Corporate Meeting

Young Professionals Briefing: U.S. Policy in the Middle East: Presidential Priorities and What to Expect

Wednesday, November 18, 2020
Egyptians wearing face masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic attend Friday prayers at the mosque of al-Imam al-Shafi in the cemetery district of Historic Cairo, Egypt AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/Reuters
Catherine E. Herrold

Associate Professor, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University

Amy Austin Holmes

Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

David Linfield

International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Mustafa M. Siddiqui

Senior Managing Director, Blackstone

Corporate Program Young Professionals Briefing

SIDDIQUI: Thank you very much. I'm Mustafa Siddiqui, senior managing director at Blackstone. I'd like to introduce our panelists and thank them for joining us. We have Catherine Herrold, associate professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University. Amy Austin Holmes who is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. And David Linfield who is international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. We've got, the Middle East is a rich topic to cover and there's a lot we can cover.

I thought I'd start off with a scene-setting question and I'd ask perhaps each of the panelists to weigh in, focusing on their respective areas of focus and interest. But the first question I'd ask is, it's been almost ten years since the beginning of the Arab Spring. How have relationships and alliances in the Middle East evolved since then from a U.S. perspective, particularly under the Trump administration? Maybe Catherine, if you want to start and we'll go across the panelists and hear your views.

HERROLD: Sure, thank you. And I'd like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for having me today. That's obviously a big question. Let me speak both about at the regional level, and then also just a bit at the national level, because I think that we need to also think about how things have shifted within countries as well as across. So we've obviously seen a number of changes in governing structures. We've seen autocratic backsliding. We've seen the corresponding resurgence of authoritarianism. We've seen tentative democracy in Tunisia, for example. So quite a bit of democratic backsliding, and resurgent authoritarianism within countries, and we can talk more about the specifics of those.

Across countries, we've obviously seen some new alliances, most recently between some of the Gulf states and Israel. We've seen increasing challenges within the Israeli-Palestinian context with the Trump administration, and the Trump administration's peace plan basically giving free rein to Israel for annexation and other Israeli goals, moving the embassy to Jerusalem. So we've seen changes in that regard. We've seen the escalation of civil wars–Syria, Libya, Yemen. We've seen some changes in Iraq, some positive changes of late, but also challenges that risk sliding back into a civil war. We've seen devastation in Lebanon. And we've seen, within the civil wars, we've seen proxy wars taking place.

So a lot of challenges. I brushed over those quite generally. We can talk more about them. Internally, we also need to look at what's going on with a growing youth bulge. The economic challenges across countries, exacerbated by COVID. Authoritarianism, in some places exacerbated by COVID. And so lots of challenges that we're facing, and not very many bright spots moving into the Biden administration. Let me stop there.

SIDDIQUI: Well with that already, I feel like we may need to strap in for a few hours for the discussion, rather just an hour. Maybe Amy, turning to you, are there particular areas you would focus in on as far as particular progress or regress over the past ten years since this promise of change came with Arab Spring?

HOLMES: Well, I also want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me and for being on this distinguished panel. So Catherine has already highlighted a lot of important issues covering your question regarding the so-called Arab Spring. I was fortunate to have lived actually in Egypt through most of the so-called Arab Spring– quote, unquote, Arab Spring. In my book, Coups and Revolutions, which just came out last year, I actually tried to argue for avoiding using that term, Arab Spring, however, because I believe that it actually obscures more than it explains. The Middle East is not just a region of Arabs. It's a– (inaudible). If we, as scholars, or analysts continue to use the term Arab Spring, we're in a way erasing the agency of millions of people in that region, including Kurds, including Nubians, including Imazighen, including a very diverse range of people. So I actually try to argue for not using the term Arab Spring.

Secondly, I think if we look at this from a historical perspective, in terms of the previous wave of mass unrest that happened throughout North Africa, the Levant, etc., in the 1950s when many of the European colonial powers were evicted from the region, and then you had the creation of independent nation states. That wave really lasted from 1952 in Egypt, beginning with the overthrow of the monarchy, kicking out King Farouk, evicting the British, etc., all the way up to about 1969 in Libya. So that's seventeen years. One wave of protests. And so I think now, of course, history does not repeat itself. But just by looking at the past, I think it's sort of a cautionary tale that we're still probably in the middle of this current wave. So I don't think it's over. And we've already seen it expand to Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, etc. And so I just think that it's actually too early to provide an overall assessment as to what has happened, because it's still very much ongoing. And I've advocated for actually introducing another term of the coup from below to explain particularly what happened in Egypt in 2013, with the overthrow of Morsi, in contrast to the so-called revolution from above in the 1950s that happened under Nasser. I'd be happy to explain that more if you're interested. But those would be my initial reactions.

