A Delicate Middle Eastern Dance Between Realpolitik and Human Rights
The Biden Administration is more outspoken than its predecessor on human rights, but tradeoffs with the promotion of national interests are inevitable
Almost one year ago, US President Joe Biden came to power and promised to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy in the Middle East. This approach sent shock waves through many Middle Eastern capitals, where rulers, kings and presidents had just gotten used to the lenient attitude toward human rights promoted by the previous president, Donald Trump. Now it seems that while President Biden and his team are certainly more outspoken on the issue of human rights, they have also learned how difficult it is to find the right balance between defending human rights and promoting national interests. In his remarks at last week’s rededication of the Dodd Center for Human Rights at the University of Connecticut, Biden condemned the authoritarian forces he said were gaining strength around the world. “The United States should always seek to lead by the power of our example, not the example of our power,” he said.
But what example is being set by the current administration?
While the US aims to disengage from the Middle East (even as it secures its vital interests in the region), China and Russia are looking for ways to increase their influence, and when weapons sales and economic interests are at stake, human rights are never prioritized high enough. How has the first year of Biden’s presidency changed the grim reality in the Middle East and what will his future battles look like?
After a decade of bloody civil war during which Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime butchered half a million Syrian civilians and forced millions of others to flee the country, the blue-eyed president is making a comeback. The Emirati Embassy in Damascus was reopened in 2018, and then the Jordanians joined the party, as well. Secured by Russian and Iranian military, Assad had indicated to the world that he was there to stay and fight to the last Syrian.
Having no desire or appetite to get involved in messy Syrian business, conquer Damascus, topple Assad and repeat the mistakes of war in Iraq, the Americans decided to tighten the sanctions on Assad’s regime. The Caesar Act introduced secondary sanctions against all parties that were willing to cooperate with Assad’s Syria. However, the Jordanians, and, apparently, the Emiratis have gotten a waiver and will continue doing business with the Assads without bearing the consequences. Anyone can stroll into the Syrian pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai that proudly displays the country’s “accomplishments” as if entire Syrian villages and cities were not wiped off the face of the earth and millions of refugees were not living in exile, struggling to survive.
“The United States does not intend to support any efforts to normalize ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or rehabilitate him until there is irreversible progress toward a political solution in Syria,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said at a news conference last week, and yet it’s clear that the US will not stand in the way of its regional partners who are trying to “normalize” Assad while increasing their diplomatic and commercial activities.
Friends with benefits
During the last few months, President Biden met just several Middle Eastern leaders – Jordanian King Abdullah II, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. (The first two had paid official visits to Washington, while the meeting with Erdoğan took place in June in Brussels.) Soon after his election. Biden singled out a few Gulf states, and specifically Saudi Arabia, as “pariah states,” and told Egypt that human rights concerns would be central to US-Egypt ties. The effect of these statements was soon felt. In February, Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi human rights activist, was released from jail, while Egypt released six activists in July. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, paid visits to the White house. At the same time, human rights activists in the US and the Middle East are slamming Biden for being too soft on Middle Eastern rulers who continue to jail TikTok stars, human rights activists and critics, and hide the statistics on injured or dead workers in their countries.
This is hardly a new policy. Consecutive American administration had done business (and sold billions of dollars’ worth of weapons) to Middle Eastern regimes despite the blunt violations of human rights. Women unable to drive, political parties banned and human rights activists jailed were never good enough reasons to cancel weapon sales or downgrade relationships, even when the US was the only superpower that reigned in the Middle East. What are the chances that today, when Washington is perceived by many regional players as playing a weak hand and looking to leave the table, it will be able to advance and defend human rights? And how will this experience affect other democracies that experience significant pressures and sometimes even threats on behalf of the nondemocratic countries when the issue of human rights is in question?
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The future of human rights in a multipolar world
A diplomatic feud erupted between Saudi Arabia and Canada in 2018 when the latter openly criticized Riyadh over the arrests of Saudi human rights activists. Over the course of just a few days, Saudi Arabia declared the Canadian ambassador persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country, all new business transactions and investments linked to Canada were suspended, and direct flights between Riyadh and Toronto were canceled. “The Canadian position is a grave and unacceptable violation of the Kingdom’s laws and procedures. In addition to violate the Kingdom’s judiciary and a breach of the principle of sovereignty,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry tweeted.
#Statement | The Canadian position is a grave and unacceptable violation of the Kingdom's laws and procedures. In addition to violate the Kingdom's judiciary and a breach of the principle of #sovereignty.
— Foreign Ministry 🇸🇦 (@KSAmofaEN) August 5, 2018
Just two years after the diplomatic and commercial war between the two countries began, Canada decided to double the amount of weapons that it sells to Riyadh, reluctant to lose the lucrative contracts to other countries. Canada is not alone. Despite the pressure of human rights organizations, Western countries go on with weapons sales to unsavory regimes, turning a blind eye to human rights violations. When then-US President Barack Obama decided to shun Egypt after the 2013 coup d’état that ended the rule of Mohamed Morsi, Russia was there to offer its state-of-the-art weapons and fighter jets for sale.
An in-depth investigation conducted by 17 major international news organizations claimed that the Israeli-based cyber firm NSO Group has sold spyware used to target journalists, activists and politicians in dozens of countries, some of them in the Middle East, while made-in-Israel drones played a key role in Azerbaijan’s recent war with Armenia. Many heads of these companies say off-record that if Israel or US will not sell these drones or technologies, someone definitely will.
“There is a gentle dynamic between the attempt to promote the interests of one’s country and the protection of human rights. Often advancing one’s particular interests comes at the expense of protecting human rights. The ability to do both is limited. Those who believe there is no problem in selling advanced weapons to tyrannical regimes point to European countries that also maintain relations with the world’s worst dictators and sell them weapons. All of these states have signed UN human rights declarations, and if everyone were acting in accordance with these principles, we would not be in this situation today,” says Zehava Galon, president of Zulat, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for equality and human rights, and former chairperson of the left-wing Meretz party in Israel’s parliament. Given the reality of a multipolar world in which many states compete for influence in global markets, the noble goal of protecting human rights often gives way to other priorities.