Under the Biden administration, various normalisation efforts have started across the region, ranging from Turkey-Egypt rapprochement, to Iran-Saudi talks.
With President Joe Biden taking over the reins of the US government, the Middle East is experiencing a shift in power dynamics as regional rivals appear to be willing to put aside their political differences and deescalate long-standing tensions.
In the last two weeks, capitals in the Middle East, ranging from Cairo to Ankara and Riyadh to Tehran, have announced their intentions to normalise their relations with each other.
Last week, the Turkish and Egyptian foreign ministries met in Cairo to normalise ties after eight years of rocky relations. Dealings between the two sides hit a low in 2013 following the military coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected government.
On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was in Riyadh to meet his counterpart and other officials in order to help mend ties with the Saudis. After a Saudi squad murdered the country’s well-known dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s Istanbul consulate in 2018, tensions between the two regional powerhouses escalated, leading them to cut down ties.
Both Egypt and the Saudi kingdom are under pressure from Western countries, primarily the US for their human rights records and autocratic measures, seeking exits from their political deadlocks by developing better relations with other regional powers like Turkey.
Even Saudi and Iranian foreign ministries have publicised that they are holding talks to address their political differences. "De-escalation of tensions between the two Muslim countries in the Persian Gulf region is in the interest of both nations and the region," said Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh. Saudis also confirmed that the talks aim to reduce regional tensions. Tehran and Riyadh have been archenemies for decades.
“Biden’s coming to power has resulted in Middle Eastern countries to reconsider their policies and political positions in respect to each other. [For decades], the US has been the ultimate arbiter between regional powers in the Middle East, shaping its politics,” says Mithat Rende, Turkey’s former ambassador to Qatar.
Rende believes that most existing “dynasties”, such as Saudis and the UAE, in the region are prone to follow US advice having been allies of Washington for decades. This time around, US advice appears to be “find a common ground with your rivals”, according to Rende.
By decreasing regional tensions, Biden wants to secure Israel, preventing other external major powers like Russia and China from using rivalries to infiltrate the Middle East, says Rende. “In order to lead [Arab] dynasties by himself, Biden also wants to isolate Iran from the Arab world, developing a set of alliances between Middle Eastern states to keep China [and Russia] away from the region,” Rende tells TRT World.
Bulent Aras, a Gulf expert, who is also a professor of international relations in the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, also thinks that “there has been a Biden effect on major powers in the Middle East.”
The political normalisation efforts have emerged even though Biden is not laying out a particular master plan for the Middle East, says Aras. But Biden’s coming to power has created different expectations in different countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran to look for normalisation, according to Aras.
Saudis have been afraid that the US will “increase pressure over them or impose a kind of new policies that can corner” the kingdom in its regional rivalry against Iran, the professor tells TRT World. On the other hand, Iran has “expectations” from the Biden administration that the US will return to the nuclear deal.
“That was totally different from the previous [Trump] administration. So the parties in the Middle East have chosen to restrain their regional power projections, waiting for Biden's first foreign policy moves in the region,” says Aras.
One of Biden’s first foreign policy messages was on the brutal Saudi-led Yemen war, which created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, announcing that the US will end its involvement there. Washington also advised Riyadh to come to terms with Yemen’s rebel force, Iran-backed Shiite Houthis. The Saudis immediately followed US advice.
“As a result, the Biden administration had played a role in the deescalation of tensions in the Middle East. This has not been probably done for the sake of peace or reconciliation or whatever. That restraint and regional behaviour is more about those countries’ bilateral relations with the US and their fear of the possible US measures against them,” adds the professor.
Aras also thinks that Biden’s multilateral attitude has had an impact in shifting dynamics in the Middle East. As a result, Biden considers returning to the internationally-approved nuclear deal, reestablishing an important political mechanism, which will recalibrate the regional power balance, he says.
Others, like Matthew Bryza, a former top American diplomat who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past, think that prior to Biden’s coming to power, “the geopolitical dynamic” in the Middle East had already begun changing with the Abraham Accords, which led to normalisation processes between Israel and some Arab countries like the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco last year.
Following the Abraham Accords, which were pushed by the Trump administration, another reconciliation in the Gulf came into existence as the Saudi-UAE bloc decided to lift their full blockade over neighbouring Qatar, normalising their relations.
“I don’t know that the Biden administration has done anything specific to reduce tensions in the Middle East yet,” Bryza tells TRT World. But once it was clear that Trump was not going to be the next president, then, the changing regional dynamic triggered by the Arab-Israeli normalisations “began shifting even more”, he says.
Except for Biden's bringing the Iran nuclear deal to the regional game as a new dynamic, “other shifts in the geopolitical dynamic just has to do more with Donald Trump’s exit than Joe Biden’s arrival,” according to Bryza.
Any master plan?
In the face of the grim Palestinian reality in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, the Middle East definitely needs a peace plan to address the conflict. It fuels anger, fomenting other regional disputes.
But the American diplomat thinks that Biden does not have any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, nor a regional master plan for the Middle East. Biden “sees himself having inherited a whole series of the problems to be managed” across the turbulent region from the Yemen war to the Iran nuclear deal, Bryza says.
“He is just trying to develop political mechanisms that require a lot of thinking,” Bryza says. But many members of Biden’s team have not been confirmed yet, and as a result, many important positions are still being filled in acting bases without Senate confirmation, he says.
“I think Biden’s master plan for the Middle East is to strike a new balance of power,” says Aras, the professor at the Qatar University.
But it will be a difficult task, he adds. Barack Obama’s nuclear deal envisioned a less ambitious Iran, but after the deal, Tehran has even become more aggressive across the Middle East, feeling a free hand to go after its enemies from Yemen to Syria. In the face of that reality, returning the nuclear deal is also a risky bet for the Biden administration.
Also, Biden has apparently no tangible plan to end the bloody conflicts from Syria to Yemen and Libya.
“We can say the current [US] attitude is to pave the way for political negotiations, reconciliations and also regional balance of power. There is this overall perspective. But we still need to see how they plan to do it,” Aras concludes.