SIDDIQUI: Great. Thank you for that, Amy. David, perhaps you could speak a bit more to Trumpian policy in the Middle East and what that's meant over the past four-odd years. And then maybe preview a bit, I'm sure a topic that we're going to get into in detail, to preview a bit which of those you might see changing under a Biden administration and how easy those will be to change.

LINFIELD: Yeah, thank you Mustafa and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for organizing this event today. So I agree with quite a bit of what Catherine and Amy were saying. I'm coming at this from a little bit of a different perspective, though, having worked in government over this past ten-year period that we're talking about from the Arab Spring, or so-called Arab Spring, to the present. Although today, I have to emphasize that I'm speaking in my personal capacity, not for the State Department. But having worked for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, from 2011 to 2013, and then worked in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East subsequently, and for multiple administrations. So initially, the Obama administration and then through the Trump administration. I have to say that, while there are absolutely some significant policy changes that have happened over the past few years and Catherine alluded to some of them, there is more continuity than not I would argue in U.S. foreign policy. And I think there's a lot that the Biden administration will do that will resemble closely what the Trump administration has done in the region.

Some of the things that I mean by that are to continue to prioritize good relationships with existing governments in the region over policy decisions that might be seen as hasty by some of the foreign policy establishment. If you think back to 2011, some of you may remember the debate that unfolded and was leaked out, in terms of people within the U.S. administration, who were more skeptical of the revolutions and the protests that were happening. And then those who thought that the momentum was on the side of the protesters and the U.S. needed to get behind them, or at least get out of the way. And what strikes me comparing ten years ago with now and the challenges that the new U.S. administration will face is that all of the underlying factors that helped provoke the protests of 2010, 2011, and beyond, are still there and many of them have gotten worse.

People like to talk about how 2011 was such a surprise, that this mass of protests throughout the Middle East was a surprise and that no one got it right. And it's a black eye on the analytical community. And I don't think that's quite fair, because actually, there's many scholars that had pinpointed the problems that were underlying and said it's only a matter of time before these coalesce into trouble. But what people didn't get right was exactly when it would happen, when the spark would be. And Tunisia surprisingly ended up being that spark. And so fast forward to today, we have many of the same underlying issues, several of them have gotten worse, including frustration with economic inequality, frustration with corruption, continued lack of inclusive, democratic, peaceful means of expressing grievances for those frustrated publics. Those are still there and the U.S. administration, whether it's the Obama administration, the Trump administration, now the incoming Biden team, have yet to articulate a clear policy on how to balance the need for positive relationships with the governments that are in charge in the region, while also doing something to create a long-term durable mechanism for the people of the region to express their grievances in ways that are not destabilizing.

SIDDIQUI: That's really interesting. Really well put, David. Having tried their hand at various civil means of pushing for change over the past decade, and then in some countries it's also devolved into violent directions, what means are available in your view? What are the means that a Biden administration should be encouraging? And then is it enough of a priority for the new administration to really tackle these really difficult issues versus China and other issues arising on the east and domestic issues like an ongoing pandemic that they also have to deal with?

LINFIELD: No, I think you're absolutely right in terms of prioritization, in the sense that you mentioned China, but I think that domestic issues are most likely to take up almost all of the focus of the Biden administration for the foreseeable future for a considerable amount of time from the beginning of the administration onward. And then when it does come to foreign policy, you're probably correct that the Middle East will not be at the top of the list. I think the Obama administration was well known for its desire to pivot to Asia, right? And it came in wanting to be able to focus most of its foreign policy effort on the Far East, and ended up being pulled against its will into Middle Eastern issues, based on the crises that erupted there. I do think that that is likely to happen again. I don't think, as I said, the issues in the Middle East are not resolved.

And so, while I do think that from a strategic point of view, we're likely to see the new U.S. administration focus on domestic issues, the Middle East will warrant attention and will need attention. And I think one of the ways, to answer the other part of your question, one of the ways the Biden administration can begin to address this need to balance having positive relationships with the regimes in the region, but also trying to help encourage reform in the citizen-state relationship into a more durable, stable direction in the Middle East, is to devote the same kind of energy and pressure to encouraging political reform, as the U.S. has done when it comes to encouraging economic liberalization, including the type of IMF packages, trade deals, opening up markets, privatization. These types of economic reforms, which we've often, as the U.S., tied to pretty specific conditionality, but have not been willing to do the same for political reforms.

SIDDIQUI: So I have a ton of questions to follow on. But I'd like to go to Catherine, who was nodding enthusiastically when you were speaking earlier. Catherine, did you want to comment as well?

