President Biden’s long experience in the Senate and White House taught him that the Middle East could be quicksand for his ambitions as president.
So it was no accident that his goals in the Middle East were modest, aimed at avoiding resource-damaging distractions from his national ambitions and international priorities: recharging the US economy and recruiting European and Asian allies to deal with China.
The old logic was that US withdrawal from Middle Eastern affairs would leave a dangerous vacuum. The new thought was that by distancing you can promote greater independence.
What surprised Biden government officials is how quickly historical opportunities have emerged. A positive series of loosely related events in the region provides the best opportunity to allay tension, end conflict, build economic progress and advance Middle East integration.
Their combined effect should be to induce the Biden government to recalibrate their “do-no-harm” approach to the region and raise their ambitions. First, it should focus on the four leading indicators of change and how to build on them.
- First, the region’s two bitterest opponents, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are holding secret talks to resolve the region’s arson conflict.
- Second, this week Turkey added Egypt to its list of countries it seeks to ease tension with – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
- Third, the signatories of last year’s Abraham Accords continue to build on their historic normalization agreement. The United Arab Emirates and Israel will open free trade talks next month.
- Finally, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq are holding trilateral talks to deepen their economic ties and highlight the potential for growth-enhancing regional integration.
To support all of this, it would not require the military engagement, endless commitments, or costly investments that have piqued Americans in the region.
What it takes is an increased level of diplomatic and economic creativity and the dusting of history books to examine how the US helped Europe end centuries of post-WWII conflict and build the institutions and cooperative habits that continue to exist today Have consisted.
The process should begin by examining the dynamics of what is unfolding, staying away from what is working well, and engaging where that would support fragile progress.
Given the financial and reputational cost of their disputes, countries that have long been at odds are speaking – Saudi Arabia with Iran, Turkey with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates with Qatar, and Israel with any number of Arab states, and other emerging combinations.
Warring parties in Libya and Yemen are looking for ways to de-escalate, even though they are far from solutions. Leaders have stepped up their efforts for economic growth and recognized the needs of a well-educated, emerging generation who understand global standards.
Most fascinatingly, Saudi Arabia and Iran have had secret talks since January, apparently without US involvement, and mediated by Iraq.
In a dramatic change of tone, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said: “We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to flourish and grow because we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they do also.” Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia designed to promote prosperity and growth in the region and around the world. “
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has many reasons to change course. Among them was the shock of a sophisticated Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 that cost Riyadh around $ 2 billion.
Not only did the event uncover the kingdom’s vulnerability and Iran’s growing capabilities, but it also cast doubts about US security guarantees, even from a friend as close as President Donald Trump, who did not reciprocate Riyadh.
“The concern that Biden will be overly nice with Iran,” says Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council, “while he is withdrawing from the region and de-prioritizing bilateral relations is currently of crucial importance to Saudi’s calculations.”
Turkey, which is economically and politically isolated, has also repaired fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel – who were aware of Istanbul’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups they consider extremist.
Building on last year’s historic Abraham Accords, a senior Middle East official says Israel and the UAE will begin talks next month on a free trade agreement, just one of many efforts to capitalize on the dynamic of normalized relations.
The UAE continued to function as an oversized regional elixir for economic modernization and political moderation, and this week liberalized its residency requirements to attract wealthy expats. They have set themselves the goal of doubling their GDP within the decade, particularly through technological investments.
Separated and inspired by the Abraham Accords, officials from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Greece and Cyprus met against the backdrop of the Eastern Mediterranean in April to deepen their cooperation on everything from energy to fighting the pandemic.
Taken alone, these indicators may appear poor rather than transformative. Tie them together and build on them more methodically, and the Middle East could be the beginnings of such de-escalation of conflict, economic cooperation and institution-building that Europe enjoyed after World War II.
With security threats growing in the Horn of Africa and new uncertainties about the future of Afghanistan, the US wants to be able to invite more stable partners in the Middle East to better address growing uncertainties elsewhere in its wider neighborhood.
Nobody should expect the Middle East in the short term to have its own equivalent of the European Union, NATO or the CSCE, the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where talks between rival Cold War factions take place.
Nor should the US be expected to play the galvanizing role it played when it had half of global GDP, much of Europe was in ruins, and the Soviet Union rose as an adversary.
Still, it would be wrong to underestimate the positive potential influence of the US.
The Trump administration’s support for the Abraham Accord helped fuel growing collaboration among its signatories: Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
The government of Biden has approved the agreements, most recently in a conversation between President Biden and the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed Bin Zayed. However, Biden administrators should invest more in building the agreements.
President Biden’s resumption of negotiation efforts with Iran, his focus on human rights issues and his reluctance to feed the divisions in the region will also play a positive role as long as negotiators do not set the bar too low to lift sanctions against Tehran.
What the Biden administration must avoid is hearing the false conclusion of some analysts that US withdrawal from the region would accelerate progress. What is needed instead is consistent support for the region’s growing modernization and moderation forces, which have won but are still a long way off.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place in the World” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.
More information from CNBC staff can be found here @ CNBCOpinion on twitter.