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President Biden’s first moves in the Middle East — bombing Iran-backed militias in Syria, for instance, while de-prioritizing much of the rest of the region — neglect the bigger picture of a region that is leading the world out of the pandemic. And with the first US-China meeting under the Biden administration getting off to a tough start this week, that’s more important than you might think.
The Gulf states and Israel provide an opportunity for the US to participate in a global economy that will be more centered on the Middle East than it was before the virus. This future must be a cornerstone of US policy, as well the legacy issues around security.
Covid has threatened the mature economies of the US and Europe, accelerated China’s inevitable rise, and given opportunity to the region’s often more agile and adaptable countries.
There are few countries in the world who have (almost) put the pandemic behind them and are on good terms with both the US and China. Those are the countries who are set to lead the world in the 21st century. They are almost exclusively in the Middle East.
The rise of the Middle East as a gateway between the US and China presents an opportunity for Biden to re-engage with Beijing through the neutral soil of Israel and the Gulf states. Biden should not be afraid of celebrating and building on the diplomatic progress achieved under the Trump administration through the end of the GCC rift and the Abraham accords.
Being the “new Europe” is something that Middle Eastern leaders are understandably motivated by, particularly in light of their relations with both DC and Beijing. Europe was the middle ground for the Soviet-US Cold War, and the Middle East is the same for the China-US relationship — geographically, politically and economically.
Rather than continue to fight yesterday’s conflicts and ignore today’s achievements (perhaps focused on distancing himself from Trump’s policies), Biden should craft policy based on the reality that the Middle East is transitioning from a 20th century defined by conflict and insecurity to a 21st century where the Silk Road is once again the social, economic, cultural, and political center of the world.
This is a future into which the Middle East is rapidly progressing. Three of the top five countries with the most Covid vaccinations (excluding the Seychelles and Maldives) are in the Middle East — namely the UAE, Israel, and Bahrain. In addition to a successful vaccination campaign, total death rates in these countries and others in the region have remained low. All this while key industries, including tourism, have often remained open.
Saudi Arabia has been working to almost triple its non-oil revenues, and is investing billions into futuristic cities like NEOM and “The Line.” The UAE successfully completed a mission to Mars during the pandemic and recently announced plans to double Dubai’s population, all while commentators in London and New York discuss the “death of cities.”
Gulf economies also benefit from a low debt to GDP ratio, which will allow them to maintain growth while more developed and leveraged economies struggle in the wake of the pandemic. The US currently has a debt to GDP ratio of over 100 percent; in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the debt to GDP ratio is only 20 percent, meaning those governments will have spending power well into the future for public and private projects.
China is busy building deeper links in the region, where doing business is more important than talking politics. It is important to Biden’s legacy that US policymakers and investors do the same, and foster both cultural and economic connections to the new Middle East rather than allowing themselves to be crowded out.
To this day, too many American political and business leaders are driven by the impulses that impacted actions between them and the Middle East at the start of the millennium. Twenty years on, the White House should look to the future. It must adapt to the rise of China by utilizing the Middle East’s neutral ground to increase cooperation with Beijing.
It’s high time an American president looked to the Middle East for its entrepreneurship, adaptability and its e-governance, rather than simply for its oil.
Joshua Jahani is a Cornell alum, public speaker and investment banker with a focus on the Middle East and Africa