After a tumultuous series of events, Joe Biden was finally sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. His entry into the White House marks the beginning of a new era — not just for the US but also for the world at large.
Finally, the US can end the bickering that has characterized American politics in recent months. It is good that the heat and dust of electioneering, which ended with the horrific attack on the Capitol building, is at last a thing of the past.
We, US allies in the Middle East, a region that has always been directly affected by US elections, are obviously looking forward to working with the new administration on resolving regional issues. However, the reality is that President Biden, perhaps more than many of his predecessors, has an overwhelmingly long list of domestic issues that demand his immediate attention. The coronavirus has infected nearly 25 million Americans and taken the lives of more than 400,000. The economy is suffering and there is massive unemployment and unprecedented political and social division.
Nevertheless, no seasoned establishment politician with Biden’s long administrative experience needs a reminder that, as retired Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland used to say, if America does not go to the Middle East, the Middle East will come to America.
Much has been said in the past about incoming US administrations, both Republican and Democrat. Barack Obama was hailed as a savior at first, only to suffer a wave of unpopularity near the end due to a series of misguided Middle East policies. In our Arab News/YouGov survey on the Arab world’s priorities for the incoming Biden administration, 53 percent of respondents said Obama left the region worse off, and 58 percent said Biden should distance himself from some Obama-era policies.
Not only did such policies hurt the region, but also came back to bite the Obama administration in the backside. Indeed, despite appeasement policy Team Obama followed with Iran, the Tehran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen (whose official slogan is ‘Death to America’) ended up attacking the US Navy three times by the end of 2016. Biden advisors, who may have less informed views prior to taking offices, would be well advised to be remember these facts before considering reversing a Trump decision which designated the Houthis as a terrorist group.
Likewise, when Trump came to power, there was skepticism about his controversial statements in the region. However, he did well on many fronts, especially on confronting Iran. Perhaps the only exception was on moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem; a minuscule 11 percent of the respondents in our survey supported that decision.
There are many interesting details in our survey that can and will be useful for the new administration if it chooses to try and understand Arab sentiment. Judging by some of the statements during the past year and a half, and by some so-called Middle East experts in the US, any new administration would be well advised to listen to its close allies and to the sentiments of the Arab Street. This is why all the findings of our YouGov study have been compiled and published by our Arab News Research and Studies Unit, and are available to download free from our website.
In the meantime, the Biden administration seems to be making an encouraging start. Biden’s nominee to be Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said he would consult Gulf states and Israel before returning to any deal with Iran. “It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries,” he said, suggesting that any new agreement could address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region as well as its missiles.
One of the Biden administration’s first acts was to reverse the ban on citizens of some Muslim-majority countries entering the US. Many in the region, quoted in our survey, said this was a top priority for them (75 percent), along with empowering the region’s youth (44 percent), solving the Arab-Israeli conflict (44 percent), containing COVID-19 (37 percent), quashing Islamist terrorism (24 percent) and containing Iran (24 percent).
When it comes to US involvement in the Middle East, the received wisdom on the Arab street is that actions speak louder than words. Let us therefore hope for a new era of joint efforts to achieve regional peace and prosperity. Until then, congratulations, President Biden.