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Why Biden's Middle East policy should focus on human rights

Why Biden's Middle East policy should focus on human rights

A Biden administration won’t be able to force Arab autocracies to change, but focusing on this issue will make them very uncomfortable.

Analysis | Middle East

On the second anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s death at the hands of Saudi assassins, former Vice President Joe Biden has made his sentiments clear. “We will,” he declared, “reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” But if elected, Biden will have to wrestle with some inconvenient realities that will hinder translating these bold words into policy. 

These factors include the tenacity of Arab autocracies, a strategic Middle East map that has created tighter synergies between these regimes, and, of course, Israel. Given this map, what kind of feasible reforms might a Biden administration foster? While he is unlikely to have the means or will to push pro-U.S. Arab autocracies to democratize, there is a compelling case for ensuring that human rights is given pride of place in any wider U.S. Middle East policy. 

Authoritarian resilience and strategic realities

Biden appears to support a Liberal Realist vision of U.S. foreign policy that is likely animated by his conviction that the revival of democracy at home and abroad is fundamental to U.S. security interests. Thus his foreign policy team has promised that during his first year, “President Biden will…host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World.” 

But the Arab world is a very different kettle of fish. With few exceptions, it is in fact a very unfree world dominated by pro-U.S. Arab leaders who are very unlikely to attend the summit that Biden and his advisers envision.

The tenacity of Arab autocracies was tested by the 2011 Arab revolts. But in the ensuing years, the region has seen the rise of a club of ambitious autocrats who are backed by powerful security machines. Yet these regimes are not one-leader despotisms that rely solely on force. Even power hungry leaders such as Egypt’s Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s MbS have coalitions that are linked to different groups and interests. By providing these groups protection and patronage, Arab rulers have kept them divided but also reliant on the leader’s “good will.”

Thus while recent surveys show widespread support for democracy, groups such as Shia in Kuwait, secular professionals, and politicians in Egypt, or secular and Islamist leaders in Bahrain’s Sunni minority, are wary of abandoning their protectors. These battered protection racket systems endure, thus helping regimes deter external pressures for political reforms.

The emergence of a regional entente that is led by the UAE and Saudi Arabia has strengthened Arab autocracies. While fueled by fear of Iran, this entente is animated by a quest to undermine governments in which Sunni Islamists wield power. A Biden administration will have to work with this alliance even as it tries to reengage with Iran. It will do so because it provides a framework for enhancing security and economic coordination between Israel and the Gulf states and because China and Russia are trying to leverage this entente to expand their influence.

Given these realities, Biden will avoid clashing with Gulf leaders, including MbS. This does not mean that he will renege on his pledge to end U.S. support for the Yemen war. But Biden is likely to pursue this policy by nudging rather than confronting Arab Gulf leaders.

Defining feasible democracy assistance in a Biden administration 

Despite these constraints, there is room for creative thinking about strategies for promoting feasible political change. But this will require greater analytical precision than has been thus far  suggested by Biden’s own inspiring if vague language.

Feasibility requires two things: giving regimes — and their supporters — a compelling incentive to foster or permit political reforms; and using U.S. leverage to prod Arab autocrats forward. Both objectives require carefully accessing where and how to push for viable changes. But so far, Biden and his team have tossed out a bunch of goals and terms that are subject to various interpretations, thus creating the potential for confusion about what it really wants from pro-U.S. Arab autocracies and their leaders.

After all, democracy, democratic values and human rights are related but distinct projects. The first requires an elaborate network of institutions, laws, and social conditions — and the political will of rival leaders to negotiate. As to democratic values, while polls show that most citizens of Arab states endorse them, when it comes to implementing such norms, there is often little consensus within society and ample regime capacity to exploit the fears of their constituencies to sustain their rule.

Thus, celebrating democratic values is not hard. But it is quite another thing to create programs and policies that give leaders and their supporters compelling incentives to risk even modest changes in the rules and institutions of authoritarian governance.

By contrast,  as the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Right shows, the term “human rights” carries with it a global message of freedom and personal dignity that is not reducible to any culture or religion, or to one particular type of government. Recent surveys show that when defined in terms of basic freedoms or protection from illegal state violence, there is strong support for human rights. Such sentiments could provide an opening for Washington to make the case to its Arab allies that they should eliminate human rights violations, and, in doing so, establish a modicum of broader legitimacy.

Refocusing on human rights

A new Biden administration should make this case. Indeed, if during his first year Biden wants to project a revitalized diplomacy to the Middle East and wider international community, he should host a Global Human Rights Summit. Such a summit will display his commitment to restoring U.S. leadership under the umbrella of a reawakened multilateralism. 

This call will be widely heard by Arab leaders, their constituencies and, of course, their beleaguered oppositions. It will resonate because human rights abuses have , thus disrupting many aspects of everyday life for citizens and elites, not to mention the plans of Arab regimes.

Leaders such as Sisi or MbS have wagered that the international community will ignore their abuses if they can show progress on “non-political” changes such as market reforms. But the climate of fear these regimes have created — deepened by the COVID-19 crisis — has disrupted such ambitions. Indeed, the argument that the benefits of economic reform outweigh the “unfortunate” costs of rights violations is an ugly excuse for tolerating intolerable practices.  

These abuses include the use of arbitraryanti-terrorism” laws, courts, and prisons as tools of repression. It is easy to condemn Iran for such policies, but quite another to assail pro-U.S. Arab governments for similar abuses.. Egypt has some 60,000 political prisoners, far more than the Islamic Republic of Iran. In early October 2020, 15 political prisoners were executed in Egypt’s Scorpion prison. Saudi Arabia has used prisons to sicken or kill its critics. These are institutional policies that are part and parcel of the system of rule.

A U.S.-led campaign by Western governments to push Arab leaders to end such outrages will only put a small dent in that system, but it could save lives and prevent needless suffering. Moreover, it could give voice to the lonely efforts of political veterans, such as Egypt’s Mohammed Anwar Sadat who was expelled from the parliament in 2017 for assailing the regime’s abuses. Arab leaders who maintain ties to ruling coalitions but who favor political reforms could deliver a powerful message; namely, that policies of fear, intimidation and repression are corroding the bond between regimes and their societies.

Benefits and limits of a rights approach

Such a strategy will have limits. Washington’s ties to Arab leaders give it leverage, but within boundaries set by the resolve of Arab regimes to survive. Still, a mix of quiet bilateral diplomacy and louder multilateral action could embarrass and discomfort human rights abusers in ways that could prove far more effective than U.S. threats to impose “conditionality.” A Biden White House could also get an assist from several Washington-based Arab human rights NGOs, such as DAWN and the Freedom Initiative which are pushing Congress to pursue a rights-based policy.

A rights strategy will also send a strong signal to illiberal leaders of “democratic” governments that they no longer have a welcome mat at the White House. Victor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, has praised Trump for opposing the “moral imperialism” of the Democrats. But there is nothing imperialistic about championing universal values so long as a Biden administration advocates for human rights even as it pursues America’s security and geo-strategic interests. 

Abdullah al-Khawlani puts roses on the grave of his son, Waleed, who was killed in a Saudi-led air strike that killed dozens including children in Saada, Yemen, in September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma|
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