Middle East leaders and peoples have been as interested in the outcome of the US presidential elections as have those in the West. Although it is too early to see what a Biden policy towards the Middle East will be, the goals and policies of US administrations for the region affect the lives of millions.
It is expected that Biden will dial down normalisation with Israel as a priority in its relations with various Arab countries in the region. Last month, Sudan became the third Arab-majority nation to recognise Israel this year, following the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Palestinians hope that the US will return to a more mediating role between them and the Jewish people and cease backing Israeli annexation. Many believe that Saudi Arabia and Turkey will face greater scrutiny, after being given a green light for many of their activities in the region and internationally.
Sadly, for the people of Syria, Yemen and Libya, a Biden presidency is unlikely to change much, as he was party to the policies and short-term perspectives of the Obama era. It is legitimate to expect a return to the commitment to promoting human rights and good governance and to exerting more pressure on authoritarian regimes to act accordingly. However, the Middle East has been slipping down the agenda of US governments since Obama, and Biden is likely to continue that trend.
One area where we could see some positive moves might be over Iran. The Trump administration threw out the nuclear enrichment deal that took a decade to agree with European countries and Iran. Its more aggressive, “maximum pressure” policy sought to crash the Iranian economy. While this increased the hardships of ordinary citizens, it failed to bring about much change in Iran’s regional agenda. Biden is likely to explore whether an easing of sanctions and lowering of rhetoric will bring Iran back to the negotiating table.
Some Middle Eastern Christians fear that Biden might not be as interested as the Trump administration on issues relating to religious freedom and the suffering of Christian minorities in the region. This will become clear when appointments are made by the administration to key posts relating to these issues. However, Middle East Christians have been adversely affected by the current administration’s travel bans on 13 Muslim-majority nations and its drastic reduction in refugee admissions (down from 110,000 under Obama to 15,000 this tax year).
Yet many of the ongoing issues in the Middle East will remain largely the making and burden of regional and local powers. In Lebanon, it has been disheartening to see no real accountability, no real change and no concrete signs of hope emerging from the explosion that devastated Beirut. One sign of the collapse of basic state functions due to lack of financing came in reports that government bodies were unable to print official documents and asked citizens to bring their own paper if they needed documents issued.
A 7.0 magnitude earthquake in the Aegean to the west of Turkey flattened at least 13 buildings, including multi-storey apartment blocks in Izmir. SAT-7’s Turkish channel heard from Turkish NGO First Hope, who were supporting victims and emergency workers with two mobile hygiene vans, offering fresh water and shower facilities. Some 116 deaths were confirmed, but rescuers were cheered by pulling over 100 survivors from the rubble. Thousands of residents who lost homes have been sleeping in tents while the government investigates breaches of building safety regulations. Pray for Izmir.
Also collapsing in Turkey was the currency. The lira reached an historic low against the dollar. The resignation of President Erdogan’s son-in-law from a key economic post gave the currency a temporary boost, only for it to crumble again when investors judged that the next appointee will also be unqualified.
In neighbouring Armenia and nearby Azerbaijan the fresh conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh territories has developed rapidly. Since 27 September, thousands of ethnic Armenian civilians have fled to Armenia itself, as Azeri forces advance. Last weekend Azeri forces captured the strategic hill town of Shusha overlooking the capital, Stepanakert.
With the city about to fall and with Russian mediation, Armenian PM Nikol Pashinyan signed an initial peace agreement with Azerbaijan. Russian peacekeeping forces are being deployed in the area. The agreement was celebrated in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, but met with anger in Yerevan, the Armenian capital. What detailed peace talks will follow it is too early to tell. Armenians fear a return to the ethnic cleansing and massive displacement that occurred on both sides in the 1990s.
We can give thanks for some easing of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey. This could also be a sign that nations are keeping an eye on which direction the US will take on the region’s energy dispute. Biden has always preferred negotiation over confrontation, though his response to Turkey is expected to be firmer than his predecessor’s. Our prayer might be that the nations involved would address the shared issues of natural resources and a lasting solution to the divided island of Cyprus. But with many actors wanting to isolate and push for greater European and American pressure on Turkey, more escalations could be on the horizon. It would be wise to pray for peace.
To return to the subject of religious freedom, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) this month used the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council to urge Turkey to “review its decisions to effectively expel and ban 60 Protestant church members” from the country. WEA Advocacy Officer Wissam al-Saliby highlighted two cases of Christians who had lived in the country for 20 and 30 years respectively, one of whom has a wife and four children who are all Turkish citizens. The WEA said some 60 foreign believers have been “denied residency, arbitrarily and without due process”.
On a positive note, a cabinet committee in Egypt last month announced that it had approved applications for registration for 100 more churches and church premises. Since 2017 some 1,738 unlicensed churches have received state approval after a law passed in 2016 that eased regulations on church construction.