The Middle East Between Biden’s Rock and Republican’s Hard Place
Since before the congressional midterm elections in the United States, observers in the Middle East have been wondering about their influence on the future of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy in the region. However, parallel to this, an equally important question should be asked about the potential impact of the Middle East countries’ policies on the future of the U.S. Administration of President Biden.
The latest vote counting shows that the Republicans are closer to taking over the House of Representatives from the Democrats, who have been leading it since 2019. Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to split between the two parties or, in the best-case scenario, fall into the lap of Democrats who could win with a slight majority. In the shadow of the extreme political polarization that the United States has been drowning in for five years, it is valid to predict that the Republicans in Congress will be more hawkish, not on Russia or China, but on President Biden and his government.
Logically speaking, they should exert every effort possible to further lower Biden’s already declining approval ratings, in order to pave the way for their presidential candidate in the 2024 elections, whether they choose to nominate Trump or someone else. This week, former President Donald Trump officially announced his bid for leading the Republicans in the coming presidential elections, building on the Republican comeback to controlling the lower house of the U.S. Congress. Meanwhile, Biden’s citizen approval rating is declining and his Administration's relationship with Middle Eastern allies is still relatively tense.
Biden has exerted a remarkable effort to ease tensions with allies in the Arab Gulf region by paying a visit to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem in the summer. For the first time, President Biden clearly admitted that his initial policy “to pivot away from the Middle East had been a mistake.” He told the officials in Saudi Arabia that “as the world grows more competitive and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me that – how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the successes of the Middle East. We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran. And we’ll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”
However, it did not take too long for the tensions to rise again when OPEC+ decided to lower production volume in October. The Biden Administration and Democratic legislators saw this as an attempt to weaken their position in midterm elections and vowed to take revenge on Saudi Arabia.
Building on historical experience, some could claim that a Republican-led Congress should be more favorable to Arab Gulf countries in contrast to Biden’s Administration. Most Arab Gulf countries, and Middle East countries in general, had a strong relationship with the Republican party and the Trump Administration. However, this is hardly going to be the case with the Congress members who will take the lead after the completion of midterm elections.
Looking closer at the fabric of the elected congressional legislators, we will discover that a record number of 82 Muslim candidates have been voted in, on both the red and the blue seats. That is good news for American democracy, but, certainly, a headache for the Middle East leaders, not only in the Arab Gulf but also in Egypt and Israel. The aggressive stance of Muslim Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib against Saudi Arabia and Israel are still solid. Both of them kept their seats throughout the midterm elections. The current tensions between the Biden Administration and the Saudi-led OPEC+ organization over the volumes of oil production are creating a fertile ground for such congressional pressures to grow and be more effective.
The Muslim representatives are also expected to give a hard time to Israel, especially in light of the re-election of Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Historically, Netanyahu had tensions with Democratic presidents compared to his warm connections with the Republican presidents. However, it would be unrealistic to expect that the newly voted congress, despite being led by a Republican majority, will be as supportive of Israel’s interests as the previous ones.
One exception to that scenario is a strong congressional position against Iran. Most likely they will halt Biden’s talks with Tehran over the nuclear deal and show stronger support for the waves of protests that have been sweeping the country for more than a month calling for the fall of the Mullah regime. That will eventually serve the interests of the Arab Gulf countries and Israel, however indirectly.
The United States foreign policy, in general, is one of the areas where the political conflict between the Democratic president and the Republican-majority House is going to manifest. A Republican-led Congress has the power to obstruct the government’s activities abroad, due to its control over foreign spending appropriations, which intersects with decisions related to the budget of the Pentagon and the State Department, and the foreign aid or contributions they can offer to other countries. For example, Republican candidates have been talking about reviewing the size of U.S. military aid to Ukraine and the level of U.S. involvement in the war in Eastern Europe.
Such a review will not only affect the balance of power in the Russia-Ukraine war but will also have an indirect impact on countries in the Middle East. Important U.S. allies, such as Egypt, are expected to be hurt in the process, mainly due to their vulnerable economic standing in face of the ongoing global economic crisis. A Republican Congress may, also, question the annual military aid to Egypt and delay its payment. Yet, they will not do this for reasons related to the Egyptian state's performance on human rights issues, as the Democrats do.
They will simply do it to disturb the newly found balance in the relationship between Biden’s Administration and the Egyptian leadership of President El-Sisi. Before leaving office in December 2020, former President Trump, out of nowhere and despite his friendly relationship with the Egyptian President, made a video statement accusing Egypt of using the military aid money offered by the United States to purchase Russian-made weapons. Several republicans applauded him for saying that. Obviously, Trump’s goal was mainly to make it more difficult for the Biden Administration to start on a good foot with Egypt.
In the past year, the Biden Administration has been trying to find a point of balance in its relationship with Egypt, between pressuring for human rights reforms and collaborating on solving regional strategic impasses. Right now, Egypt is America's best buddy among all the Arab countries, especially after recent tensions with OPEC+ leadership. It is in the best interest of Egypt and the United States to remain strong partners.
That was clearly exhibited in the warm conversations that President Biden and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, had with the Egyptian President in Sharm El-Sheikh, last week. The photos of President El-Sisi laughing with US President Biden and walking arm-in-arm with U.S. House Speaker, Pelosi, down the aisle of the COP27 Summit, created a positive roar on social and traditional media.
However, soon, Pelosi will hand the gavel to the House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Biden will get too busy with handling Republican pressures on his government, marking the beginning of a new era of two years or more, that may not be so favorable to most countries in the Middle East.
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