With the United States playing a major role in Middle East politics, US presidential elections are usually of utmost importance to the region’s leaders, elites, and ordinary citizens. The current round between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is no exception. Trump has been at the helm of American foreign policy for four years and has built personal relationships with many leaders in the Middle East (except those in the Islamic Republic of Iran or Palestine). On the other hand, Biden has dealt with international affairs for close to five decades as a member of the US Senate and as second in command in Barack Obama’s White House from 2009 to 2017. Thus the outcome of the current Trump-Biden battle for the Oval Office is important to the interests of both the United States and the close to 25 states in the Middle East and North Africa region.
In the following analysis, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) analysts and fellows assess how Middle East leaders and peoples look at the US presidential election and whether they have specific preferences as to who becomes the American president on January 20, 2021.
What Do People in the Region Expect from a Trump or Biden Presidency?
Tamara Kharroub, Assistant Executive Director and Senior Fellow, ACW
It is no secret that Donald Trump has been unapologetically courting autocrats in the region, from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). While Trump is unpredictable, is it unlikely that people in the Arab world would expect a change of heart from a second-term President Trump. If elected for another four years, he will likely be even more emboldened not only to resume but also to expand his relations with (and affinity for) totalitarian rulers, push for more arms deals and confrontations, share authoritarian technologies, embrace war criminals under the banner of America First, and support Israel, all with little regard for human rights violations. Trump will also retain and possibly increase sizable budget cuts to democracy programs in foreign assistance funding. Even on Syria, the president has recently signaled a willingness to make a deal with President Bashar al-Assad in exchange for establishing relations with Israel.
What is notable, however, is that President Trump is at odds with a significant bipartisan assembly in the US Congress that has been vocal about issues of human rights and democracy, including MbS’s role in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, the war in Yemen, the state of political prisoners in Egypt, the jailing and torture of women and human rights activists in Saudi Arabia, surveillance and social media censorship, the rights of minorities, and violations of freedoms and rights across the region.
In this respect, a President Biden will have significant support in the US Congress to call on leaders in the Arab world to end human rights abuses and repressive policies and support accountability, transparency, and democratic governance. Although Biden is expected to maintain strong relations with Arab allies, his administration will be more vocal in condemning human rights abuses—at least in rhetoric. His campaign website clearly states that his administration is not interested in continuing the “blank check” given by the Trump Administration to authoritarian regimes. It also pledges to make democratic values and human rights in the Middle East a priority, referring to reassessing relations with Saudi Arabia, ending US support for the war in Yemen, defending the rights and freedoms of activists and journalists, and reinstating democracy programs. While a President Biden might use US leverage to demand ending human rights violations and support democracy advocates, he is unlikely to make free and democratic elections in the Arab world a priority.
How Do Palestinians Look at the Trump-Biden Context?
Khalil E. Jahshan, Executive Director, ACW
American elections have clearly assumed an extremely significant importance in the eyes of most political actors in the Middle East since the inception of the 2020 campaign. The preoccupation of the region with the minute details of the elections and their final outcome stems from the omnipresent role of the United States in regional politics, its definition of its own national interests, and the intense pursuit of those interests by successive administrations in Washington. Palestine is no exception to this rule. The Palestinian people and its leadership, both in Ramallah and Gaza, have been totally obsessed with the November 3 election based on their own somewhat disoriented expectations dictated by their current political isolation and paralysis.
As far as most Palestinians are concerned, should Trump win the November 3 presidential election, they anticipate that the 45th president of the United States would be vindicated and emboldened to pursue the anti-Palestinian foreign policy he pursued in his first term in office. His authoritarian modus operandi will remain unchanged, and so would his personal friendships, political alliances, and personal psychology and disposition. They expect him to continue to see US policy toward the region through the lens of confronting Iran and backing Israel. In other words, the sentiment throughout Palestine is that Trump in a second term will continue to wage the unfinished war he declared against the Palestinians since January 2017.
