Democracy and Human Rights in the Middle East: The Biden Agenda

As news that former Vice President Joe Biden had won the American presidential election began to circulate on Saturday, November 7, messages of congratulations soon began pouring in from US friends and allies around the globe. But the world’s authoritarian states—including several in the Middle East—were not quick off the mark. Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), waited over 24 hours to offer congratulations to President-elect Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris, even as the Saudi prince made time to congratulate the leader of Tanzania on his reelection. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt offered his own anodyne congratulations late Saturday evening. The Chinese government brought up the rear with felicitations on November 13 as Moscow remained noncommittal as of November 24.1

There is ample reason for the reticence of authoritarian leaders as they contemplate a Joe Biden presidency. The president-elect has pledged to reinforce democratic norms in the United States while advancing them abroad, and fundamental human rights—freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom from torture among them—“will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy.” So will “rallying the free world to push back against rising authoritarianism,” as Biden himself has stated. Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, has a well-established reputation for supporting the promotion of democracy and human rights in American foreign policy; the choice for US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has served as a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

No wonder Middle East autocrats are worried.

Defending Democracy: A Daunting Task Ahead

According to Freedom House, global democracy has been in retreat for 14 straight years. In addition, 25 of the 41 established democracies around the world have suffered net declines. President-elect Biden aims to start pushing back by holding a “Summit for Democracy” sometime in his first year in office. The summit event would convene the world’s democratic states to consider measures to “strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront the challenge of nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda….” The summit would also include civil society and the private sector, both to expand the range of stakeholders in democratic advancement and establish a holistic approach that recognizes the vital role nongovernmental actors have to play. (In the case of social media companies, the summit would help bring pressure to ensure their “algorithms and platforms are not empowering the surveillance state” or spreading misinformation and incitement to violence and extremism.) The meeting would aim to extract new commitments from those present to take action in three main areas: “(1) fighting corruption; (2) defending against authoritarianism, including election security; (3) advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.”

President-elect Biden aims to start pushing back by holding a “Summit for Democracy” sometime in his first year in office.  

In fact, not only are these three interlinked elements likely to constitute the main themes of the Summit for Democracy, but they would also form the basis of a comprehensive agenda to defend democracy and advance human rights worldwide. Indeed, they could have major effects in the Middle East.

Combatting a Crisis of Corruption

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, corruption costs developing countries $1.26 trillion per year. This has a host of negative economic impacts and is deeply intertwined with human rights abuses by damaging rule of law, denying access to justice and political voice, and fostering a culture of impunity. In the Middle East, as Transparency International has documented, the perception and experience of corruption in people’s daily lives is widespread and its effects on both local and national governance are pernicious. A recent public opinion survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, revealed that a full 91 percent of Arabs believe that corruption (ranging from limited to widespread) exists in their countries. As many as 59 percent believe that politicians and senior state employees contribute to the spread of financial and administrative corruption.

The United States government has taken note. Most recently, Trump’s own Treasury Department sanctioned Lebanese politician Gebran Bassil, calling his large-scale corruption emblematic of a problem that has undermined Lebanon’s social and political stability and led the country to the brink of collapse.

Although Biden himself has said little about endemic corruption in the Middle East, the president-elect’s global anti-corruption agenda could hardly ignore the region. According to the Financial Action Task Force, for example, the UAE is a major hub of international money laundering that any serious regional anti-corruption strategy would need to address. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “anti-corruption” drive in 2017 did little to get at the root causes of corruption in the kingdom, where it remains a serious problem; instead, the drive spawned a host of human rights abuses. That, too, should be considered carefully as part of a regional plan to defeat corruption.

Authoritarian Governance

With regard to defending against authoritarianism, Biden appears focused primarily on pushing back against Russia and China, which have had a good run during the Trump years as they undermined confidence in democracy while scoring diplomatic and economic successes in many parts of the world, the Middle East included. The Biden Administration will cooperate with allies to develop tangible strategies to counter these gains and shore up faltering democracies, especially in eastern Europe.

In the Middle East, the Biden Administration is unlikely to take the issue head-on. The president-elect’s foreign policy team would likely signal support for general democratic principles and back meaningful, if gradual, political reform.

