Undermining the Middle East political order the Biden way

The new US administration is undoing the foreign policy successes of Trump in the Middle East either out of political spite or in service of a radical progressivist wing.

HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces. (photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)
HOUTHI FOLLOWERS stand by piles of Yemeni currency during a campaign in September to collect supplies for fighters battling government forces.
(photo credit: KHALED ABDULLAH/ REUTERS)
As if on cue, the Houthis fired drones and missiles at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry in the Ras Tanura hub on March 7, not much more than a month after Biden’s State Department revoked the Trump terrorist designation of the Houthis. Indeed, it was just a few days after the US revocation that the Houthis launched attacks on a civilian airport in Saudi Arabia’s southwestern province.
In September 2019, in an attack claimed by the Houthis, state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia were hit, knocking of about half of the kingdom’s oil production capacity for some weeks. Fortunately, the March 7 attack on the loading ports of Ras Tanura and Juaymah, which constitute the world’s largest oil export facility, accounting for an estimated 15% of global seaborne crude oil exports, did not stop loading operations. The Saudi energy ministry stated that there were no casualties or loss of property.
Not much more than a month into Biden’s presidency, it seems that the new US administration is undoing the foreign policy successes of Trump in the Middle East either out of sheer political spite or in service of a progressivist wing which includes an ingrained antisemitic strain (or both). Indeed, it would seem that Biden’s foreign policy team believes that everything the Trump administration did was necessarily wrong.  
Within days and weeks of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the US had raised tariffs on the UAE, withheld arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia,  revoked the “terrorist organization” designation imposed on the Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen by the previous Trump administration, appointed the same diplomats that negotiated the Obama 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to resume negotiations for a return to the deal, and published an intelligence report naming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as a key player in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Rather churlishly, the White House insisted that Biden would be speaking to the frail and aging King Salman as the appropriate “counterpart”, not the Crown Prince, who is the kingdom’s de facto ruler for all intents and purposes. (This, however, has not stopped Vice President Kamala Harris standing in for Biden on calls to foreign heads of state).  
On March 2, at the Nixon Seminar, former secretary of state and among the world’s foremost realpolitik strategists Henry Kissinger advised Biden to uphold the “brilliant” policy in Middle East geopolitics achieved under the Trump administration. He stated that the previous administration achieved two things in the Middle East with the Abraham Accords. “One, to separate the Palestinian problem from all of the other problems so that it did not become a veto over everything else”. Second, it lined up the Sunni states in actual or potential combination against Iran “that was developing a capacity to threaten them”. He added, “I think that this was a brilliant concept. We were just at the beginning of it.”

KHALED ABU TOAMEH, a veteran award-winning Arab journalist covering Palestinian affairs for nearly three decades, states baldly that “prominent Arab political analysts and commentators are dumbfounded that the Biden administration has chosen to appease Iran and Islamists instead of working with Washington’s traditional and long-time allies in the Arab world”. Syrian journalist Abduljalil Alsaeid  remarked even more pointedly that “the wing of former president Barack Obama among the Biden team considers itself in a state of hostility with Saudi Arabia... The Obama wing inside the ruling Democratic Party accepts the Iranian regime and turns a blind eye to Iran’s terrorism in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.”
Emad El Din Adeeb, an Egyptian businessman and well-known current affairs television show host, said that the Biden administration was “rewarding Iranian despotism while punishing Saudi Arabia.” And instead of containing Iranian revisionism in the region, Adeeb charges that “the Biden administration is seeking to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, lift sanctions, and release its assets while halting arms and spare parts shipments to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.” Translating from Arabic, Toameh cites Saudi journalist Hamood Abu Talib who accused the Biden administration of “handing out gifts to Iranian-backed terror groups while punishing its Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia”. He also mentions Zuhair Al-Harthi, another Saudi columnist writing in Al Arabiya, who expressed his concern that the Biden administration policy in the Middle East would be similar to Obama’s “capitulation.”
These comments by Arab intellectuals over the past few weeks can be multiplied, all expressing serious warnings about the trajectory and likely implications of Biden’s policies in the Middle East. It is indeed ironic that the Biden administration will bring about an unintended consequence in Middle East affairs: that of bringing Israel and the Gulf Sunni states into ever closer security alliances in a vastly altered regional geopolitical order.  
It is no surprise that the Israeli defense minister said recently that the country intends to develop a “special security arrangement” with new Gulf Arab allies who share common concerns about Iran. It is even less of a surprise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended Mossad chief Yossi Cohen’s term through June 2021. Cohen is a frequent traveler to Arab countries with which Israel had (or has after the Abraham Accords) no formal diplomatic relations over the past years. No doubt he will continue in his quest of being a key broker for Israeli relations with the Sunni states in the region, this time without the might of the US covering his back.    
The writer is visiting senior research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. He worked and lived in the Middle East for 15 years in the oil and gas sector. He is a regular Forbes contributor and has published op-eds in the South China Morning Post, Asia Times, Straits Times (Singapore), Business Times (Singapore), Business Standard (India), Far Eastern Economic Review and elsewhere.