Voices from the Arab Press: Will Biden keep US forces in Iraq?

A weekly selection of the opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

KURDISH OFFICERS attend a distribution ceremony of military aid by the US Army to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, in Erbil, Iraq, last November (photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
KURDISH OFFICERS attend a distribution ceremony of military aid by the US Army to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, in Erbil, Iraq, last November
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
Al-Mada, Iraq, December 27
As attacks against the US Embassy in Iraq continue to unfold, US authorities are looking for ways to minimize the damage inflicted upon their assets and personnel in the country.
According to several sources, the Trump administration is seriously considering shutting down the embassy and returning all US personnel to the States. This move has been regularly discussed throughout the past year and, until recently, the central government in Baghdad was able to persuade the White House to not take such a drastic step.
The reason for the renewed conversation around the issue is the series of attacks that took place last week. Granted, the biggest beneficiary of a US withdrawal from Iraq would be Iran, which maintains de facto influence and power over the country. Even though both Turkey and Saudi Arabia would like to expand their influence over Baghdad, Iran enjoys the advantage of having already established a strong foothold in the country. However, with the continuous reduction of US forces in Iraq, one can only expect a further intensification of regional and international competition over Iraq.
The reduction of American personnel in Iraq will push Baghdad to seek an alliance with other external powers that can support it both politically and economically, including actors like China and Russia. Further concrete steps to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq will likely encourage armed militias to step in and take their place. Iraqi factions hostile to the United States, including militias backed by Iran, are working to accelerate this withdrawal by launching attacks and increasing the cost of the American presence in the country – a strategy that achieved considerable successes in the period leading up to the US withdrawal in 2011.
American experts believe that President-elect Joe Biden will seek to reduce the American presence in Iraq due to long-term domestic political pressures and shift the focus of foreign policy toward other arenas, such as China and Russia. This, in turn, will create opportunities for regional actors, especially Iran, to extend their influence in Iraq.
On the other hand, the Biden administration has the option of turning a new page in Iraq, and some experts suggest that the new president will decide to maintain boots on the ground. The Trump administration helped Iraq complete its campaign to regain all the lands that were captured by the Islamic State. Unlike Trump, Biden will face a weak ISIS that no longer controls significant territory and doesn’t pose a grave threat to the stability of Iraq. But Biden already has made it clear that he plans on reducing military confrontation with Iranian-backed militias in Iraq as part of a broader policy he adopts, aimed at reducing the level of tension with Tehran.
This American view of Iraq as a regional partner in combating terrorism means that he won’t withdraw US forces from the country completely. The Biden administration understands the potential risks in the event of a final US withdrawal from Iraq, and will seek to avoid this by maintaining a limited military presence in the country.
– Dr. Faleh Alhamrani
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Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 30
A massive wave of videos, text and audio messages has flooded people in Saudi Arabia in recent days, warning them of the COVID-19 vaccines, questioning their efficacy and suggesting that they are dangerous to human subjects. Unfortunately, these messages have managed to increase widespread doubts about the vaccination campaign, especially since this topic is already thorny and contentious among different segments of the population.
Meanwhile, medical experts and scholars have been slow to take to the public stage to diffuse rumors regarding the vaccine, since they are busy tending to overcrowded hospitals and clinics or conducting cutting-edge research that would help slow down the spread of the disease. All of this contributed to a rather distorted public perception of the COVID-19 vaccination.
Make no mistake: these campaigns are far from spontaneous. They are organized for political, economic and commercial reasons. They are part of the battle over money and influence. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Saudi Arabia has taken strict precautionary measures to curb the spread of the pandemic and allocated significant budgets to fight it. Indeed, it is one of the first countries to launch a vaccination campaign and to provide it for free to its citizens and residents.
Health Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah set an example by being the first one to receive the Pfizer vaccine, followed by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, in addition to a host of ministers, government officials and members of the Royal House. Can anyone really imagine that an unsafe vaccine would have been administered to Saudi Arabia’s most senior officials, including the Crown Prince?