In the Middle East, the Biden Administration is unlikely to take the issue head-on. The president-elect’s foreign policy team would likely signal support for general democratic principles and back meaningful, if gradual, political reform, while steering clear of a more robust push for democratization along the lines of President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” Elections, when held, will be applauded, if they are modestly free and fair, but there will be no rash demands for quick elections in post-conflict or transitioning states. In general, the Biden Administration is likely to indulge in quiet encouragement of democratic reform in the Middle East, expressed through careful public messaging, enhanced ties with civil society and political activists, and restored budgetary support for US democracy and governance initiatives.

Human Rights: A Sharp Break with the Last Four Years

The Biden Administration’s human rights agenda in the Middle East, by contrast with its approach to democratization in the region, is likely to be sharper and have more immediate effects. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two countries that will soon be in the spotlight.

Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” in a primary debate during the presidential campaign last year, promising to “make them pay the price” for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including a potential ban on US arms sales. While Biden appreciates the strategic value of the US-Saudi relationship, he and his team have indicated the need to place it on a more “realistic” footing, including a more honest appraisal of and response to the kingdom’s deepening repression and human rights abuses. Biden has made clear that unlike Trump––who refused to condemn the Khashoggi murder and vetoed legislation aimed at cutting off the weapons pipeline to Saudi Arabia because of the ruinous war in Yemen––he will ascertain that under his administration “America will never again check its principles at the door just to buy oil or sell weapons … But America needs to insist on responsible Saudi actions and impose consequences for reckless ones.”

Biden is likely to keep Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at arm’s length diplomatically. He will factor in human rights standards to a significant extent as his administration considers the value of the bilateral strategic relationship. Riyadh’s involvement in Yemen will be an early focus. Biden’s foreign policy team will likely revisit US support for the conflict, specifically arms sales and resupply, as well as other forms of support the United States has provided, including targeting information and aerial refueling for Saudi warplanes.

Biden is likely to keep Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at arm’s length diplomatically. He will factor in human rights standards to a significant extent as his administration considers the value of the bilateral strategic relationship. 

Egypt will find itself in roughly the same boat. Once Trump’s “favorite dictator,” President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi will no longer benefit from a close relationship with the White House. Egypt’s sharply deteriorating human rights situation will come under greater scrutiny and Biden will be more inclined to withhold at least portions of military aid in response. The Biden Administration is also likely to undertake a review of the overall strategic relationship, including military assistance; Biden advisors have indicated that Cairo can no longer expect a “blank check” given the increasing repression during the Sisi years. These changes will be reflected in how the president talks about Egypt, in Sisi’s access to the Oval Office (or lack thereof), and in increased skepticism among US officials as to the future of bilateral security ties.

Once a Senator, Always a Senator

No one, however, should expect the Biden Administration to suddenly abandon relationships with long-time allies in the Middle East, which have served US security interests relatively well over the years. Biden remains a cautious centrist Democrat. As former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice president to the hyper-careful Barack Obama, he will not become an agent of radical change overnight. Indeed, some observers have characterized the incoming administration as a potential Obama “third term.”

Biden may make some splashy early moves to signal a new approach, such as reversing Trump’s “Muslim ban” on travel to the United States, seeking to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council, and lifting sanctions against officials of the International Criminal Court. But he will probably remain squarely in the middle of a Washington consensus that prioritizes cooperation with Middle East autocracies on security, military, and counterterrorism issues, and which often ignores many of their internal abuses in the belief that this is an acceptable cost of doing business. The strength of Biden’s commitment to a different path forward remains to be seen.

What Would a New Strategy Look Like?

If Biden wants to pay more than lip service to democratic ideals and human rights in the Middle East, he should do more than just reevaluate long-standing relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and other countries of the region, perhaps trimming arms sales here and there to send a message. If it is serious in pursuing such an agenda, the Biden Administration should adopt a new strategy that would signal strongly that the era of cozy accommodation with autocrats is over.

Biden must make sure that, in addition to the State Department and USAID, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community are communicating similar messages to their vast and influential networks of contacts throughout the region.

Here are several steps the Biden Administration would do well to take.

  • Ensure a consistent message from all departments of the Executive Branch on human rights. Convincing governments in the Middle East that the United States is serious about supporting democratization and human rights in the region is much more than a matter of a few rhetorical salvos from the president. Biden must make sure that, in addition to the State Department and USAID, the Department of Defense and the intelligence community are communicating similar messages to their vast and influential networks of contacts throughout the region, or at least not undermining them by focusing solely on traditional themes of security and stability. Other Executive Branch agencies need to follow suit.
  • Make common cause with Congress. Considerable bipartisan support exists for human rights and democracy on Capitol Hill; the Biden Administration should harness it to advance its goals in the Middle East. The Trump Administration has ignored Congress by consistently seeking to cut funding for Middle East democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) programming. Its budget proposal for FY21 “continues the trend of securitizing U.S. aid” to the region, as the Project on Middle East Democracy has noted, proposing $5.46 billion for security assistance, or 83.4 percent of the total request for the Middle East—while democracy assistance accounts for only 2.9 percent of the total. As in past years, Congress is prepared to restore the funding for the DRG programs that Trump has deleted. The Biden Administration should take a different tack, expanding this funding while reversing Trump’s effort to “securitize” aid to the Middle East.

