Canberra policymakers will be conducting a root-and-branch reassessment of Australia’s foreign policy following Donald Trump’s defeat in the US presidential election and ahead of an incoming Democrat administration.
Top of the list of items for review will be a leaden-footed China policy. Chinese trade reprisals for perceived Australian slights are doing real harm to Australia’s economic interests.
However, there are other areas of concern that demand attention in anticipation of Joe Biden’s presidency.
High on this agenda will be Middle East policy, which has suffered from the Trump administration’s transactional approach to a region in which America surrendered its traditional “honest broker” role in favour of an “Israel-first” approach.
US Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken might say, as he did at a Hudson Institute event earlier this year, that “I think we would be doing less not more in the Middle East”.
However, in the world’s most volatile region, history shows this aspiration is easier said than realised. Successive US administrations have endeavoured to pull back from the Middle East. Circumstances conspire to make this difficult.
From an Australian perspective, a Biden administration will inevitably shift the tone of America’s responses to Middle East challenges. This includes attitudes to the Palestinians.
Biden will not be showing the same tolerance for Israel’s settlement expansion as his predecessor, nor would he countenance unilateral Israeli annexation of territories under occupation.
The new administration will return to a two-state formula in its approach to Middle East peacemaking. This is a phrase that was sidelined during the Trump administration.
Canberra policymakers will need to be agile as these shifts work their way through American Middle East policy, which will be less ideological and more focused on what might be described as core principles.
These principles will involve greater emphasis on human rights. This is not good news for serial human rights-abusing countries such as Saudi Arabia, or Israel in its treatment of the Palestinians, for that matter.
Climate issues will weigh, too. This will be awkward for laggards on climate like Saudi Arabia.
A Biden administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view of inroads Russia and Turkey have made in the Middle East. Both countries have factored themselves into regional calculations in ways not apparent when Biden served as vice-president in the Obama administration.
Moscow and Ankara are now significant regional players down into the Gulf and west to North Africa in their extraterritorial meddling in fractured states such as Libya.
Regional architecture is vastly more complex and, if possible, more challenging than it was four years ago.
This brings us, inevitably, to Iran.
Biden has made clear that among his early foreign policy priorities will be to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA) signed in 2015 by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany and the European Union.
An agreement to forestall an Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability was the crowning foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration.
Trump irresponsibly abandoned the JCPOA in 2018.
In a September 13 essay on CNN.com, Biden said:
If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.
In the process, the US would lift crippling oil sanctions imposed by Trump. These have done considerable damage to Iran’s economy.
However, debate on rejoining the JCPOA without concessions from Iran will be fraught.
A Biden administration would come under considerable pressure to renegotiate aspects of the JCPOA after rejoining. This would include an extension of the original 15-year moratorium on Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear device.
US negotiators would be expected to pressure Iran to wind back its support for regional proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Washington would also seek to curb Iran’s exports of precision guided missiles to allies in the region and further afield.
Tehran has said such issues would not be on the table in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. These are highly complex matters.
What does make sense are indications a Biden administration would seek to involve other interested parties in a renegotiated JCPOA.
Biden’s foreign policy team has been talking about adding regional players like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This would certainly help address nuclear proliferation concerns.
In an interview with the New York Times this month, Biden warned of the risks of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East involving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in the event that Iran acquires a breakout nuclear capability.
The last goddam thing we need in that part of the world is a build-up of nuclear capability.
Canberra will not have issues with this approach.
Australia’s response to the Trump administration’s abandonment of the JCPOA was cautious. The government conducted a review of Australia’s support and then quietly shelved any objections it might have had.
In any case, Australia hardly rates as anything more than a bystander, albeit one that has maintained diplomatic representation in Tehran since the days of the shah.
This has been useful, as was demonstrated recently by the role Australia’s ambassador in Tehran played in the release of Australian-UK researcher Kylie Moore-Gilbert from a two-year incarceration.
With Australia’s trading relationship with China so stressed, further developing existing markets and seeking new opportunities will be a preoccupation.
While Australia’s trade with the Middle East is relatively small, it is significant. Two-way trade with the region, mostly in the Gulf, amounts to about 2.5% of total trade. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the most prospective markets for Australian goods and services.
The Gulf region is also home to four of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. At A$11 billion, the UAE’s investment in Australia is worth noting.
An Australian review of Middle East policy will inevitably involve assessments of what a Biden administration will mean for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has announced it will draw down its troop presence from the current 4,500 to 2,500 by early 2021. This follows a “peace agreement” with the Taliban struck in February.