HERROLD: Thank you Mustafa. Yeah, just briefly, another foreign policy tool that we sometimes don't think of as a foreign policy tool is foreign assistance to local communities. I don't just mean foreign assistance to local governments, but foreign assistance to civil society. And despite that resurgent authoritarianism that I was speaking about earlier, we do continue to see struggles within civil society, whether these are within formal NGOs or nongovernmental organizations, local ones, I mean, grassroots groups, networks, movements, etc. We do still see movement in this area, sometimes very much couched within socioeconomic development. And so supporting these types of locally-led development initiatives that weave together issues of democratic political reform, issues of good governance, issues of socioeconomic justice. This could be another way to– and I fully support all that David said, I think this aligns. I would welcome his views on whether this aligns and Amy's as well. But really trying to support local citizens, not only local human rights organizations, which are important in their own right, but also organizing through other means and other vehicles.

SIDDIQUI: I was gonna ask Amy to comment but I think we've lost her for a bit. So we'll come back when she returns. But then I'm gonna ask a couple of follow ups. And you can take either one. I mean, David first. So one, we talked about political reform. Where there have been free-ish elections in the Middle East, sometimes the U.S. hasn't necessarily loved the result. And certainly as Catherine talks about resurgent authoritarianism, how inclined are friendly governments to really implementing the kinds of political reforms you're talking about? Isn't there an inherent tension between that ask and their own self-interest? That's one. The other question I'd put on the table, and you can take either one, is if the Biden administration is really forced to choose its priorities, on issues that can't be solved half-heartedly, right, these are all really difficult issues, who steps in to fill the leadership vacuum in the region? So I'll just put those questions out there.

LINFIELD: Yes, so on your first question. Yes, there is an inherent tension between asking these regimes in the region to open up and maintaining positive relationships with them. Many regimes in the region, if not most, see the sharing of influence or the sharing of power, the sharing of authority, opening up the political space to inclusive decision-making through elections or other types of political participation as a threat to their own vested interest, their own power and influence. And so there is, that's why I say that there is a balance there between. It is a difficult needle to thread. I think the only way to successfully do it is for the governments of the Middle East to decide that it's in their interest to do so. And I think that it is possible that that occurs.

Essentially, what has to happen for that to occur is for governments in the Middle East to realize that they're more likely to experience really bad trouble if they resist reforms. So that when by the time the change does come, it's kind of a 2010, 2011, Arab Spring, quote, unquote, change rather than one, that if they started planning for it now and started gradually increasing political participation, would be a smoother evolution of reform.

And then you talked about where the U.S. comes down into this and about the U.S. being perhaps unhappy with the results of some elections or people in the region voting for people that the U.S. isn't crazy about, or that support policies that aren't in line with the U.S. And I would respond to that by saying that this hasn't really been tested much. Because while we've had a couple of relatively free elections in the region, once those governments have come into place, they haven't really been allowed to serve out their full terms in a way where they can accept all the responsibility for their successes and failures, and then encounter another election and then be voted in again, or voted out. Events, crises have always come in and disrupted that. So I do think that it is in the U.S. interest to allow elections or at least sort of improved elections to take place and allow decision making to be more inclusive in the region, to encourage that, at least get out of the way of, trying to lessen obstacles to it. And once citizens in the region feel that their vote actually matters and has influence over decision-making, and once decision-makers see that they can be voted in and out in a meaningful way, I think both sides will treat that power differently than they currently do.

SIDDIQUI: Very interesting. Amy, you're back, I'd love to get your perspective on some of the topics that David was addressing in the Egyptian context, which is such a, both important and fascinating case study of these of these issues, and you've had a front row seat to a lot of that.

HOLMES: Regarding the - hello?


HOLMES: Can you hear me now?

SIDDIQUI: Yes, we can hear you, we can hear you.

HOLMES: Okay, could you just repeat the question? I'm sorry, because of the bad internet connection.

SIDDIQUI: Sure. I think it's so part of it is about, one important part of the question is just where I'd asked earlier, David had been talking about the Biden administration, encouraging regimes that the U.S. has good relationships with, to go down the path of political reform, more openness, to avoid a repeat of the so called Arab Spring as these pressures continue to mount. And I'd ask that one, in some cases where there have been free-ish elections, the outcome hasn't necessarily been one that the U.S. has been particularly excited about. And then at the same time, there's such a tension between the instruments of power that keep some of these friendly governments in place and the idea of opening up politically and reforming politically. So how do you reconcile that? And again, I think both of these topics come into play in Egypt and would love to hear your perspective.