On the other hand, the predominant view among Palestinians envisions US Middle East policy under Biden as likely to change on two key components, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Biden has stated repeatedly, his administration would pursue “a credible path to diplomacy” on both fronts. Palestinians know Biden, warts and all, much better than Trump. Consequently, they prefer a return to a conventional diplomatic relationship with his administration. They fully realize that Biden will not be able to reverse some of the drastic diplomatic steps undertaken by Trump including his recognition of Israel as a Jewish state or moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. However, they seem to have realistic expectations about a quick restoration of diplomatic relations with Washington, a resumption of US humanitarian aid, and gradual resumption of a less biased US mediation in Israeli-Palestinian future talks should they resume.
Whether that will offer a convenient exit ramp to the Palestinians to free themselves from their current political impasse remains to be seen. At best, the change at the White House will constitute a limited and short-lived opportunity for them to regroup and put their house in order. The challenge in Palestine remains essentially Palestinian and the answer will ultimately have to be local.
The US Election’s Impact on Lebanon and Syria
Joe Macaron, Resident Fellow, ACW
The US election will have the most immediate impact on Lebanon, more so than on Syria. Today, the Trump Administration is expected to sanction the former Lebanese foreign minister and President Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, Gebran Bassil for his close relationship with Hezbollah, as Prime Minister Saad Hariri continues his attempt to form a government of technocrats that is pre-approved by the country’s ruling elites. This US move will most likely freeze the government formation process as Lebanese leaders await US election results. In the larger context, whether Biden or Trump wins, there is an expected potential shift in how the United States will deal with Iran, which will have significant impact on Lebanese politics and the ongoing Lebanon-Israel border talks.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the existing dynamics continue in the northeast where little impact is expected whether Trump or Biden wins, even though Kurdish-led forces might have a preference for Biden to secure a strong commitment in Washington to their cause. For the Syrian opposition, there is a clear preference for Trump, one that is largely driven by their previous negative experience with the Obama Administration. For the Assad regime, both a Trump or a Biden administration offers challenges and opportunities, but the most consequential question for Assad remains regarding what will happen in US-Russia relations after the US election. Whether Trump or Biden wins, little change should be expected when it comes to the US approach in Syria since the room for maneuvering is limited—even though a Biden administration might be more keen to attempt to reach a resolution to the conflict rather than to sustain US sanctions only.
What Do Iraq and Iran Expect from the Election?
Abdulwahab Al-Qassab, Visiting Scholar, ACW
Iraq and Iran are two pivotal Middle Eastern countries whose strategic ties have vast influence in the region. Their current relations are impacted by historical developments and tensions as well as by the fact that Iraq is part of the Arab world.
The main reason for the current stress in trilateral relations between Iraq, Iran, and the United States is a relationship between Iran and the United States that has deteriorated considerably. Another reason is the delicate relationship between Iraq’s political factions and the militias in the country that are friendly to Iran.
Iran is commonly known for its political maneuverability, a fact that will help in pursuing appropriate relations with the winning candidate. Iran was contented with the Obama presidency, perhaps because Obama and his second-term Secretary of the State John Kerry had a realistic political approach toward the Iranian nuclear issue, which constituted the main reason for stress in bilateral relations. Obama and Kerry reasoned that they could end the nuclear stalemate by bribing Iran, which is what happened when Obama freed $160 billion in Iranian assets. Unfortunately, this helped Iran in tightening its grip on several Arab countries, including Iraq. Upon entering the White House, Trump embarked on a different path and decided to end the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and exert maximum pressure on Iran to force it back to the negotiating table for a better agreement. Iran knows that Biden is not Obama, so it does not expect a honeymoon if he wins. Tehran understands that it has to be realistic and deal with the issues as best it can no matter who wins the presidency.
How Do the Gulf States and Yemen See the US Election?
Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis, ACW
The traditional relationship between the Gulf Arab states and the United States is not expected to see much change based on who wins the current round of the US presidential election. To be sure, Gulf leaders count on this relationship to help their stability, military strength, and economic prosperity, although they have also succeeded in diversifying their foreign relations to include other powers such as China, Russia, India, the European states, and others. However, some in the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, may prefer a Trump win for at least three reasons: the president’s very cordial personal relationships with their leaders; his initial siding with them when they boycotted Qatar in June 2017, until he was convinced otherwise by his political and military advisors; and his hard-line policy on Iran, a regional power they believe should be vigorously confronted. Importantly, the rulers in Saudi Arabia may view Biden as anathema because he represents the Democratic Party, which they perceive has not been kind to them over the last few years. Indeed, the approach of Biden’s party regarding Saudi Arabia is informed by the kingdom’s domestic autocratic policy, persecution of the opposition, and war in Yemen, which has contributed to the humanitarian disaster in that country. Riyadh also believes that Biden might limit American weapons supplies, just as the kingdom is involved in the Yemen war and in facing Iran.
On the other hand, while they can deal successfully with either candidate, it appears that Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman may prefer Biden, who has advocated a diplomatic and less confrontational policy in the Gulf. They also may have more hope that Biden––as a representative of traditional American foreign policy––will use his office and US institutions more aggressively and purposefully to help resolve the Gulf crisis that is at the heart of division among the Gulf states. In fact, their bet may be on a more engaged US government that can rebuild a more systematic and dedicated approach to Gulf problems, including those with Iran.
As for Yemen, there does not appear to be a clear position. Dependent on Saudi Arabia’s financial assistance and influence, the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi may have no choice but to hope for a Trump win. Hadi may see an advantage in the United States’ continued weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia, which uses them to try to weaken his Houthi opponents. As for the Houthis, they are unlikely to advocate for renewing Trump’s term because of his hard-line policy toward Iran. However, this does not necessarily mean that they consider Biden a friendly US president because it is doubtful that the former vice president would accept their illegitimate usurpation of power in Sanaa.
What Does Egypt Expect from the US Election?
Khalil al-Anani, Senior Fellow, ACW
Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi was the first world leader to congratulate President Donald Trump on his electoral victory on November 9, 2016. Four years later Sisi, alongside other Arab autocrats, seems to be worried about the possibility of Trump not winning a second term. Since 2017, the two presidents have built a strong relationship to the extent that Trump called Sisi his “favorite dictator,” embracing him politically and ignoring his brutal violations of human rights. Therefore, Egypt’s Sisi is anxious about the outcome of the US presidential election; to be sure, the reelection of or the election of former Vice President Joe Biden could have a significant impact on the political situation in Egypt.
A key reason for this anxiety is related to Cairo’s appalling record on human rights and the fear of its impact on the relationship with a Biden administration. Last July, Biden lambasted Egypt’s violations of human rights and warned Sisi of “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator’.” It is expected that a Biden administration might revitalize the focus on democracy in the Middle East, which will have an impact on some of the United States’ regional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. However, this is not to suggest that the relationship between Washington and Cairo will witness a dramatic shift if Biden were elected. In fact, Sisi’s coup of July 3, 2013 happened under former President Barak Obama’s watch, when Biden was serving as vice president. Sisi might rather become hesitant and more restrained before committing more human rights violations. In addition, US military aid to Egypt, which is around $1.3 billion annually, might be affected under a Biden administration if Cairo continued its violations of human rights, particularly against the liberal and secular opposition.
How Israelis and Palestinians Assess the US Elections
Jonathan Kuttab, Nonresident Fellow, ACW
Israeli reactions to the US elections are clear. By a margin of 70% to 13%, Israeli Jews prefer Trump to Biden. Trump has not only shown clear bias toward Israel, as all US administrations have, but he has placed some of the most right-wing Israel sympathizers in positions of decision-making and granted their wishes in utter disregard of international law, US interests and historical policy, and certainly Arab and Palestinian sentiments. While Biden and Harris are clearly strong supporters of Israeli interests, they lack the utter foolishness of Trump as he abandoned all pretense at evenhandedness and any lip service to traditional wisdom. In fact, he went beyond Israel’s expectations in his support for annexation, refusing to criticize further settlement expansion, and crafted a “peace plan” that exceeded the wishes of all but the most rabid of Israeli right-wing settlers. This was in stark contrast to the views of American Jews who overwhelmingly supported Biden over Trump (77% to 21%) in the election.