Biden has been agnostic on Afghanistan. He was a dissenting voice in the Obama administration against a surge in troops in 2008-2009, but lost that argument.
He is thought likely to favour retaining a small, residual counter-terrorism force in Afghanistan. On his record, he would be most reluctant to increase numbers.
In Australia’s case, its combat troops have long gone. It retains a small training contingent with the Afghan army. This is likely to remain the case under present circumstances.
Finally, in October, Canberra made an important decision about its role in the Middle East. This received little attention at the time.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced Australia would end its naval presence in the Gulf, where the navy had been conducting patrols.
As part of its 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Reynolds said “an increasingly challenging strategic environment” was “placing greater demand on ADF resources closer to home”.
Given China’s continued rise, that would seem to be an understatement.
US President Donald Trump heralded nothing short of “the dawn of a new Middle East” as the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements normalising ties with Israel during a ceremony at the White House this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that sentiment, saying “this day is a pivot of history”.
The diplomatic detente is significant — the UAE and Bahrain will join Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to officially recognise the Jewish state. This will strengthen economic and security ties that have existed tacitly for years and establish diplomatic missions in the respective capitals.
But despite Trump’s grandiose statements, these agreements are little more than a footnote in the wider chaos of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs.
The broader Arab-Israeli conflict has been dormant for decades, as the main players have been preoccupied by the threats of internal dissent and civil strife, rather than one another.
Beyond this, the UAE and Bahrain were never central to Arab hostilities with Israel. Historically, they acted as cheerleaders and financiers for the front-line states during the Cold War, such as Syria and Egypt.
In geopolitical terms, Bahrain is far less notable — it’s effectively a vassal of Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the immediate changes brought by these diplomatic moves, the bigger question is how Saudi Arabia will respond in the coming months.
It is rare in foreign relations to see “beta testing” of bold ideas, but the UAE and Bahrain have provided just such a test case for Riyadh in its own fraught push to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
This led to an informal arrangement between the Saudis and Israelis, along with the United States and a number of smaller Gulf states, aimed at confronting the Iranian challenge together.
An outright solidification of an alliance between the Saudis and Israelis would allow for greater cooperation and coordination in regional security, diplomacy and trade — and build a more unified and effective front against the threat posed by Iran’s growing influence in the region.
But previous attempts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to warm relations have proved challenging, to say the least.
In 2018, bin Salman made the unprecedented move of declaring Israel’s right to exist, extending a clear olive branch meant to open the door to further opportunities to strengthen ties between the two countries.
However, the prince may have jumped the gun with the statement, which was met with ambivalence by the Saudi public and other Arab states.
Many felt the move too sudden and incongruous with the kindgom’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Saudis have long demanded the creation of a state for the Palestinians before any sort of formal sovereign recognition could be offered to Israel.
Ultimately, this led to an embarrassing intervention by the prince’s father, King Salman, who publicly walked back his son’s statements, in part due to fears of eroding the monarchy’s domestic legitimacy.
Following his chastisement, the prince went silent on the issue for over a year. He also took a less prominent position in the public eye, a significant departure from his normal flamboyant style.
This year, things have changed. With King Salman ailing, the prince consolidating his position within the country further and the ever-present threat of Iran across the gulf, there are new opportunities for Saudi Arabia to potentially re-engage with Israel.
New challenges have also presented themselves. The ravages of COVID-19 and a vulnerable oil market have left the kingdom in a far more precarious position than just two years ago. In such an environment, the risk of losing legitimacy from such a deal could prove far more catastrophic to the authoritarian regime.
Bin Salman may be up to the task, though. The prince has demonstrated a growing aptitude to navigate complex political situations.
Over the past year, for instance, he has curtailed his characteristic brashness, avoiding the blunders seen early on in his reign that damaged Saudi prestige on the international stage and drew ire from his father.
Since his 2018 Israeli misfire, the prince has displayed a more reserved and circumspect demeanour in his public activities and foreign engagements — sending a message he intends to serve out a long and productive term.
Having learned from past mistakes, a more prudent bin Salman is likely to approach a rapprochement with Israel with greater caution than before.
If people in the UAE and Bahrain prove amenable or indifferent to the warming relations between their countries and Israel — and all signs thus far suggest they do — it may encourage the prince to try his plan again.