HOLMES: Right. Okay. And I apologize for the technical problems.

In Egypt, we have both in 2011 and then in 2013, there were divisions actually, among the Obama administration as to how to respond to massive uprising, with some people saying Mubarak is an ally, we should be cautious, and others saying, no we need to really, it's time for him to go after three decades. At the time, I actually thought that these mixed messages coming out - (inaudible) - that we needed a more coherent response from the United States. Now, under the Trump administration the suggestion - (inaudible) - I'm calling this favorite dictator, etc., the White House did not do. And, of course, that is the kind of legitimacy that Sisi craves. And so, I think that, now the problem is not the mixed messages that are coming from the United States, but rather a pretty clear endorsement of Sisi from the White House. And I think that this is one of the major factors that has allowed Sisi to consolidate his power and has allowed him to continue an unprecedented crackdown on human rights in Egypt.

It's not just a few isolated cases of dissidents that have been locked up or imprisoned, but apolitical humanitarian associations that really just engage in charity work. Aya Hijazi, an American dual Egyptian-American citizen, was in prison for three years essentially because of the work she did with her charity in Egypt, just as one example. So this kind of crackdown on human rights, and really any kind of civil society association that's outside of the control of the government, we never saw that under Mubarak. And that's a huge problem because, actually, the government needs civil society to do this kind of work because the government is not able to do it themselves, right? I mean, if you have, for example, a women's association or NGO that, I interviewed some of them in Upper Egypt, that would go out and try to convince people in rural parts of Upper Egypt that they should wait until their daughters are eighteen for them to get married, for example. I mean, this is something actually the government should be doing that work. That's actually their job. It's their laws, right? But you have an NGO doing it so the government should be happy that an NGO is doing work for them. Instead, they cracked down on them and put them in jail.

So, yes, I think it should be in the interest of the Biden administration to try to convince the government in Cairo that civil society is not their enemy. In fact, they need civil society and they need these independent voices and associations to do, not just because of freedom of the press and for independent political activity, but even just for - (inaudible).

SIDDIQUI: I think we got the gist of what you were wrapping up with there Amy. Maybe turning to a different topic that Catherine, you touched on, as you said at the beginning? Israel-Palestine, right, this is going to be the biggest deal of President Trump's career and it was going to be amazing, it was gonna be great. The result has been somewhat underwhelming. Could you talk a little bit about where we find ourselves today on the Israel-Palestine issue? And the recent diplomatic ties that were established between the UAE and Bahrain and Israel, does that foreshadow something? Is it a flash in the pan? Is it real? And then where does the peace process such as it is go from here?

HERROLD: Sure, well, the deal of the century is the deal to which you are referring, which basically, as I mentioned earlier, really gave Israel probably more than it ever dreamed, beyond its wildest dreams. And we've seen everything, as I mentioned, from the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which was a slap in the face of the Palestinians. We have seen annexation in the Golan, we've seen increased settlements. And then of course, we've seen normalized ties with some of the Gulf states and Sudan, without any conditions put on those on those normalized ties. So the Palestinians have been really left out, disrespected, delegitimized by the Trump administration.

The Palestinian leadership and people have applauded the incoming, the fact that the elections went for Biden. They are realistic about that, knowing that American foreign policy always favors Israel. But we have also seen shifts within the Democratic Party in the United States. In one of the debates, Bernie Sanders coming out and calling for respect for the Palestinians. So some potential movement there. I do foresee, I don't think that certain Trump moves will be walked back. I don't foresee the embassy going back to Tel Aviv. I don't foresee reversals of annexation that has already taken place. But I do see a Biden administration protesting any future annexation. I do see a Biden administration perhaps reopening the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem. I do foresee the Biden administration restoring aid to Palestine, perhaps opening the PLO office in Washington as well. So taking some steps in that regard, I would anticipate from a Biden administration.

And then we'll see what happens in the Senate as well. If we have a very Democratic Senate, we may see Biden move even more toward the progressive wing of the party, which is calling for more respect for the Palestinian struggle. So those are some preliminary thoughts. And of course, we'll see. I said that I foresee these things but predicting things in the region, or anywhere, but especially in the region is really dangerous stuff.

SIDDIQUI: That's true. Well, you're on record. (Laughs.) David, any thoughts from you?

LINFIELD: Yeah, I think that Catherine is exactly right. I think that we're not going to see the cancellation of any of these significant moves that the Trump administration made. I don't think we're going to see a reverting back to the policies prior to 2016. But I completely agree with Catherine that in terms of future Israeli action and future Palestinian action, that's where we're gonna see likely a different response from the Biden administration than we saw during the Trump administration. We have seen positive reactions, as she mentioned, from Palestinian leadership and indeed, from Palestinian people themselves to Biden's election.

