden has been a true friend of Greece and I’m certain that under his presidency the relationship between our countries will grow even stronger.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted, “Congratulations @JoeBiden & @KamalaHarris. Look forward to President Elect Biden’s Global Summit on Democracy & working with him to end illegal tax havens & stealth of nation’s wealth by corrupt ldrs. We will also continue to work with US for peace in Afghanistan & in the region.”
“I look forward to working with you on strengthening the strategic ties that bind Iraq and the United States, building on common values between our nations to overcome challenges together,” sais Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kahhimi in a statement.
While there has been no warm welcome for the Biden-Harris team from Syrian President Bashar al Assad, regime opponents are expressing hope that the next U.S. administration will maintain pressure to effect major policy shifts.
The Alsharq Alawsat Arabic language newspaper based in London expressed hope that Biden would reassert U.S. authority and stand up to Assad’s patron Russia; including the bolstered presence of the American military presence in northern Syria which President Trump had threatened to fully withdraw.
The paper published a report in which a key Biden advisor was cited as vowing to bolster pressure on Assad and his key international backers, Iran and Russia. The source said that, “as part of a broader and more comprehensive strategy, driven by diplomacy,” the next U.S. administration would make “clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that there can be no American, or European, support for the reconstruction of Syria unless political reform takes place, and that reform must be meaningful.”
“[Biden sees] sanctions are a necessary foreign policy tool, and imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime is only one of several tools that together, must form a policy that promotes justice and accountability, and pushes for a political settlement to the Syrian war,” said the advisor.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seen as a close Trump ally, has also so far remained one of the few nations that failed to offer initial congratulations to Biden and Harris.
Both Reuters and the New York Times published reports in recent days alleging that the Trump Administration not only actively stopped investigation of a Turkish bank suspected of violating U.S. sanctions, but also derailed the enactment of punitive economic measures on Ankara after it acquired the Russian S-400 missile system.
The only official response forthcoming from Ankara was issued by the main opposition leader, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kilicdaroglu. “I would like to congratulate Joe Biden for his election as the 46th President of the United States of America and Kamala Harris as Vice-President,” he posted on Twitter, adding, “I look forward to strengthening Turkish-American relations and our strategic alliance.”
Palestinian leaders have indicated that they may end their three-year boycott of Washington. Abbas had ended all political dealings with President Donald Trump’s administration after the U.S. leader recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated the U.S. Embassy there.
A Palestinian official told Reuters that Abbas’s inner circle met in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election to discuss whether they should resume political contacts with the White House if Biden won.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement, “I congratulate President-elect Joe Biden on his victory as President of the United States of America for the coming period,” adding, “I look forward to working with the President-elect and his administration to strengthen the Palestinian-American relations and to achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people.”
Bassam Al-Salhe, a senior member of the Abbas-led Palestine Liberation Organization, said on Sunday the boycott was primarily linked to what he called “the hostile policy” of the Trump White House. “When Biden announces that this is going to change – and he announced that during his election campaign – there will be no reason for the boycott,” he said.
Senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath remarked, “nothing was worse than Trump’s era, his departure is a gain.”
Abbas’s boycott was popular among Palestinians, who celebrated Trump’s defeat on Sunday on the streets.
But, even as security contacts with Washington continued behind the scenes, Ramallah has felt increasingly isolated, particularly after Israel signed normalization deals with the UAE and Bahrain; which the Arab League refused to condemn.
Meanwhile in Gaza, the leader of the Islamist Hamas group demanded that Biden reverse Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” which calls Jerusalem “Israel’s undivided capital” and recognizes Israeli sovereignty over large parts of the West Bank.
“U.S. President Donald Trump, who sought to obliterate Palestine’s cause, has gone and Jerusalem will not go,” insisted Ismail Haniyeh.
He also demanded that Biden “correct the path of US unfair policies towards our [Palestinian] people which made the US a partner [to Israel] in oppression and aggression,” and “respect the will of the Palestinian people and their democratic choices… and to refrain from the policy of pressure on the peoples and countries of the region to normalize ties with the [Israeli] occupation.”
During his campaign, Biden said he would restore funding to the West Bank and Gaza cut by Trump, including assistance delivered through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and U.N. agencies.
While serving as Vice President in the Obama administration, Biden opposed Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, which was greenlighted by the Trump White House. Biden had also voiced support for a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Biden is not likely to reverse the Jerusalem and embassy decisions made by his predecessor. He also welcomed Israel’s rapprochements with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan – in spite of harsh Palestinian condemnation of the deals.
Trump became a target of Palestinian derision after severing $300 million annual U.S. payments to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The Palestinians are the only “refugees” in the world who have an entire UN agency devoted to their care.
