Inheriting Unfinished Revolutions: Biden’s Middle East Challenge

Vice President Joe Biden meeting Saudi Arabian officials in Riyadh, 2011/ Credit Getty Images. 

A Promising Middle East

When the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, it was difficult to imagine that the Middle East could never return to how it had been before his death. Having had his wheelbarrow and produce confiscated by the authorities and with little hope for finding another livelihood, Bouazizi’s experience resonated with millions weighed down by the strains of economic crises, youth unemployment and a deep distrust towards their leaders. His sacrifice connected disgruntled Arabs across borders and ignited region-wide uprisings in the following year with the aim of consolidating democratic systems of government that might finally be responsive to the unmet needs of their citizens. 

In Syria, protestors chanted “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one,” emphasizing that regardless of their religion, ethnicity or political affiliation, the Syrian people were united with one voice. In Yemen, the parliamentary opposition to President Ali Abdullah Saleh put aside its ideological differences to form a robust political coalition that included Islamists, socialists and Ba’athists, resulting in the leader’s eventual removal. With the swift abdication of Tunisian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, the popular character of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions confirmed that political transformation was obtainable. The efforts of former rulers’ generation-long propaganda about their citizens’ political immaturity and sectarian division was proven to be a fantasy, as communities demonstrated they could exist beyond the confines of having to choose between dictatorships or Islamist mobs. The arrival of a ‘New Middle East’ appeared to have come.

That is what was hoped for at least. 

Protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring Credit/ Reuters.

As of this writing, the prospects for the Middle East have rarely looked more grim. The civil wars that emerged in Syria, Libya and Yemen only a few years after the peaceful protests continue to rage without a viable political solution in sight, whilst in Iraq the remnants of the ‘Islamic State’ are reorganizing to revive the horrors of their barbaric rule. The once held hope that the Middle East had overcome religious divisions has been severely rebutted as Islamic Sunni and Shia identities come to the forefront of many Arab’s conception of their place in society. This turmoil and polarization have left the region overwhelmed with war torn failing states and large portions of their populations destitute or forced to join a refugee crisis where millions attempt a desperate search to find any kind of normal life. 

For the oncoming government of US President-elect Joe Biden, it would be completely understandable if it chose to continue the previous administration’s attempts in untangling the United States from this chaos, but such a decision would be premature and ultimately a tragedy for the peoples of the Middle East, as a second ‘Arab Spring’ is looming.

A Second Arab Spring?

The swift timing and scale of the 2011 uprisings reveal that these revolutions were not a sudden eruption out of nowhere, fading as quickly as they appeared. Instead, they should be seen as but one visible moment in a decades-long struggle to restructure regional politics. Where the death of Mohamed Bouazizi served to unify these dissatisfied elements among Arab communities into a popular movement, the Coronavirus pandemic will most likely do the same.

Having left no Middle Eastern society untouched, the virus has only further highlighted the limited effectiveness of the region’s autocratic regimes, with the stifling economic and social conditions that drove the 2011 protests increasing. Growth rates have plummeted across the region and six million jobs have been lost, with unemployment rates in countries like Iran and Jordan expected to reach fifteen and twenty percent respectively. 

Despite regional autocrats projecting an air of confidence, their utilization of increased violence and repression in recent years should be seen as a sign of weakness rather than strength. These governments have not addressed the underlying problems that drove the uprisings in the first place – and in many cases, have made them worse. This year’s Arab youth Survey found that a majority of young Arabs in crisis-wrecked countries support anti-government protests and nearly half of all young Arabs were considering leaving their countries entirely. Even before Arab autocrats were able to utilize the pandemic to further their power, popular efforts to resolve these concerns emerged at the end of 2019, with protests occurring in places like Algeria and Iran, locations that did not join the original founders of the 2011 revolutions. 

2019 Protests in Algeria demanding an end to governmental corruption/ credit Reuters.

Although the pandemic has prevented these feelings from surfacing into action, it is not feasible for regional governments to suppress these issues indefinitely. The conditions which drove the protests at the start of the decade have only intensified and their prior experience of government repression will likely make future attempts to finalize the dream of a ‘New Middle East’ more forceful and vengeful than prior ones. 

Between Alliance and Democracy

For the Biden administration, these oncoming challenges will place the nature of the United States’ relationship with the region under strain, as Washington will be forced to choose between its aspirations for Arab democracy and the reality of its alliances with anti-democratic regimes. On the campaign trail for the 2020 presidential election, Biden spoke of returning the country’s diplomatic posture to a state of normalcy and reemphasizing the importance of alliances. For European and Asian allies, the strengthening of such bonds in furthering normative values like democracy and the rule of law are a welcome return, but its implication is less clear for Washington’s partnerships in the Middle East. 

The United States shares no values with the monarchies of the Gulf or nationalist military regimes like Egypt’s. Although there are certainly high degrees of military cooperation, intelligence sharing and proclamations of eternal friendship, they do not share a diagnosis of the region’s problems or even core national interests. If ‘alliance’ includes a basic form of shared values, interests and policy preferences, then it is clear Biden has no real allies in the Middle East at all. 

The oncoming administration’s decision to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen and offer tough words against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s poor human rights records are steps in the right direction to helping alleviate the region’s turmoil. However, for Biden to truly help promote a transformation of the region’s unstable reality, he must ultimately unshackle the U.S. from its overdependent alliance system with regional governments. 

This will be no easy decision and many in Washington’s foreign policy establishment will certainly choose to remain within the parameters of working with established ‘moderate’ Arab autocracies in the pursuit of stability over dreams of democratic transformation. During his time as vice president to Barack Obama, Biden did just that by offering an arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth US$115 billion – the largest in the two countries’ seventy year bilateral relationship. 

Vice President Biden with Jordanian military officials/ credit Getty Images.

But the benefits of working alongside them in pursuit of U.S. interests is a dead end, as leading Gulf States have actively undermined virtually every dimension of American policy towards the region. During Biden’s tenure as Vice President, the U.S.’ supposed allies subverted its attempts to usher in genuine democracy in Egypt by financing the military coup that ended it, vigorously opposed efforts at a nuclear deal with Iran and poured weapons into Syria as Washington sought to demilitarize the conflict and look for a negotiated agreement. When this is combined with Washington’s declining energy dependency on the Middle East and its strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the idea of reducing ties with the region’s powers should be placed under review again. 

The Middle East that Biden will inherit in January 2021 is a much different place than it was a decade ago. Sectarian divisions have become more pronounced and the region’s economic and social conditions have worsened, all exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. But the same underlying currents that drove the 2011 uprisings persist today and are set to unravel, with the virus likely to provide its unifying momentum. If Biden remains firm to his campaign pledge to promote democratic values abroad and to help relieve the plight of the millions like Mohamed Bouazizi, he must work from the helm of the post-COVID Middle East. This will require him to quickly accept that he will find no support from regional ‘allies,’ who have repeatedly opposed previous attempts. The pieces of the unfinished revolutions are in motion and the transition to a New Middle East will not wait. 



Kester Abbott is a Graduate student in Global Affairs and Policy at Yonsei GSIS. Before coming to Seoul, he received a first-class honours degree in History from University College London, where he developed his interest in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East; regions where the relationship between historical issues and the present are intimately intertwined. He currently works as a research and policy assistant on North Korean affairs at the East Asia Institute.

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