I have to say that reactions to the election, writ large throughout the Middle East are a little bit more mixed. Because among regimes, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, that the Trump administration has not been, or Amy talked about this, it's not been all that bad to regimes. In fact, has had quite positive relationships with some of the strongmen of the region. And has fostered those channels of communication. So whereas some of those same leaders, those Middle Eastern leaders, look back on the Obama-Biden years with some trepidation, because those were the years of the Arab Spring, because many of them were upset by what they perceived as U.S. abandonment of Mubarak. Even though, of course, I think from those who work either within U.S. government or closer analysts of it, it looked a lot more like the U.S. was being very careful and calculating. But the view of some of the regimes in the region was that the U.S. was being kind of naive, given that they weren't sticking as close by these long-term leaders as they thought they should.

But I think going forward, one of the effects of the election of the Biden administration is that just by taking the focus off of these controversial major initiatives in the region that we saw under the Trump administration, such as the move of the embassy that Catherine mentioned, such as talk of possible annexation, the refugee debate and so on, the immigration debate, moving just kind of the narrative away from these things actually increases pressure in some ways on the regimes of the Middle East rather than decreases. And what I mean by that is, what we saw in public opinion polling of leaders in the region among their own publics, public views of their autocratic, in most cases, leaders, those leaders' popularity went up every time the Trump administration did something controversial in the region, because those leaders were seen as facing a common enemy, external enemy together. That is the leaders who were on record opposing the Trump administration's actions. Of course, when it came to the leaders in the region, including some in the Gulf, that supported the Trump administration's actions, their popularity went down.

But what happens when a Biden administration comes in, is that just by not providing that kind of distraction to local issues, that we might see regimes in the Middle East have to focus more on local problems like corruption and lack of economic growth, more than they have in the past four years.

SIDDIQUI: Interesting. Well, let me at this time, just check to see if, I'd like to ask if participants would like to join in with their questions. If they have some. I'd like to remind people that this roundtable is on the record. Amy is back, I believe that she'll be on audio so feel free to direct questions to her or to David or to Catherine. And in addition to asking questions about the topic at hand, you can also feel free to ask the panelists questions about their careers. Erica or Alexis, do we have any questions from the crowd?

STAFF: (Gives instructions).

We'll take the first question from Kelsey Ritchie.

Q: Hi there. My name is Kelsey Ritchie. I currently work for Deloitte's national security consulting practice in DC, and primarily focus on mis- and disinformation. I want to pivot a little bit to a topic that's like we haven't totally discussed yet. And that is our future relationship with Iran. Specifically looking at kind of the Iranian regime's actions over the past couple of months, both in the mis- and disinformation space with the hacking of the Proud Boys email to intimidate Trump voters, as well as kind of accelerating some of their nuclear development. So I'd love to just hear some views, some thoughts on both of those instances, as well as what does the future of our relationship with Iran look like under a Biden administration?

SIDDIQUI: If I may just piggyback on that this is the next topic I would have liked to open up. I would, just to piggyback on that with the future of the Iran-Saudi axis under a Biden administration as well, I think there are three parties in that relationship it feels like. David, do you want to take that one first?

LINFIELD: Sure. Yeah, I'll jump in. So I think it's clear that containing Iranian nuclear ambitions and other counterproductive activity throughout the Middle East and beyond is going to be a priority for the incoming U.S. administration as it has been for past administrations. Obviously, the Biden team has a very different view of how to go about that than the Trump administration has had. And the Biden team has already stated that they are going to be inclined to rejoin the JCPOA, the Iran deal, if Iran itself starts living up to its obligations under that deal again. And we'll have to see if that happens.

I think that both sides, meaning Iran and the U.S., are likely to try and use the events of the Trump administration years as leverage in their own way. And what I mean by that is, Iran is likely to say to the incoming Biden administration, we loved the deal when you initially agreed to it, but then under the Trump administration, the U.S. pulled out, why should we trust you again? You need to give us more than you gave us last time to give us a reason to trust you. Whereas the Biden team is going to say to Iran, you need to help us out, because we went out, you can see by the policies of the Trump years, how much a limb the U.S. had to go out on in order to get a deal with Iran through the U.S. administration. So don't push us too much. Because the more you push us, the less likely we'll get any deal. So I think that's the kind of dynamic you're going to see between the U.S. and Iran as the new U.S. administration starts setting up shop.

SIDDIQUI: Amy, do you have a view on that?