Palestinians, however, had mixed reactions. While the majority sided with the Palestinian Authority in considering Trump to be an utter disaster and hoped to see him out of office, many Palestinians correctly pointed out that both Biden and Harris had been among the strongest supporters of American Israel Public Affairs Committee and of Israel and could hardly be expected to change their positions. The expectation is that at best, a Biden administration would revert to traditional US positions, restore some of the funding for UNRWA and USAID programs, and may even reopen the PLO office in Washington. This administration would then revert to pressuring the Palestinians for more concessions as they restart a clearly defunct process of interminable “negotiations” while the occupation solidifies its gains. In other words, it will simply be restoring the fig leaf but not changing US policy in any significant way.
What Impact Will the Winner’s Identity Mean for Domestic Issues in the United States?
Yousef Munayyer, Nonresident Senior Fellow, ACW
As the vote stands now, the winner of the White House will likely lead a nation facing tremendous political deadlock for at least two years. Should Biden win narrowly, which seems probable at this moment with some votes still outstanding, he appears poised to lead a government with a divided legislature. The House of Representatives will remain in Democratic hands, but narrowly so, as Democrats failed to extend their lead and instead lost a few seats. The Senate seems likely to stay in Republican hands, although it might change after two Senate run-off elections in Georgia that will take place on January 5th. The importance of that outcome cannot be overstated. For Biden, it would mean the difference between having a cooperative or obstructionist legislature; to be sure, without legislative cooperation he would have significant limitations. Ironically, an obstructionist legislature, led by a Republican-held Senate, could create the conditions where a Biden White House might prioritize some foreign policy agenda items in which the executive has more leeway to act independently. Even if the Democratic Party managed to win the Senate narrowly, the very slim election margin this year will have many Democrats apprehensive about 2022’s midterm elections (which traditionally hurt the party in power). They may face a choice between engaging in deep partisan fights to advance a semblance of a domestic political agenda and prioritizing election prospects in competitive districts. The House Democratic leadership will have its work cut out for it.
In addition, the role of the courts comes into major focus. The direction of the Supreme Court shifted significantly during the Trump Administration and norms around the court and the judicial selection process have been shattered, likely irrevocably. Democrats will have to navigate around what will likely be a hostile Supreme Court, but they might also have to figure out how they can advance any domestic political agenda now that the option of expanding the court to balance it seems all but dashed, along with their hopes of a Senate majority.
Joe Biden might narrowly defeat Donald Trump in a hard-fought nail-biter of an election, but given what seems to await Democrats when it comes to governance, they may well look back at defeating Trump as the easy part.
What Will the Winner’s Relationship with Congress Be Like?
Marcus Montgomery, Congressional Resident Fellow, ACW
As it stands today, the Democratic Party could quite plausibly win control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and perhaps even the US Senate. However, it appears more likely that Democrats will secure the presidency while overseeing a narrower House majority than they had before the election. The party’s path to securing a Senate majority is looking less and less clear, even considering that a 50-50 tie would result in a Democratic majority if Joe Biden is elected president, since his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris (D-California), would be able to cast tie-breaking votes on legislation in the upper chamber.
The reality is sinking in among political pundits that Washington will see at least two more years of divided government in which Republicans and Democrats both control some parts of the executive and legislative branches. Regardless of the winner of the presidential election, the next president will have a complicated, and likely contentious, relationship with Congress. A Biden administration with a friendly Democratic House majority will undoubtedly clash with the likely Senate majority led by newly reelected Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky).
It is also possible that President Donald Trump reverses the current vote trend and secures enough Electoral College votes to win reelection. In this scenario, the first half of his new term would be similar to his first four-year term, during which Democrats control the House and Republicans are in charge of the Senate—though both by thinner margins.
As the business community is already wagering, the likelihood of a divided Congress all but assures gridlock in Washington, preventing a Biden administration from doing anything substantive and essentially locking in the past few years’ status quo. A divided Congress also significantly increases the likelihood of government shutdowns due to failures to properly finance the federal budget. However, in the most likely scenario—Democratic control of the White House and the House of Representatives, with the Senate controlled by Republicans—Washington will not see some of the most contentious of political warfare such as what happened with President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the House.