Four Mideast signs of change offer historic opportunity. Here’s how Biden can build on them.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the state of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccinations from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 4, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

US President Joe Biden’s long years of Senate and White House experience taught him that the Middle East could be quicksand for his presidential ambitions.

So it was no accident that his Middle East goals were modest and aimed at avoiding resource-draining distractions from his domestic ambitions and international priorities: recharging the US economy and rallying European and Asian allies to deal with China. 

The old logic was that US withdrawal from Middle East affairs would leave a dangerous vacuum. The new thinking was that by keeping some distance, one could encourage greater self-reliance.  

What has taken Biden administration officials by surprise is how quickly a historic opportunity has emerged. A positive series of loosely connected events across the region offers the best opportunity in memory for reducing tensions, ending conflict, building economic progress, and advancing Middle East integration.

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A region abuzz with opportunity

The combined effect of these events should be to prompt the Biden administration to recalibrate its "do-no-harm" approach to the region and lift its ambitions. For starters, the administration should focus on the four leading indicators of change and explore how to build upon them. 

  • First, the region's two most bitter adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are engaged in secret talks to manage the region's most incendiary conflict. 
  • Second, Turkey this week added Egypt to the list of countries with which it is trying to reduce tensions—including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel.
  • Third, signatories to last year's Abraham Accords are building further upon their historic normalization agreement, with the UAE and Israel set to open free-trade talks next month.
  • Finally, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq are engaged in trilateral talks to deepen their economic ties, underscoring the potential for growth-generating regional integration.

To help move any of this along would not require the sort of military deployments, endless commitments, or costly investments that have soured Americans to the region. What it would take is a heightened level of diplomatic and economic creativity, and the dusting off of history books to study how the United States helped Europe end centuries of conflict after World War II and build the institutions and cooperative habits that still endure today.  

The process should begin by studying the dynamics of what's unfolding, staying out of what's working well, and engaging where doing so would support fragile progress.

Weary of the financial and reputational cost of their disputes, countries long at odds are talking—Saudi Arabia with Iran, Turkey with Egypt, the UAE with Qatar, and Israel with any number of Arab states, alongside other emerging combinations.

Warring parties in Libya and Yemen, though far from solutions, are looking for ways to de-escalate. National leaders have stepped up their efforts at economic growth, sensing the demands of a well-educated, rising generation that understands global standards.

Most intriguing, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding secret talks since January, apparently without US involvement and brokered by Iraq.

In a dramatic change of tone, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, "We do not want the situation with Iran to be difficult. On the contrary, we want it to prosper and grow as we have Saudi interests in Iran, and they have Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, which is to drive prosperity and growth in the region and the entire world."

The Crown Prince has many reasons for changing course. Among them was the shock of a highly sophisticated Iranian attack on Saudi oil installations in September 2019, costing Riyadh some two billion dollars.

The event not only exposed the kingdom's vulnerabilities and Iran's growing capabilities; it also raised doubts about US security guarantees, even from as close a friend as US President Donald Trump, who did not retaliate on Riyadh's behalf. 

"The concern that Biden will make overly nice with Iran while drawing down from the region and de-prioritizing the bilateral relationship is crucial to [Saudi Arabia's] calculus right now," the Atlantic Council's Kirsten Fontenrose told me.

Reeling economically and isolated politically, Turkey also has been mending fences with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, who have been wary of Ankara's support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups they consider extremist.

And building off last year's historic Abraham Accords, a senior Middle East official says Israel and the UAE will start talks next month on a free-trade agreement, just one of many efforts to seize the momentum of normalized relations.

Continuing to act as an outsized regional elixir for economic modernization and political moderation, the UAE this week liberalized its residency requirements to attract wealthy expats. And it has set the goal of doubling its gross domestic product (GDP) within the decade, in particular through technological investments.  

Separately and inspired by the Abraham Accords, officials from Israel, the UAE, Greece, and Cyprus met in April, with the backdrop of the Eastern Mediterranean, to deepen their cooperation on everything from energy to fighting the pandemic.

Why Biden can’t afford to miss this moment

Taken individually, these indicators may appear more tenuous than transformational. Tie them together and build upon them more methodically, however, and the Middle East could have the beginnings of the sort of conflict de-escalation, economic cooperation, and institution-building that Europe enjoyed after World War II.

With growing security threats in the Horn of Africa and new uncertainties regarding Afghanistan's future, the United States would like to be able to call upon steadier Middle East partners to better address growing uncertainties elsewhere in their broader neighborhood. 

No one should expect the Middle East in the short term to sprout its own equivalent of the European Union, NATO, or the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which provided the venue for talks between the Cold War's rival factions.

One also should not expect the United States to play the galvanizing role it did then, when it had half of global GDP, much of Europe was in rubble, and the Soviet Union was rising as an adversary to counter.

That said, it would be wrong to underestimate the positive potential US influence.

The Trump administration's support for the Abraham Accords helped unlock growing cooperation among the signatories: Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

The Biden administration has endorsed the agreements, most recently in a conversation this week between Biden and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Biden administration officials, however, should invest more into building upon the accords.

Biden's resumption of efforts to negotiate with Iran, his focus on human-rights issues, and his reluctance to feed the region's divisions also play a positive role, as long as negotiators don't set the bar too low to lift sanctions on Tehran.

What the Biden administration must avoid is listening to the wrong-headed conclusion of some analysts that US disengagement from the region would accelerate progress. What's needed instead is consistent support for the region's rising forces of modernization and moderation, which have gained but still have far to go.

This article originally appeared on CNBC.com

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.

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