Donald Trump made Saudi Arabia his first foreign destination as US president. He had been persuaded by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that Mohammed bin Salman, the young heir to the Saudi throne, was key to US policy in the Middle East and to Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Joe Biden, who became president-elect last week, has much more than the Middle East to think about. He will inherit a charged domestic agenda that includes a bungled response to the Covid-19 pandemic and its ravages to the US economy, as well as a country seething with racial and post-electoral tensions.
But so too did the incoming administration of Barack Obama, in which Mr Biden served as vice-president from 2008. And it spent three-quarters of its crisis management time on the region.
Leaders across the region expect that a Biden administration portends changes from the erratic and transactional Trump era to a more civil and multilateral way of doing business. The incoming president will be wary of US misadventures that demand resources and forces. Mr Biden supported the US-led 2003 Iraq invasion but opposed intervention in Libya in 2011. He may also want to avoid deepening the vacuum Mr Trump has left in menacing areas of the Middle East, into which Russia, Iran and Turkey have enthusiastically stepped.
There are several areas to watch. Most obviously, Mr Biden has pledged to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord Iran signed with the US and five world powers, provided Tehran comes back into compliance with its uranium enrichment limits.
Mr Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 but Mr Biden is surrounded by people who helped negotiate the detente and who are personally invested in reviving it. An outgoing Mr Trump may still try to poison the well by piling even more sanctions on Iran and its allies. Iran’s regional aggression was kept out of the original deal and will be very hard to address simultaneously.
While Mr Biden is a traditional pro-Israel Democrat, he will want to discourage the Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements that Mr Trump encouraged. To back such an annexation would legitimise land or power grabs elsewhere: by Russia (in Crimea and east Ukraine), Turkey (in northern Syria and north Cyprus), China (in Hong Kong) or India (in Kashmir).
Mr Biden and most of his party welcome the “normalisation” of relations between Israel and Arab states led by the United Arab Emirates. They would assuredly want to expand it, but not as a green light to unilateral annexation of occupied Palestinian land.
Mr Biden has also said he will reassess US policy towards Saudi Arabia, which last year he called a “pariah” for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Arms sales and human rights issues, as well as support for Prince Mohammed’s disastrous war in Yemen, will come under review. Mr Trump stood by the crown prince in 2018 but since then the prince’s reckless and aggressive style of governing has almost united the US Congress against him. The US is heavily invested in its 75-year alliance with the kingdom; less so in its headstrong king-in-waiting.
Another regional leader with the rare ability to forge bipartisan US consensus against him is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His serial deployment of military power from Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, to Syria, Iraq and Qatar, is colliding with American interests and allies. The indulgence Mr Trump showed has probably expired.
Again, unlike Mr Trump, Mr Biden is unlikely to refer to Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, the general who came to power in Egypt in a 2013 coup, as “my favourite dictator”. US policy towards Egypt zigzagged under the Obama administration, which acquiesced in the 2011 fall of President Hosni Mubarak and the brief rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington’s long view is that the annual $1.3bn US stipend for Egypt’s military is good value in terms of the security of the Suez Canal. That will not change, but attitudes towards unbridled autocracy may.
Last, a Biden administration is likely to take a sober view of its predecessor’s on-off withdrawal from Syria and Iraq. The US pullback in north-east Syria last October was not only a betrayal of its Kurdish allies against Isis and the trigger for a Turkish invasion. The huge risk of creating a vacuum in a chain of failed and failing states across the Levant, disputed between Sunni jihadis and Iran-backed Shia militias, would be perilous for any administration to ignore.
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