Cynics in the Arab world believe that Joe Biden’s success in the 2020 US presidential election will only lead to yet another period of misguided approaches to the pressing issues plaguing the region.
But the president-elect has a real opportunity to reverse a persistent US foreign policy that has privileged and empowered autocrats who deprive their own people of basic rights and values while holding those same rights and values sacred for its own citizens. With those values at home threatened under Trump’s time in the White House, Biden has the enormous task of healing domestically and stepping up internationally.
Biden must act swiftly to put pressure on the crown prince to free Saudi feminists, intellectuals and activists languishing in the kingdom’s prisons
A US led by Biden should stop being a key enabler of the Saudi regime, which has undermined the security of its own people and projected power abroad, leading to chaos and bloodshed in the region – above all in Yemen. While no mighty foreign power can stop the quest for freedom in Saudi Arabia, the US has played a significant role in shielding its authoritarian rulers from international scrutiny – a prime example being President Donald Trump’s persistent efforts to protect the killers of Middle East Eye and Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi two years ago.
Biden now has the opportunity to make public the US intelligence services report on Khashoggi’s murder and call for real justice. This would be a first step towards restoring faith in a US that doesn’t only preach democracy and the rule of law, but also acts on its values beyond its own borders.
Biden should insist that a future partnership with Saudi Arabia becomes conditional on Riyadh respecting the human rights of its own citizens, freedom of speech and aspirations for genuine political change. Americans are lucky to be able to get rid of their own potential autocrats; Saudis have yet to enjoy this opportunity.
Saudi prisons are bulging with political prisoners because the right to free speech is curtailed and hijacked by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden must act swiftly to put pressure on the crown prince to free Saudi feminists, intellectuals and activists languishing in the kingdom’s prisons, with Saudis unable to mount real pressure to free them. This would not only be much appreciated by the Saudi public, but would also restore faith in the US as a champion of free speech globally.
Hub for radicalism
Biden must know that dictatorship is not the ideal type of government for maintaining stability and security, but rather a hub for radicalism, chaos and revolution. The US has experienced on its own soil radicalism and terrorism which brewed under the umbrella of its Saudi partner.
It is in US national interests to realise that short-term stability under the dictatorships of its Arab partners is a recipe for disaster, with consequences that eventually would reach American soil. To protect the US and restore its standing in the world, Biden urgently needs to reconsider his predecessors’ unconditional support for a Saudi regime that denies its own citizens what Americans cherish the most: freedom.
Restraining the Saudi regime’s military capabilities – mostly bought from the US – to continue a five-year-old war in Yemen would not only save this poor country from complete meltdown, but also end Yemen’s spiral into a hotbed of terrorism that will reach beyond the country and the region.
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Biden should end Saudi Arabia’s ability to destabilise the Arab world, above all by curbing its counter-revolutionary measures, which thwarted the 2011 Arab uprisings and reinstated authoritarian rule. Ten years later, it is time for the victims of this wave of democratisation to be honoured, and for the enablers of the return of military rule in countries such as Egypt to be restrained.
Biden has a chance here to confirm the US commitment to democracy in the Arab world and to disengage with regimes that continue to thwart dignity, freedom and justice.
An impartial negotiator
Biden also has an opportunity to act on two of the hottest issues. Firstly, he can end the polarisation of the Arab region between the Saudi and Iranian camps. This would entail returning to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, surely to the annoyance of the Saudis, while pushing the latter to abandon their aggressive rhetoric and start negotiations themselves.
Biden must know that Saudi Arabia could never win a war with Iran on its own, or even with the help of its new Israeli ally. They would need American soldiers, technology and weapons for any future confrontation with Iran.
Yet, the point here is not to win a war against Iran that would only bring more death, sectarianism and confrontation to the region – but rather to establish peace. The US needs to act as an impartial negotiator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, rather than as a partisan actor still haunted by the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudi people don’t want war with Iran; their leadership does.
Secondly, if Biden does not engage with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to ensure the restoration of the Palestinian right to statehood without jeopardising Israeli security, then future Arab unilateral normalisation with Israel will be a waste of energy and resources.
The Palestinian tragedy is solved in Jerusalem, not Riyadh. Even if the Saudi crown prince normalises relations with Israel, an everlasting peace in the Arab world will not be established without Palestinians achieving their historical right to sovereignty on their own land.
A better future
The key to Biden reversing the policies of his predecessor is a recognition that Saudi citizens, and Arabs in general, deserve a better future, in which they enjoy what Americans have fiercely fought for during this 2020 election.
Four years of Trump did significant damage to the US’s reputation in the Arab world, giving its authoritarian partners carte blanche to pursue their own bigoted, populist, murderous and treacherous policies. The Saudi regime definitely benefited from the White House becoming a seat of bigotry under Trump. It is time now for Biden to step up the pressure on his country’s lawless partners in the region.
This opinion was first published on the Middle East Eye