While many on the Saudi street still oppose Israel in theory, the issue lacks the salience it once did. There is an exhausting array of crises in the region — from Yemen to Syria, Libya to COVID-19 — that have become far more immediate priorities.
Thanks in part to to a concerted propaganda effort by bin Salman, the Saudi public is also increasingly in tune with the ruling elite when it comes to the desire to counter Iran as a national security concern.
As a small country on the Mediterranean sharing no borders with the Saudis, Israel simply doesn’t pose the same kind of threat in the popular imagination as the looming expansionist giant just across the gulf.
With these political dominoes in line, the coming months may prove a far more fortuitous time for bin Salman to pursue a Saudi detente with Israel.
Such a development would not only be historically significant, but would pave the way for an Arab-Israeli alliance — the likes of which has never been seen before.
The normalisation of diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has variously been described as a “breakthrough” and an important staging moment towards a comprehensive Middle East peace.
These conclusions are, at best, premature.
Normalisation of relations between Israel and an important Gulf state is a highly significant development whose fallout is unpredictable. What seems clear is that the UAE initiative will further deepen a regional divide.
In the Middle East, historic shifts rarely take place without unforeseen consequences. Israel’s pledge not to go ahead with the annexation of one-third of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley for the time being will be cold comfort for the Palestinians.
What has been exposed by the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, brokered by Washington, is acceptance of the arguments for a regional buffer to counter Iran’s growing power and influence.
This is a marriage of convenience.
It should go without saying that absent Iran’s growing security threat to Gulf states, it’s doubtful such a normalisation of ties would have taken place outside a comprehensive Middle East peace.
The latest development bears out one of the Arab world’s stock standard sayings: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In other words, an Iranian threat to the UAE and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members has brought about an accord with Israel that would previously have been unthinkable.
This is not to say this development is unexpected.
Israel has gradually broadened its informal diplomatic contacts with Gulf states in recent years to the point where little attempt has been made to disguise these contacts.
These interactions included a visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman in 2018.
In all of this, a fault line in the Middle East is likely to deepen between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, as well as that country’s allies in Syria and in Lebanon.
These Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States in collaboration with Israel, are building a buffer against Iran.
It may be simplistic to say this, but a die has been cast.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether regional friends and erstwhile enemies will remain steadfast in their new commitments.
In the shifting sands of Middle East power politics, today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies.
If Israel and the UAE are the betrothed in a marriage of convenience, the Trump White House is the matchmaker. Behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni state in the Gulf, will have encouraged the Emiratis to take the first step
Time will tell how quickly other Gulf states will follow. These Arab fiefdoms will be assessing fallout before taking action themselves.
Among the principal aims of US Middle East policy since President Donald Trump came to power has been to broker improved ties between Israel and America’s Arab allies in the Gulf.
This has been part of a wider Trump Middle East peace plan to bring about the “deal of the century”, as the president calls it, that would end decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump officials believe Gulf states could be more fully engaged in exerting pressure on Palestinians to make concessions that might enable progress towards such a deal.
The UAE and its fellow Gulf states have been among principal donors to the Palestinian movement over many years. Their funding, for example, helped establish and sustain the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
However, times change. Oil-producing Gulf states have much less money to splash around given the demands of their own expanding populations. The collapse in oil prices has not helped.
In any case, Arab states more generally have found the Palestinian issue increasingly a distraction from their immediate concern of keeping Iran at bay.
By and large, these states paid lip service in their criticism of the Trump “deal of the century” when it was unveiled in January. Previously, their reaction would have been one of outright rejection.
In summary, the peace plan demanded the Palestinians set aside their long-held dream of a Palestinian state. Instead, they were asked to accept semi-autonomous enclaves in Israeli-controlled territories more or less in perpetuity
Needless to say this was rejected.
All this leaves the much-weakened Palestinian movement in a bind. The UAE’s decisions will be viewed by its leaders as one more betrayal of their cause in a long list going back to the Balfour declaration of 1917. In that declaration, Britain promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine.
The question for the Palestinians in light of what is effectively and conspicuously a collapse in Arab solidarity in rejection of Israel is what options might be available to them.
Initially, Palestinian reaction has been to decry the UAE’s actions. The Palestinian ambassador to the UAE has been recalled.
However, these sorts of responses don’t amount to a sustainable long-term strategy for a movement that is both divided and tired. What would seem to be required is a closing of ranks among Palestinians under a younger, more dynamic leadership.
It is long past time for vestiges of the PLO’s historic leadership to move aside to be replaced by a new generation.