How Will Joe Biden’s Policies Be Different From Donald Trump’s?

Joe Biden will reverse steps by President Donald Trump that harmed tens of thousands of people in the region. Although policies toward the Middle East were not a major topic in the U.S. presidential election, Biden has already pledged to make significant changes:

  • The Muslim Ban: Trump’s 2017 executive order has caused untold suffering as tens of thousands of citizens from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen (Iraq was originally on the list, before being removed) were denied U.S. visas unless given special permission. That measure resulted in an enormous drop in access to the United States. Whereas in 2016 nearly 72,000 citizens of those five countries received visas (non-immigrant or immigrant), in 2019 only 16,000 did. Biden has promised to cancel the executive order on day-one of his presidency.
  • Cuts in Refugees: Trump massively reduced the number of refugees the United States would accept, at a time when several Middle East and North African countries were in civil wars and refugees were flooding out of the region. From 110,000 refugees accepted by the United States in 2016, Trump reduced the maximum to 18,000 in 2019 and 15,000 in 2020. His administration also discriminated against Muslims, who had historically made up about 40 percent of refugees accepted annually, cutting that figure to under 20 percent in 2019. Biden has pledged to accept 125,000 refugees during his first year in office and to establish an annual minimum of 95,000. 
  • Iran Sanctions: Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against the Iranian regime, and specifically sanctions, resulted in crushing economic hardship for millions of Iranian citizens. While tensions between the United States and Iran will continue, particularly over Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities, a Biden administration would be predisposed to ease off on sanctions somewhat while trying to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or reach another agreement.
  • Weapons for Regional Wars: Although he avoided new U.S. military interventions, Trump vetoed legislation to cut off support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has caused horrific abuses amounting to war crimes, according to the United Nations panel of experts. Biden has promised to end U.S. support for the war, as well as to reassess relations with Saudi Arabia generally. Trump also touched off a new regional arms race by promising advanced fighter aircraft to the United Arab Emirates to reward the normalization of ties with Israel. Biden, while welcoming normalization, has not yet clarified his position on the sale, although his advisors and other Democrats have voiced concern.
  • Palestinian Rights: Trump’s policies were an unmitigated disaster for Palestinians, paving the way for Israeli annexation of most or all of the West Bank, cutting aid to refugees, ending relations with the Palestinian Authority, and turning a blind eye to violations of Palestinian rights. Tangible consequences for Palestinians included accelerated Israeli settlement activities as well as home demolitions. While Biden will not reverse all of Trump’s policy changes (for example, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital), he has promised to restore relations with the Palestinian leadership and aid to Palestinians. He will oppose annexation, will not cheer on settlements, and is likely to object to violations of Palestinian rights.


In What Way Will Biden’s Victory Affect the Region’s Leaders?

Those leaders in the region who cultivated especially close relations with Trump—Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Egyptian President ‘Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi—have lost their special protector in the White House. Biden will not aim to antagonize those leaders (many of whom he knows well) or destabilize those countries, but he also will not behave as though he owed them a favor, as Trump did. Biden has criticized the way Trump protected Mohammed bin Salman from international censure following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for example, as well as Trump’s unqualified support for his “favorite dictator” Sisi. While it remains to be seen how far Biden would go in changing the substance of the state-state relationships, the style and dynamics of personal ties will change.


How Might the Middle East and North Africa Shape Biden’s Approach?

Every U.S. president begins an administration embracing certain foreign policy priorities and then finds that things happen in the world—especially in the Middle East—for which the United States must have a policy, even if it does not always take the lead. Consider George W. Bush, who criticized his predecessor Bill Clinton’s intense involvement in the region, but then became even more involved himself after the September 11, 2001 attacks; or Barack Obama, who criticized Bush’s entanglements, before dealing with the fallout of the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Biden, too, is likely to face unanticipated challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. Just as he is trying to diminish U.S. involvement and turn his attention elsewhere—to domestic challenges certainly as well as Asia—he might well find that the region is coming apart at the seams. The gradual shift in world energy markets away from oil and gas has accelerated as a result of Covid-19, bringing closer the day when the region’s oil exporters (and their beneficiaries) no longer have the wealth to buy social peace from restive youthful populations. Once the pandemic begins to recede, more popular uprisings along the lines of those that have proliferated in the past decade—resulting in leadership changes in six countries so far—or other forms of unrest are likely.

A Biden administration might be no more prepared than was the Obama administration to figure out how to support citizens’ demands for human rights and accountable government in a turbulent and confusing Middle East, while the leaders and elites with whom the United States has worked panic and struggle to survive. One thing that is almost certain is that when it comes to the impact on citizens, U.S. policies under Biden will be less cruel than those under Trump.