Biden could also employ members of the Senate and House of Representatives of both parties as personal envoys on key human rights issues from time to time, asking them to raise these issues when traveling to the region and meeting foreign officials in Washington. Bipartisanship in this area could have the salubrious effect of building trust between the president and Congress in other areas as well.

  • Address the serious issue of political prisoners. President Ronald Reagan famously met Russian refuseniks at the US ambassador’s Moscow residence during a US-Soviet summit in 1988 and publicly called on then-premier Mikhail Gorbachev to release all those imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs. President Biden could make a similar impact by taking up the case of the thousands of political prisoners held by regimes throughout the region. Their continued detention not only silences independent critical voices but has deleterious economic and social effects as well.

In addition to making the release of political prisoners a cornerstone of his human rights policy in the Middle East, the new president should make an effort to highlight the most egregious individual cases publicly and to governments. Biden himself is no stranger to this tactic, having advocated personally as a senator on behalf of imprisoned former Egyptian human rights activist and presidential candidate Ayman Nour, and more recently speaking out (as a candidate) against the detention of relatives of the US-based Egyptian activist Mohamad Soltan.2

As president, Biden could make a good start by demanding the freedom of Gasser Abdel-Razek, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and of his staff who were arrested and jailed earlier this month. (The nominee for the position of secretary of state, Antony Blinken, recently criticized their detention.)3 Biden should also insist on the release of Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi women’s rights activist. Imprisoned in 2018 and subjected to torture, her fate has been ignored by the Trump Administration, even though Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s close ties to MbS could have played a role in pushing for her release.4 Nasrin Sotoudeh, the Iranian human rights lawyer sentenced last year to 38 years in prison, is another case the administration should take up as a matter of urgency.5 And if Biden hopes to revitalize Palestinian-Israeli negotiations along with prospects for a two-state solution, he also needs to address the plight of some 355 Palestinians held by Israel in administrative detention, meaning without trial and without having been convicted of or charged with a crime. There are, unfortunately, many other examples.

If Biden hopes to revitalize Palestinian-Israeli negotiations along with prospects for a two-state solution, he also needs to address the plight of some 355 Palestinians held by Israel in administrative detention.

  • Apply US laws to human rights abusers in the Middle East. The Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the US government to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on officials and private citizens thought to be responsible for human rights violations overseas, should be applied more regularly in the Middle East. Doing so, or even talking publicly about doing so, would send a powerful message. The Biden Administration should also exercise the Leahy Law, which prohibits American support to foreign military units that grossly violate human rights. The incoming administration must also respect and reinforce the integrity of the arms sales notification process to Congress, which the Trump Administration has ignored or abused. All of these steps would command significant bipartisan support.

Bent but Not Broken

The rise of populist authoritarianism in the United States, the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election, and the assault on basic democratic norms will inspire few to believe in American commitment to democracy or human rights going forward. Restoring American leadership on these issues requires a long and painstaking process of rebuilding trust and credibility, both domestically and internationally. By dint of ideology and expertise, the Biden Administration is well-suited to doing so. As he makes the case through words and actions in the Middle East, President Biden can go a long way to reestablishing the reputation of the United States as the world’s most ardent defender of freedom and inalienable rights.

Charles Dunne is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about him and read his previous publications click here

1 Russia congratulated Biden on December 15 following the Electoral College vote.
2 Following public pressure and news of Biden’s election, Egypt released five of Soltan’s relatives on November 9, 2020.
3 Abdel-Razek and his two colleagues were released on December 3rd.
4 Al-Hathloul was transferred to a special anti-terrorism court on November 27 and sentenced to five years and eight months in prison for “incitement to change the kingdom’s ruling regime and cooperating with individuals and entities to carry out a foreign agenda.”
5 After being released temporarily for health reasons, Sotoudeh was ordered back to prison on December 2nd.

*Photo credit: flickr/Alisdare Hickson

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