Six Middle East realities Biden can't afford to ignore

Six Middle East realities Biden can't afford to ignore
Comment: For there to be any real progress in our region, Biden must grasp how we reached this situation, and how we get out of it, writes Rami Khouri.
6 min read
13 Nov, 2020
Joe Biden will be inaugurated as president on 20 January 2021 [Getty]

The avalanche of analyses of how President-elect Joe Biden will address the many Middle Eastern wars, confrontations, and other issues in which the US is entangled will remain entertaining speculation unless they do three things that every American government in the past half a century has failed to do: grasp the underlying (and worsening) realities on the ground in the Middle East, acknowledge their actual causes, and craft foreign policies that serve the US itself, the people of the region, and the wider cause of world peace and stability. 

We hear often that Biden's 40 years of foreign policy experience give him an edge over other American officials who try to navigate our region. Those 40 years are most useful for him if he looks back and tracks how and why the current conditions and trends across the Middle East have changed so much, even since Biden was vice president four years ago.

Issues like Israel-Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Russia, aggressive Saudi-UAE policies, sectarian conflicts, and other current realities are best dealt with on the understanding that they are mostly consequences of deeper drivers of change in the region.

An honest and comprehensive analysis of how the Middle East has reached its current violent condition would help interested policy-makers anywhere in the region or the world craft policies that actually make a difference in people's lives. This is especially true of Middle Easterners whose thirst for dignity, development, and stability remains largely unquenched - and widely ignored by Middle Eastern and foreign leaders alike.

Now that Biden is heading back to the White House, here is my six-point list of the most important and consistent drivers of Middle Eastern events in recent history. All six remain active dynamics, not historical issues. In chronological order, they are: 

Middle Eastern autocracy must be removed if we wish to end our region's wars and despair

1. Uninterrupted foreign military intervention in the Middle East since Napoleon, two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, stokes both internal turmoil and popular anger against foreign powers. Such militarism has significantly increased since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago, and now includes regional militarism (most notably by Turkey, Iran, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel) alongside international powers like the USA, Russia, France, and the UK. 

Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine, and Libya are showcases of the destruction and mass human suffering this causes, and this legacy continues and even expands these days. Replacing military action with diplomacy and economic development drives would be a sensible policy option across the board.

2. The Palestinian-Zionist and wider Arab-Israeli conflict has now entered its second century, and remains the most radicalising and destabilising political force within the Middle East. It helped trigger the advent of Arab military regimes in the 1940s to 70s, all of which ravaged and bankrupted their own societies, cemented inefficient and repressive regimes, increased anti-western sentiments, and expanded regional conflicts, including new Iranian-Israeli-Arab tensions.

It is a serious element in citizens' lack of respect for their rulers across many Arab lands, especially as a few Arab leaders decide to normalise relations with Israel while it continues its colonisation of Arab lands. Resolving the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Zionist conflict equitably, according to the wishes and needs of the people of the region, rather than a handful of autocrats, is a major priority for anyone seeking to promote stability and dignity across the region for all its people.

Read more: To fix Arab societies, just listen to Arab citizens

3. The foreign militarism and Arab-Israeli conflict together generated a modern legacy of Arab authoritarian and autocratic regimes, all of which needed foreign support to survive. The cruel and incompetent regimes were also developmental failures that ravaged national economies and ultimately drove masses of the brightest Arab (and some Iranian, Turkish and even Israeli) men and women to emigrate. Middle Eastern autocracy must be removed if we wish to end our region's wars and despair.

4. Due to the three factors above, the Arab region's 440 million people today are mostly economically poor and vulnerable and politically marginalised and powerless. The steady pauperisation of the Arab middle classes since the 1990s has aggravated all the current destructive trends, including sectarian and ethnic conflicts, mass civilian uprisings, and large-scale emigration, displacement, and refugeehood by millions of desperate families.

It also hardens already vicious authoritarian regimes who reply to citizens' expressions of discontent and demand for rights with greater state violence, arrests, and intimidation of peaceful protesters.

5. These trends have seen the Arab region and parts of Iran and Israel in recent years break out in sustained citizen protests against their increasingly autocratic leaderships.

The Arab region in particular has witnessed ongoing protests in a dozen countries since 2010; only Tunisia has transitioned to a pluralistic democracy, and Sudan is in the midst of a delicate three-year transition. Polling evidence confirms largescale, chronic citizen discontent with state institutions such as parliaments, the media, and the executive and judicial branches. Citizens and their ruling governmental authorities are increasingly distant from each other, which makes some states more brittle.

6. The Arab countries and people suffer the ultimate indignity of being subjected to the forces mentioned above: some have started to unravel as sovereign states, in at least two key dimensions. First, many have lost control over most of their borders and lands such as in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israeli-occupied Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraqi Kurdistan and southern Sudan, to mention only the most flagrant. As non-state actors take control of some autonomous regions beyond the control of the central government, foreign powers also wage war at will in the country, directly or through local proxies.

Citizens and their ruling governmental authorities are increasingly distant from each other, which makes some states more brittle

Second, they cannot make fully sovereign decisions related to their national security. Most Arab countries, for example, must get the approval of Israel to buy advanced American weapons. Some must get the approval of Iran, Turkey, or Russia for their military or diplomatic moves. These and other examples represent a de-sovereignisation of important dimensions of national life in Arab countries - probably a priority issue to grasp by anyone seeking engagement in the region.

So the Biden administration and other foreign powers who look at the turbulent Middle East would do well to pause for a moment from their focus on Iran's nuclear industry, terrorism, non-state militia expansions, refugee flows, and other important realities, and instead try to grasp how we reached this situation, and how we can get out of it. This is all the more important because the six drivers I outlined above continue to devastate our countries, where conditions will worsen more due to the Covid-19 pandemic, low oil price, and economic stagnation.


Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.