Every person has the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate. It is up to each individual citizen to allay his or her concerns or fears with rigorous scientific inquiry and reliable medical information. However, it is completely illogical, irresponsible and irrational for people to listen to unsubstantiated rumors and form a decision on the vaccine on the basis of fake news. Without an effective vaccination campaign, thousands of additional Saudi families will be affected by the crisis.
Awareness is the basis for action and, without it, we will be unable to overcome this pandemic. The most important thing we can do as a nation is make sure that correct and reliable information is made available to the public, to encourage a widespread uptake of the vaccine.
– Hassan Al-Mustafa
Al-Etihad, UAE, December 30
There is no doubt that 2020 was one of the most difficult years humanity faced in decades. It is the year in which the world suffered from the worst health crisis it ever faced, causing fundamental transformations in all areas of life and revealing the lack of international cooperation.
 While there is a state of optimism that this pandemic will soon end given the several vaccines developed, the emergence of new and more contagious strains of the virus have sparked a state of anxiety and fear around the world, forcing many countries to return to complete lockdowns.
The COVID-19 pandemic cast a shadow over the nature of the challenges and risks facing the world during 2020, which centered around conflict between major powers, especially the US, Russia and China. Further, the difficult economic and social conditions resulting from the repercussions of COVID-19, especially in conflict areas, provided an opportunity for extremist organizations to regroup and resume their terrorist activities, taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the virus.
These challenges and risks are likely to continue in the year 2021. The coronavirus, as is evident from the developments of the past days, is spreading at an accelerating rate in many countries around the world. Given the fact that most countries will not receive the vaccine in upcoming months, the pandemic is here to stay even in 2021. Economically, forecasts issued by international financial institutions indicate that many countries of the world will continue to deal with a crisis in the new year as well – especially given the decline in global economic growth rates and the potential exacerbation of problems like food security, poverty and unemployment in many countries of the world.
In light of these conditions, the stalemate in the status of many regional and international crises and conflicts may continue to persist in 2021, due to the international community’s preoccupation with confronting the pandemic. This will be true especially in the Middle East. Although most future scenarios indicate that 2021 will not differ much from 2020, both in terms of risks and challenges, there are some expectations that predict that the new year may bring about some positive opportunities, especially after the swearing-in of the Biden administration.
These opportunities include returning to a multilateral approach in managing international crises and conflicts, strengthening the role of international organizations, reducing tension between the United States, Russia and China, and international cooperation in producing vaccines.
As 2020 comes to an end, one can only hope that 2021 will bring about positive change: that security, peace and stability will prevail throughout the world in the new year; that conflicts and wars between countries will disappear; that tendencies of fanaticism, extremism, hatred and selfishness will end. Above all, that the coronavirus will finally disappear from our lives and allow us to return to dealing with other problems we’ve neglected for too long.
 – Youssef Al-Hadad
OIL IN 2020
Asharq Al-Awsat, London, December 29
The year 2020 was a unique year both economically and socially. More than 1.5 million people around the world died due to COVID-19. In the past year, the world went through repeated closures, lockdowns and quarantines without a clear sense of when the pandemic will be over. Many industries crashed. Others barely survived.
Demand for oil fell to a record low of 9.8 million barrels per day, forcing OPEC countries to reduce production by 7.7 million barrels. During the beginning of the pandemic, oil prices fell to minimal levels of about $30 a barrel, compared to $70-$80 before the pandemic. With the widespread rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations and the gradual return to international travel, the average price of oil is expected to slightly rise to about $45 a barrel in 2021, compared to an average of $41 in 2020.
The oil-producing countries faced two important challenges during the year 2020. The first is the decline in both demand and prices during the year. The second is the continuing challenge to the oil industry, with the rapid shift toward alternative energy sources.
There are also other challenges that are playing an important role in shaping demand, price and supply of oil. First, there is the growing economic role of China, and the trade disputes that have reduced trade and investment exchange between Washington and Beijing during US President Donald Trump’s tenure. Second, there is Joe Biden’s ability to make fundamental changes to his country’s environmental policy, and to restore the US’s participation in the Paris climate agreement. Biden has made several commitments to change on the climate front, and appointed important political figures to tackle this task. But implementing a policy to curb global warming will face domestic opposition in the United States.
– Walid Khadduri
Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.