HOLMES: Yeah, I would just add to what David already said, I agree that I think there will be a different approach, clearly with a Biden administration, regarding Iran. I would just mention that in terms of one of the things that both Republican and Democratic administrations agree on is the increasing Iranian influence both in Iraq and in Syria. And if we think back to what happened in October 2017 after the Kurdish independence referendum in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Iranian-backed militias, together with other Iraqi forces were able to retake Kirkuk. And this is one example where–of course, it's a disputed territory, Kirkuk is claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad–but I think it's also an example of where U.S. mixed messages were not helpful, frankly, because some leaders in Kurdish region of Iraq understood the messages coming from Washington to be that we were not opposed in principle to holding this referendum, but simply to the timing, that it was premature, that they shouldn't have the referendum while we were still fighting ISIS, etc.

So, mixed messages coming out of Washington, I think contributed to the fact that this referendum went forward when it did, and ultimately resulted in expansion of Iranian influence. And so whether you're for or against the Kurds holding a referendum, regardless of what your opinion is about that, most people in Washington are not happy with the increase Iranian expansion in Iraq. And that was, frankly, a direct result of U.S. mixed messages coming at the time of this independence referendum.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you, Amy. What about the Saudi role in U.S. policy towards Iran? How will the U.S.-Saudi relationship evolve under a Biden administration, if a Biden administration does start to re-approach Iran under the JCPOA, for example? Catherine, do you have a view?

HERROLD: Well, I think that we're going to–and again, here we go with predictions–I see a resetting of relationships with the kingdom on a number of levels. And so speaking specifically about Iran, I wonder if, we talked about the U.S. in the Middle East, we haven't talked about the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East. And so I wonder if, when thinking about Iran, we need to think not only about how the U.S. approaches Iran, but how the U.S. and perhaps its European and other allies approach Iran.

And then thinking about Saudi Arabia, I expect that we will not see the free rein given to human rights abuses, etc., in the kingdom, or outside of the kingdom, with the killing of Khashoggi. I think, I anticipate that we'll see a resetting of relationships there.

But going back to the allies, I wonder if, one way to defuse some of the issues between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran is to work with allies within the context of the ongoing civil wars. And I'm not, my expertise is not in this area specifically, so I can't get into too many details on the civil wars. But just thinking through whether or not the U.S. and its allies can bring some diplomatic pressure to bear on a number of these proxy wars that can defuse some of the tensions all the way around.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you. Going back to a question I think I touched on earlier. David, you mentioned the Biden administration will first and foremost have domestic issues on its plate, at least for the foreseeable future. And then a variety of other foreign policy issues that they need to deal with, among which the Middle East will be one of several. But there's so many issues and ones that need so much work to address, to me that spells and leaves a vacuum. And I just wonder, who do you see stepping in to play that leadership role? To some extent one sees Turkey being more muscular in the region on a number of fronts. But who do you see stepping into that to provide that leadership in the region?

LINFIELD: Yeah, so I think there's good and bad news on that front. I think the good news is, speaking from a U.S. perspective, that there is no other power, global power, that is willing to devote the resources and time the U.S. has in the Middle East at the moment. We have seen forays into the Middle East by China and Russia. But we have seen nowhere near the level of commitment both financially, militarily, and politically that the U.S. has, and I don't see that changing dramatically in the near term.

The bad news is that, as you said, while there might not be a sort of malicious actor moving into the region to fill the void, there might be a void altogether of external influence. I don't see this as altogether a bad thing, as I said, and some of the people in the region don't either.

Part of my job, the past four years has been traveling around from village to village in Jordan, hearing about grassroots political concerns that communities have and then making sure that U.S. policymakers are aware of kind of that pulse of the public. And many people in the region realize that the more international aid they get, the less pressure there is to answer the hard questions at home. And so while there is a recognition that there are some things, there are some areas in which there's no substitute for international aid, and there are some key infrastructure and kind of health and education needs that need to happen, in a general sense there, that it is a bit of a crutch, the level of international aid that comes in from mostly from the U.S. but also from some European countries in the region.

But to piggyback on something that Catherine was saying, in terms of how the U.S. operates in the Middle East going forward and what we're likely to see from a Biden administration that has its focus, or has a lot of challenges elsewhere, mostly domestically, but also elsewhere in the world, I think what the Biden administration's approach will be is working through European allies that Catherine mentioned. We've seen signals already from the Biden team that they would like to strengthen the classic alliances that the U.S. has with the UK and France and other actors like that, and be able to kind of achieve perhaps more in the Middle East with less than it has.

