What would a second Biden term mean for the Middle East?

US President is officially running for re-election in 2024

Prince Khaled al-Faisal welcomes US President Joe Biden upon his arrival in Jeddah, July 2022. AFP
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President Joe Biden has launched his bid for re-election in 2024, paving the way for a potential second term in office and a continuation of his Middle East foreign policy — which has “fit awkwardly” within his global priorities.

Presidents seeking re-election often win but incumbency is no guarantee, as George HW Bush found in 1992 and Donald Trump learnt in 2020.

Experts argue that four more years under Mr Biden will see continued attempts at US disengagement from the Middle East.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow and vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, told The National that another Biden term would “continue to produce incentives for countries in the region, as well as other bigger powers like China and Russia, to chart their own course”.

Several US administrations, starting with Barack Obama's, have attempted to pivot Washington's attention from the region and towards Asia.

The Biden White House reiterated that vision in its budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, emphasising “de-escalation” in the Middle East and a continuing focus on countering China.

“America adrift in the Middle East will result in countries in the Middle East that have more resources, those in the Gulf, Israel and others charting their own course, that at times will be in line with the United States and then at times will be in line with the spheres of other countries like Russia and China,” Mr Katulis argued.

The Middle East has “fit awkwardly within Biden’s global priorities”, Natan Sachs, director at Washington's Brookings Institute Centre for Middle East Policy, wrote in an analysis of Mr Biden's first two years in office.

But “the broader Middle East has still commanded considerable time and effort”, he noted, pointing to the Gaza war in the spring of 2021 and, most notably, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing energy, inflation and food supply shocks it unleashed.

The US is sort of negotiating somewhat of a long goodbye with [Mena], and the region smells it and feels it
Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute

Mr Biden toured the region last July in a trip that yielded “little in the way of flashy announcements — like new normalisation agreements or Saudi Arabia boosting oil production”, said the US Institute of Peace, arguing the tour instead demonstrated focus “on enhancing the region’s security architecture, particularly to counter Iran”.

Still looming over the administration's posture towards the Gulf is its vague October claim that the White House was giving a “rethink” to its relationship with Saudi Arabia after the Opec+ alliance announced it would slash oil production.

Months out from the claim, National Security Council officials have continuously dodged questions about what that “rethink” means and seem to have dismissed the notion that any major shifts would come.

“The big chill is over with the US-Saudi relationship,” said Mr Katulis.

“I think there will still be more bumps in the road. But hopefully, they build in some such shock absorbers in trying to build the co-operative ties that were expressed in all of those communicators that came out during Biden's visit.”

Russia-Ukraine war

Much of Mr Biden's foreign policy attention is focused on Ukraine, where he has championed Nato efforts to keep the besieged country afloat and competitive against the invading Russian forces.

The conflict has affected many countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon and Egypt, which have both struggled over the past year due to skyrocketing food prices.

Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian and author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, said the war is the dominant foreign policy story of the time and that Mr Biden's handling of the crisis has helped strengthen US and Nato resolve.

“The stronger Biden can present the United States on this issue [the war in Ukraine], and the stronger he can present the Nato alliance on this issue, it will have repercussions for things like China and Taiwan,” she explained.

Mr Biden has demonstrated deft diplomacy by working quietly behind closed doors to help build support for Ukraine, Ms Chervinsky argued.

Biden v Trump

One area in which Mr Biden has built on the legacy of his predecessor Mr Trump has been deepening Arab-Israeli relations through the Abraham Accords.

But the two men diverge sharply when it comes to Palestinian-Israeli issues.

Whereas Mr Trump is a staunch supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hardline approach to the conflict with the Palestinians, Mr Biden has a more nuanced stance and supports a two-state solution.

Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, said Mr Biden would continue to voice support for two-state solution interventions at a time of escalation, as well as messaging red lines over what Americans expect Israel not to do.

“You may also see an increase in support for civil society, Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, people-to-people projects,” he added.

“Hopefully, there will also be Biden support for safeguarding Israeli democracy, if the domestic challenges that we are facing now, continue.”

On Yemen, the Biden administration's decision to appoint Tim Lenderking as special envoy marked a “doubling down” in getting the US more engaged on diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict.

But should Mr Biden lose in 2024, depending on “what type of Republican” takes his place, outcomes may not be all that different, argued Mr Katulis.

“There seems to be a trajectory here,” he said.

“The US is sort of negotiating somewhat of a long goodbye with the region, and the region smells it and feels it. And that's why you see them stepping up to take care of matters in their own hands.”

Updated: April 26, 2023, 1:03 PM