Past Event

How will the 2020 presidential election shape U.S. policy in the Middle East?

Monday, November 02 - Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a joint webinar discussion together with the Arab Barometer on November 2, 2020 on how the presidential election will shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Discussion centered on public opinion across the region, the impact on specific countries including Gulf states, and the domestic situation in the United States. The panel consisted of a group of distinguished scholars and experts, including: Michael Robbins, director of the Arab Barometer; Maha Yahya, director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center; Samer Shehata, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma; and Tamara Cofman Wittes, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. Adel Abdel Ghafar, fellow at the BDC, moderated the event.

Michael Robbins started the discussion by introducing results from public opinion surveys recently conducted by Arab Barometer. This new wave of polling asked questions about U.S. favorability, finding that it is generally low across the region with an average of approximately 25 percent in most countries. Interestingly, youth are generally more favorable to the United States than older citizens. Regarding presidential candidates, on average, about 1 in 10 people polled answered that they favor President Donald Trump in the election, in comparison to a third responding that Vice President Joe Biden would have a better foreign policy. However, Robbins also highlighted how the poll showed passiveness regarding the election. For example, 40 percent of those polled in Lebanon said it does not matter who wins. Ultimately, Robbins stated that Trump is deeply unpopular in the Arab world and that his presidency has created a decline in sentiments toward the United States. About half of those polled in the MENA region said that Biden would be better for the Middle East or that it is unclear. Therefore, there is a chance that a Biden presidency will change attitudes of ordinary citizens.

Maha Yahya noted that the United States has lost its moral standing and interest in the Middle East. Instead, the Western nation has focused on certain red lines that should not be crossed including Israeli security and disruptions to oil. Next, Yahya outlined some key reasons behind the decline of the United States in the region. Firstly, she mentioned Trump’s precarious nature as a leader, demonstrated by his impulsive tweeting and abandonment of crucial allies. Secondly, she highlighted the recent agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain respectively, noting that these are transactional and will not pave the way for a more lasting peace. Yahya also discussed the implications for specific countries if Biden is elected. For instance, she emphasized his position against annexation in Palestine, however pointed out that it would be difficult to roll back the developments established by the Trump administration. In Syria, Yahya also sees a difficult position for Biden but noted that he might leverage existing troops to push for a political transition. She highlighted how the political situation in Lebanon has not improved despite massive protests and that the future will largely depend on negotiations between the United States and Iran. She concluded by stating that regardless of the outcome of the election, it will take several months until the region will see any tangible policy shifts.

Samer Shehata continued the discussion with a focus on four major points. Firstly, he underscored the seriousness of the current domestic situation in the United States and the unprecedented level of political polarization. Secondly, Shehata stated that the significant difference between Trump and Biden is that the latter will have a coherent foreign policy based on diplomacy and engagement instead of extortion and bribery. Thirdly, he discussed the implications of a Biden presidency on North Africa, and Egypt more specifically. While President Trump has hailed President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as his “favorite dictator,” Biden has expressed his support for the country’s demonstrators and will put public pressure on the government to prevent further human rights abuses. Finally, Shehata’s fourth point concerned the changing situation of the United States. The professor noted that if Biden comes to power, he will be inheriting a country exhausted by the impact of COVID-19 and that is struggling to address systemic racism. Therefore, it is most likely that the former vice president will focus his efforts on domestic matters. In addition, Shehata stated that Biden can still cooperate with Egypt and work on areas of overlapping interest. Finally, that the former vice president will take a stronger stance against Saudi Arabia and its violations of U.S. sovereignty, not to mention the kingdom’s disastrous interventionist policies in Yemen.

Tamara Cofman Wittes concentrated on the Gulf. She described it as the region where anxiety and tension regarding U.S. politics are the highest. She argued that this anxiety primarily stems from two sources. Firstly, Gulf states are unhappy with how the United States responded to the Arab uprisings. This created doubts concerning Washington’s commitment to regional security and, by extension, regime security. Secondly, the anxiety was compounded by the power competition within the region. Several actors have claimed a larger role in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Turkey and Russia. This power competition has been exacerbated by the inconsistent and unpredictable role of the United States. The lack of strategy in the region has been particularly detrimental to the Gulf states’ trust. Wittes introduced some key challenges for the coming president, namely how to continue protecting U.S. interests in the region while still addressing domestic concerns. She finished by discussing relations with Saudi Arabia and how Biden will likely initiate conversations regarding human rights. There have also been concerns in Washington regarding the kingdom’s violation of U.S. sovereignty, which will have to be dealt with by the new president.

In the subsequent question and answer session, panelists focused on the question of Palestine and Israel and Washington’s declining presence in the MENA region. Yahya noted that a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine is no longer a viable option but that Biden will most likely continue on this path. Wittes added that the challenge for the United States will be to build a new foundation for both sides to communicate. Shehata stated that if Biden is elected, he might continue in the path of facilitating normalization deals with other Arab countries. Yahya contended that due to the United States’ declining presence in the region, other nations have stepped in such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey. On this note, Wittes stated that the Middle East still matters to the United States, but that other regions matter more. Moreover, she expressed that the United States should rebalance its engagement with the region focusing more on diplomacy. Finally, Robbins noted that data shows citizens across the Arab world no longer feel the United States presents the biggest challenge to regional security.