Trump signaled early on that questionable human rights records were no impediment to good relations: He repeatedly praised and hosted autocratic Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in the White House, shielded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from global (and congressional) rebuke after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and blocked bipartisan efforts in Washington to stop American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
To be sure, with President-elect Joe Biden weeks away from his inauguration, there may not be that dramatic a change in course. Biden and the foreign policy veterans he tapped for key national security roles in his administration are known quantities among the United States’ partners in the Gulf. They are expected to try to involve the Saudis and Emiratis while working to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Biden has already signaled his general agreement with perhaps the most significant foreign policy feat of the Trump presidency — that is, the normalizing of ties between Israel and a handful of Arab countries, including the UAE.
But there’s also growing pressure from Biden’s left and the Washington establishment to shift away from the transactional cynicism of the Trump era. Biden and his allies say they will do more to prioritize human rights than Trump did as well as face up to what Biden himself described as “rising authoritarianism” around the world. Biden wants to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen and said his administration will reevaluate Washington’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which Biden even claimed he would make into a “pariah.”
Those commitments will be tested as soon as he takes office. In Egypt, Sissi’s clampdown on dissent and civil society continues, including the high-profile detention of three human rights activists after they had met with a delegation of Western diplomats. The activists were released last week on bail, but still face legal efforts against them.
Despite an outcry from foreign governments and even a handful of celebrities, the Egyptian leader has little incentive to liberalize his rule. On Monday, he was welcomed in France on a state visit with a cavalry procession down a boulevard in Paris. At a news conference, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not halt arms sales and other trade deals with Egypt on the basis of Sissi’s behavior.
“I will not condition matters of defense and economic cooperation on these disagreements [over human rights],” said Macron after meeting the Egyptian leader at the Élysée Palace. “It is more effective to have a policy of demanding dialogue than a boycott which would only reduce the effectiveness of one [of] our partners in the fight against terrorism.”
For decades, Egypt’s rulers have remained “convinced of the country’s centrality to the Middle East and American policy in the region,” wrote Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, in an op-ed urging Biden to condition the vast amount of military assistance Cairo receives from Washington on political reforms.
“It’s basically unheard-of for Washington to undertake a major reassessment of a longtime partnership like the one with Egypt,” Hanna wrote. “Doing so would send a powerful signal not just in the Middle East but around the world. It would also represent a necessary first step in resetting the terms of America’s relationships in a region that still represents a disproportionate focus of American policy.”
But deep institutional ties between U.S. national security agencies and the Egyptian military establishment — as well as Biden’s reluctance to rock the boat too drastically — may impede U.S. efforts to apply meaningful pressure. “Changes in the American approach might remain rhetorical and will not constitute real policy change,” wrote Khalil al-Anani of the Arab Center Washington.
The same may be true when it comes to dealing with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. A bit less than a decade ago, both kingdoms were perturbed by what they saw as the then-Obama administration’s embrace of the Arab Spring and the promise of democratic revolutions transforming the Middle East. The ruinous civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya and the vicious counterrevolution in Egypt that followed — the latter directly supported by the Emiratis and Saudis — chastened American policymakers and will likely shadow Biden’s thinking.
But Biden may not get in the way of ongoing congressional efforts to limit arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in part because of both monarchies’ recent misadventures in the region. A bipartisan resolution condemning a mammoth Trump-approved deal with the UAE, involving the sale of F-35 fighter jets, is up for a vote in the Senate this week. It could compel a Biden administration to ultimately halt the transfers.
“In Libya, the UAE is in violation of the international arms embargo. And there’s evidence the UAE has illegally transferred US military equipment to extremist militias in Yemen,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) last week. “It begs the question why the US would reward this behavior with a record-setting arms sale agreement. At the very least, we should receive clear, unbreakable assurances that the UAE’s conduct in Libya and Yemen will change. That hasn’t happened.”
Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, responded with a series of messages from his embassy’s Twitter account, arguing that the advanced drones and other aircraft purchased from the United States would be a boon to the American economy and “critical for our protection and our shared interests.”
But he also offered a veiled warning to the incoming administration, suggesting that the UAE could look to Russian or Chinese suppliers should the United States pull out of a deal. “We would rather have the best US-equipment or we will reluctantly find it from other sources, even if less capable,” Otaiba said.