SIDDIQUI: David if I can interject there, where the UK is struggling with Brexit, and more kind of retrenching from some of its at least European engagements. France having, to some extent, burn a lot of goodwill with populations in the region recently. And then, of course, the domestic distractions of a pandemic that each of these governments faces as well. Do you think that it's practical to expect much help from our European allies? And those resources, time, and effort?

LINFIELD: No, that's a fair point. I think that some of those allies that you mentioned are hampered politically or economically at the moment from influence. But I do think that two things can happen. One, that politically it's helpful to us to work in a multilateral sense with those other actors. I think that lends weight and sometimes reduces controversy when it's a multilateral effort in the region.

But then, in terms of your other point about material ability to help and the UK being busy with Brexit and so on, is that while the U.S. will have to deal with domestic issues at home and challenges elsewhere, and that might mean that it's not on the political front burner, the Middle East isn't on the political front burner for us, I don't anticipate our financial commitment to the region changing much in the near term. I think that we're still going to be sending tremendous aid packages to the region, we're going to have a significant USAID footprint, and a military cooperation footprint. That's not going to change in a Biden administration. And so that kind of American influence and help in the region is going to continue. So I think we can work with allies, to some extent that helps symbolically. But a lot of the material aid will also continue from us.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you. Amy, did you want to jump in?

HOLMES: Yeah, sure. I would just say that in terms of your question about who may fill the vacuum, in the Middle East, Russia is already doing that. And Turkey is also already doing that, especially in Syria. I mean, since Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict five years ago, Russia has been a key actor in propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as well as Iran, of course. However, a lot of people kind of assume that after there was this partial U.S. withdrawal of troops from northern Syria in October 2019, after the phone call between Erdoğan and Trump, that this would mean that Russia together with Assad would regain control of the entire country. That has not happened one year later. One year after this partial U.S. withdrawal and one year after the deployment of Russian troops to the border between Syria and Turkey, Assad still has not been able to actually retake control of about one third of the country.

And so this one third of northeastern Syria, run by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the project of local self-government that they've established, I think has more support from the local population, including the Arab population, than I think most people realize. Most people sort of predicted that the whole thing would collapse once you have this partial withdrawal of American troops. And that did not happen. However, Russia continues to try to pressure the United States. I mean, still we've seen numerous incidents where Russian troops seem to be provoking the American troops that are still in northeastern Syria. And the Russians are also trying to undermine the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, which is now the second largest armed force on the ground in Syria after the Syrian Arab Army, and that is the official name the Syrian Arab Army.

And so it is, I think that many people, many analysts, underestimated the ability of the Autonomous Administration to govern one-third of Syria, especially because now they're actually governing not just the Kurdish population as they were back in 2012, 2013, but now an Arab majority population after they now control Raqqa, Deir Ez-Zor, Manbij, Tabqa, etc.

SIDDIQUI: That's really interesting. We have about nine minutes left. And unless there are any other questions from the audience, which I would encourage, I'm going to keep on going because I'm having fun and it's been a long time since grad school. Turning to the topic of economies, which again came up in Catherine, your initial comments, and we haven't really focused on but obviously very important.

With oil prices being where they are, with unclear prospects for material near term recovery, that obviously affects some countries in the region. Others are facing other issues, a lot of them pandemic-driven. What are the prospects for economic growth, advancement, stabilization in some of the key countries in the region? How do you see that playing out? And then what are the implications politically and geopolitically? Catherine, maybe you might get us started on that.

HERROLD: Yeah, I'll jump in with a few preliminary thoughts, and basically my thoughts will center around the intersection of politics and economics. So on the question of oil prices, will we see a decline in oil rents, and a corresponding need for Gulf states to reform politically? Because if oil rents go down, if wealth goes down, it will be more difficult for a number of those states to be able to provide the economic handouts that they have in the past, sort of in exchange for citizen loyalty, right, and citizen quiet. So will changes in oil prices affect the political power of some of the regimes?

But also I want to go to China. We have seen China investing through its Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but if we look at the most recent wave of the Arab Barometer, China is seen among Arab populations as more favorable than the United States, in part because they are investing economically. Now that can be really problematic because if we look at the Belt and Road Initiative we understand that it is more about altruistic investments in target countries' economies. It's about spreading ideologies as well, and it's building dependent relationships with target government states.

So all of this can be very problematic for U.S. interests and for the interests of everyday citizens in the region, compounding the devastation that neoliberal economic policies have already wrought in the region. We've seen increased inequality and increased perceptions of inequality in the region. So lots of challenges that are tied up in politics, as well. We need to be talking about economy but also a form of economic justice. But that's easier said than done.

SIDDIQUI: David, did you want to jump in on this?