“Trump’s losing is a gain for us, for the Palestinian people, because he had sold out the Palestinian cause,” Anwar Abu Amira, 38, of Gaza’s Beach Camp told Reuters, adding that, “Since he took office until he lost, he has been trying to wipe out the Palestinian identity.”
Gaza political analyst Hani Habib told Reuters that the Biden win would encourage Abbas to re-engage in negotiations with Israel, a move for which the international community has long advocated.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted on state television as saying, “Trump’s damaging policy has been opposed … by the American people. The next U.S. administration should use the opportunity to make up for past mistakes.”
Tensions between the two nations soared after have spiked after Trump in 2018 exited the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers, and then re-imposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Biden has pledged to rejoin the nuclear accord, which was forged in 2015 by Washington when he was Vice President – on condition that the Islamic Republic also returns to compliance. Returning to the agreement would be “a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” Biden asserted, saying that Washington would then work with allies to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal and address additional issues of concern.
Tehran retaliated against the Trump Administration’s sanctions by reducing its commitments to the JCPOA, but the Ayatollah regime has maintained those steps were reversible – if their interests were respected. “The heroic resistance of the Iranian people proved that the policy of maximum pressure is doomed to failure,” Rouhani declared.
Nevertheless, Iran’s leaders have so far ruled out any talks aimed at further curbing the country’s nuclear activity, ballistic missile program or it’s regional influence.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “The American people have spoken. And the world is watching whether the new leaders will abandon disastrous lawless bullying of outgoing regime – and accept multilateralism, cooperation & respect for law. Deeds matter most.”
Zarif also tweeted, notably in Arabic rather than his country’s national language of Farsi, in a direct message to other regional leaders. “Trump is gone, and we and our neighbors will stay. Betting on foreigners does not bring security, and disappoints. We extend our hands to our neighbors to cooperate in achieving the common interests of our peoples and countries. We call on everyone to embrace dialogue as the only way to end differences and tensions. Together to build a better future for our region,” he wrote.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz held back on acknowledging the Biden-Harris victory.
More than 24 hours after Trump’s loss, the Saudi state SPA news agency reported that “King Salman praised the distinguished, historic and close relations between the two friendly countries and their people which everyone looks to strengthen and develop at all levels.”
The outgoing U.S. administration’s Mideast policies and staunch opposition to Iran had the kingdom’s backing, and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held close personal ties to Trump. He remained silent on the U.S. vote even though he sent warm words to the president of Tanzania on his own re-election.
Saudi Arabia was a staunch supporter of Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of harsh sanctions on its greatest regional rival, Iran; and not enthusiastic over Biden’s intention to return to the JCPOA.
Prince Mohammed’s relationship with Trump was also viewed as a buffer against international criticism over Riyadh’s human rights record sparked by murder Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, its role in Yemen’s war and the detention of women activists.
Those areas may now become points of friction with Biden, who pledged during the campaign to end to U.S. support for the Yemen war; while reassessing ties with the kingdom – a major oil exporter and buyer of U.S. arms – amid pressure for greater accountability over Khashoggi’s killing.
“The Saudi leadership is concerned that a Biden administration and a hostile Congress will carry out a full review of relations, including re-evaluating defense ties and therefore will likely make positive sounds and moves towards ending the Yemen conflict,” Neil Quilliam, Associate Fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think-tank told Reuters.
A radical reset is viewed as unlikely, and Gulf regional sources and diplomats told the news agency that Biden’s win would not upend decades-long alliances. A Saudi political source said the kingdom had “the ability to deal with any president because the U.S. is a country of institutions and there is a lot of institutional work between Saudi Arabia and the United States,” emphasizing that “Saudi-U.S. relations are deep, sustainable, and strategic and not prone to change because a president changes.”
Key members of OPEC are wary that strains in the OPEC+ alliance could re-emerge with Joe Biden as U.S. President, sources close to the organization told Reuters, adding that they would miss President Donald Trump – who went from criticizing the group to helping bring about a record oil output cut.
Russia is the leader of oil producers allied with OPEC, a group known as OPEC+. Trump was instrumental in bringing Moscow on board.
It is possible that a Biden administration might modify U.S. diplomatic relations with OPEC’s de facto leader Saudi Arabia, as well as the currently-sanctioned members Iran and Venezuela; in addition to major non-OPEC producer Russia.
OPEC could have difficulty balancing an over-supply with demand if the U.S. eases sanctions on Tehran and Caracas, which have stopped the flow of millions of barrels of oil per day into the market.
Another source familiar with the situation welcomed Biden’s win, and expressed confidence there would not be a hasty removal of the U.S. measures, that would provide OPEC+ members sufficient time to adjust their ability to handle more Iranian oil. “Even if Iran’s sanctions are lifted, it will take two to four months for Iran’s oil exports to return to pre-sanctions levels due to technical issues,” he told Reuters, explaining that, “Therefore, OPEC+ has enough time to decide on a new production ceiling.”