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Divergent reactions in the Middle East to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s victory reflected deep divisions in the region, where the policies of President Donald Trump were as polarizing as they have been elsewhere. Most leaders made the expected congratulatory statements—some more promptly and enthusiastically than others—but media commentary in several of the Trump-friendly states betrayed worry about relations with Biden. More interesting than what Middle Eastern leaders said, however, was what several of them did: offer gestures to a president-elect they believe will revive the traditional U.S. interest in human rights.

Statements Vary in Promptness and Warmth

Middle East leaders all sent their congratulations to Biden, but it was clear which leaders were most enthusiastic: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, for example, who had strongly opposed Trump’s support for Israeli annexation of the West Bank. The alliance among Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which had bet heavily on Trump, found itself in an awkward position and scattered accordingly. Emirati and Egyptian leaders moved out swiftly with congratulations for Biden, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud held back for a day or so and then were somewhat awkward in their messages. When Netanyahu did send his tweet, for example, Israeli media pointed out that it failed to note the reason for his congratulations to Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris—no mention of the presidency, vice presidency, or elections.

Media Commentary Betrays Worry

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.
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Amid traditional statements by leaders, media commentary in Trump-friendly countries was a bit chaotic. The U.S. election dominated talks shows in Egypt, for example, where pro-regime host Ahmed Moussa spent his November 7 show airing Trump claims about electoral irregularities. But on November 8, Moussa switched to acknowledging Biden’s victory and reassuring viewers that Biden would not put any pressure on Egypt—claiming that during his vice presidency, Biden had intervened with former U.S. president Barack Obama on behalf of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and would in any case be preoccupied with domestic problems. Meanwhile, former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa told Egyptian television host Amr Adeeb—replying to a question about whether Biden would bring back the “nightmare” of Obama policies—that Cairo would have to “lobby, lobby, lobby!” to reinforce Egypt’s strategic value. Similarly, Saudi commentator Tariq al-Homayed took a whistling-past-the-graveyard approach, saying he doubted that Biden would make the sort of policy changes being promoted by “leftists or those associated with political Islam.”

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

In the hours before Biden’s electoral victory was called by U.S. news networks, Egypt, Iran, and the UAE all took steps that appeared to be gestures toward the new president-elect. Iran released human rights lawyer Nasrin Soutoudeh, who had been held for two years accused of espionage; Egypt released the five cousins of Egyptian-American rights activist Mohammed Soltan, who was detained in June after launching a lawsuit against a former Egyptian prime minister; and the UAE announced several social reforms, including decriminalizing alcohol use and toughening penalties for so-called honor killings. The UAE reforms appeared to be the latest in a series of moves—most notably, normalizing relations with Israel—in which the country has tried to show itself more amenable than its ally Saudi Arabia to steps long advocated by the United States.