LINFIELD: Yeah, I do, I want to piggyback on that last point that Catherine made, because I think that's one of the key problems in the region is that when economic liberalization came into the region, and some of the governments in the Middle East have quite aggressively pursued economic liberalization plans, I think one of the big problems is that when those plans were implemented they were just overlaid onto authoritarian political systems. And as Catherine said what happens when that occurs is–let's say you privatize state owned companies all of a sudden–well, the people positioned to buy up those companies are the elite, right? Are the people who are already the power brokers of society. And so what tends to happen is you're changing from one type of very clique, elite-driven society to a form of oligarchy almost.

And so that's what we've seen, even though we've seen what I think from a Western perspective, we'd see as positive economic reforms in a lot of these countries. If you look under the surface, it's really just changing the shape of authoritarianism a little bit, and then it's not a surprise once one recognizes that, that meanwhile public resentment of their system of government has increased. And one of the results of that is more protests, more instability, which eventually hurts U.S. interest. So as I said at the beginning, that's something that we still need to grapple with.

SIDDIQUI: Well, maybe as a closing question. David, you mentioned taking the grassroots pulse of people in Jordan. Amy, you've been on the ground in Cairo for some time. Do you think that people have the appetite to really push for, given how difficult the last ten years have been in many of these countries, and what they've already endured and the lackluster results of the last time in, some of these countries they tried to push for change, do you think there's appetite to go do it all over again? Amy, maybe first, David and Catherine, whoever would like to jump in.

HOLMES: So you're right that there is a fatigue I think. Americans are fatigued of the coronavirus after, what, like eight months now or something and you have to think of people in the region who have lived through a decade of turmoil, right? I mean, it's not the same thing with Coronavirus, but I mean, just the unprecedented disruption of their everyday lives because of mass protests on the streets or military interventions or economic crises, etc. So sure, a decade of uncertainty is tiring. However, the amount of repression that we've seen in Egypt, for example, is also something that I think is not sustainable in the long run.

And I think also that regarding the situation in Syria, it's also unclear how this will play out. But all of those people who predicted that Assad had essentially won because of Russian support, I think that's simply not the case until now. And it will depend to a large extent on what the Biden administration does, frankly. I mean, if Biden, or Trump before he leaves office now that he's essentially a lame duck president, if he were to order a full withdrawal of American troops from Syria that would be a gift to both Assad and to Erdoğan.

 And so I think, personally, that should be avoided, and that this semi-autonomous region, which is not a secessionist project, they're not trying to secede from Syria, they want to implement their project in other parts of Syria. They have shown that they have higher levels of gender equality, they have a greater degree of religious freedom, they're the first entity in Syria that recognized the Ibadi religion. All of these things could, in theory, be implemented in other parts of Syria post-Assad. Or if Assad were to agree to it, they could also be implemented while he's still in power. I just think that's unrealistic but this sort of experiment that they've started and got going in northeast Syria I think should at least have the chance to continue. And this was not nation building. This is not the United States imposing our values on other people but it's just allowing the local people there to continue the grassroots experiments that they've started since 2011.

SIDDIQUI: Catherine, we have thirty seconds left, you want to add a few thoughts?

HERROLD: Absolutely, totally agree with what Amy just said. My current research is in the Palestinian territories. Despite being shafted by the international community there's great grassroots organizing going on there. And I'd like to tie this on an optimistic note. We've been very pessimistic, but to what we've seen globally, which are young people, everyday citizens, pushing for change in small and often inconspicuous ways, but often very meaningful ways. Yes, we've seen protest, but we also see grassroots organizing and so here's hoping that this will continue in the region as well.

SIDDIQUI: Well, thank you for ending on a note of optimism. And thank you to everyone in the audience for joining tonight's meeting and to our panelists for the very rich discussion. Really appreciate it. Thank you.

Top Stories on CFR

Middle East and North Africa

CFR experts Steven A. Cook and David J. Scheffer join Amnesty International’s Agnes Callamard and Refugee International’s Jeremy Konyndyk to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

United States

The success of the U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit underscored the Joe Biden administration’s dedication to building partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, but Southeast Asian nations are less interested.

Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Thirty years ago, Rwanda’s government began a campaign to eradicate the country’s largest minority group. In just one hundred days in 1994, roving militias killed around eight hundred thousand people. Would-be killers were incited to violence by the radio, which encouraged extremists to take to the streets with machetes. The United Nations stood by amid the bloodshed, and many foreign governments, including the United States, declined to intervene before it was too late. What got in the way of humanitarian intervention? And as violent conflict now rages at a clip unseen since then, can the international community learn from the mistakes of its past?