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Joe Biden brings a neo-imperialist vision to the Middle East

US president's trip to the region entailed open support for settler-colonialism, meetings with local dictators and a deafening silence on human rights
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are pictured in Jeddah on 16 July 2022 (AFP)

US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Middle East was widely lauded by the American foreign policy establishment. In its view, the visit was rooted in a realpolitik grasp of international relations shaped by the destabilising impacts of the war in Ukraine, American national interests and the “realities of power” in the Middle East.

This perspective differs sharply from that of people from the region, and particularly civil society activists. The US president’s trip felt like modern Middle East history, deeply shaped by European intervention, had come full circle. Biden's vision smacked of a new Western imperial dominion over the region, akin to the Anglo-French conquest of the Arab world a century ago.

Though the president did not explicitly affirm support for a new imperial conquest of the Middle East, he came close to doing so

There was open support for a settler-colonial regime, meetings with local dictators, a dubious commitment to economic development, and critically, a deafening silence on the principle of self-determination and the question of democracy. The abject humiliation felt by many Arabs and Muslims during Biden’s visit was palpable.  

Are terms such as colonialism and imperialism grossly inaccurate here? To answer this question one should recall the core moral critique of colonialism and imperialism.This European project was ethically objectionable because imperial powers, supported by local collaborators, created a political and economic arrangement that negated the human and democratic rights of subject peoples, while exploiting natural resources to benefit the economies of the West.

Does this picture bear any resemblance to Biden’s Mideast policy? Though the president did not explicitly affirm support for a new imperial conquest of the Middle East, he came close to doing so. Upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, Biden noted that he had visited Israel repeatedly over a span of nearly 50 years, and added: “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.”

While this sentence generated little interest or controversy in the US, where declaring pro-Israel bona fides is de rigueur for many politicians, it was certainly noticed by Arabs and Muslims, who understand Zionism from the perspective of its victims.

The most powerful man in the world was openly declaring his support for the mass expulsion and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians by a country that is widely viewed by the human rights community as an apartheid state

Authoritarian status quo

Biden’s policy on Jerusalem keeps the colonial analogy alive. His administration has openly accepted former President Donald Trump’s controversial relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, a move in clear defiance of international law, and previous policy, which viewed East Jerusalem as illegally occupied territorywhile effectively abandoning plans to reopen a consulate for Palestinians. 

Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlements are continuing to expand, housing hundreds of thousands of settlers in the occupied West Bank - a reality that Biden failed to critique during his recent trip. While official US policy opposes the building of new settlements, Biden has strongly objected to conditioning US aid on a halt to new construction, saying in 2019 that such a notion would be “absolutely outrageous” and a “gigantic mistake”.

Revealingly, there was a moment of candour when Biden seemed to unconsciously confirm the applicability of the theme of colonialism and imperialism to the Israel-Palestine conflict. “The background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history … not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people with Great Britain and their attitude toward Irish-Catholics over the years, for 400 years,” he said.

Biden is flanked by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on 14 July 2022 (AFP)
Biden is flanked by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, left, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem on 14 July 2022 (AFP)

Quoting a poem from the famous Irish poet Seamus Heaney - which Heaney has applied to Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa - Biden affirmed these lyrics were “classically Irish, but it also could fit Palestinians”. Devout Israel supporters responded with outrage. 

Biden’s meetings with Arab dictators also smacked of neo-imperialism. Pledging to remain committed to the authoritarian status quo, he promised the US “will not walk away” from the Middle East. This view was reinforced prior to his arrival by a flurry of reports suggesting the US was offering Gulf regimes new security guarantees, defence agreements, and a regional air defence partnership with Israel. The purported threat is Iran - clearly a destabilising player in the Middle East - but the real longer-term threat is regional democratisation. 

This was on display a decade ago during the Arab Spring, when Israel and Arab autocrats lined up on the same side to oppose citizens’ revolts for dignity and democracy. These events rocked Middle Eastern repressive regimes and directly contributed to the Abraham Accords, the brainchild of the Trump administration and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has now publicly attested.

Bleak prognosis

Events in Tunisia and Sudan confirm the threat that democracy poses to Israel and its friends in the “axis of Arab autocracies”. Official media, as well as social media campaigns in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, welcomed President Kais Saied’s seizure of power last summer in Tunis, which overturned the country’s brief experiment with democracy.

Similarly, in Sudan today, Israel, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are firmly on the side of General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and his military junta, whose hallmark has been the crushing of street protests led by a democratic coalition of civil society groups.     

Imperialism is also about economics. While oil is a huge factor in sustaining great power interests in the Middle East, the West is less dependent on oil purchases from the region than it has been in the past. But it is crucial to ensure that profits obtained by Arab states from the sale of oil are reinvested back in the American and European economies. Arms sales and the ensuing relationships built around them between western and Arab ruling elites is key to this equation.

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Between 2015 and 2020, the US agreed to sell more than $64bn in weapons to Riyadh. The new defence and security agreements  Biden is negotiating with Arab autocrats will surely push these figures higher. 

Gulf wealth and investment opportunities are highly coveted by business and political interests in the West, as evidenced during Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 trip to the US before the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The crown prince was given an unprecedented red-carpet treatment, including meetings with American luminaries across the political, economic and cultural spectrums. Indeed, economic interests help shape western imperialism in the Middle East - and friendly pro-western dictators are a key element for enhancing these interests.

“We live in scoundrel times,” observed the late author Eqbal Ahmad. Commenting on the state of the Middle East towards the end of the 20th century, he rightly noted that it was “the dark age of Muslim history, the age of surrender and collaboration, punctuated by madness”.

Twenty-two years into the new century, the picture has become darker, and the prognosis looks bleak - especially if you identify with the political aspirations of the peoples in the region struggling for democracy and human rights. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the US president’s visit to the Middle East and the neo-imperial vision it encompassed.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies, Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver