Biden’s Middle East Visit
President of the United States, Joe Biden, recently completed his ‘historic’ tour to the Middle East, his first to the region since entering the Oval Office. During his four-day visit, President Biden went to Israel and Saudi Arabia with an avowed aim to renew US engagement with the region and strengthen its strategic partnership with the regional allies. It is to be noted here that Joe Biden and his two predecessors – Barack Obama and Donald Trump – had promised a partial disengagement from the Middle East to focus their country’s attention on China. As a matter of fact, President Biden rushed to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, handing over that country to the Taliban. Under his watch, Washington distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and returned to nuclear talks with Iran. But, the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused the region to regain importance in the world economy and for global stability. Accordingly, Biden spent four days in the region, from July 13 to 16, 2022, to reengage with the Middle East and to “strengthen America’s strategic partnership” with its allies. Having visited Israel and Palestine, the US president met with Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia, which he had previously vowed to turn into a “pariah.”
“The United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East,” Biden told Arab leaders during a summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Why this visit?
In an essay published in The Washington Post on July 09, President Biden wrote that he will be visiting the Middle East to “start a new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement there. This trip comes at a vital time for the region, and it will advance important American interests.” He further added: “A more secure and integrated Middle East benefits Americans in many ways. Its waterways are essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on. Its energy resources are vital for mitigating the impact on global supplies of Russia’s war in Ukraine. And a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict — is less likely to give rise to violent extremism that threatens our homeland or new wars that could place new burdens on US military forces and their families.”
From his thoughts and the events that unfolded before, during and after this visit suggest that Biden aimed to reassure Israel about a potential deal with Iran, promise financial support for Palestinians in contrast to the exclusion policy pursued by Donald Trump, and return to a working relationship with Saudi Arabia given the global energy challenges. All these efforts amount to the US’ re-engagement with the region. Given the growing US competition with Russia and China, many experts were predicting that the United States has decided to leave the Middle East but this visit has made it clear to them that the global superpower is not retreating from the region as its president has made a plan to protect its interests in the region. A new strategy has also been announced wherein Saudi Arabia and the UAE will play the main role while Israel and India will be the auxiliaries to provide the necessary facilities to ensure the success of this strategy.
1. Extending the Abraham Accords
President Biden made it clear before leaving on his trip that pushing for normalization between Israel and Arab countries – particularly Saudi Arabia – would be a top priority. Saudi officials had previously said they would not normalise with Israel absent a viable Palestinian state. And so during his visit, Biden pushed for incremental normalising gestures between the two countries that fall short of fully establishing diplomatic relations.
When he was in Israel, Biden announced that Saudi Arabia has agreed to open its airspace to all air carriers, including Israeli planes, hailing the move as “historic”.
Washington also helped secure an agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, which required Israeli consent. Biden portrayed the pact as a major achievement, describing it as a “historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace”.
While Biden was not able to add new countries to the normalisation agreements, known as the “Abraham Accords” — and brokered by his predecessor Donald Trump, — he pushed on with US calls for regional economic and security integration that would include Israel.
2. Energy crisis and Russia
Although Biden and his top aides stressed over the past weeks that the trip to the Middle East was not about oil, experts have argued that it is the energy crisis that has been the main factor behind the trip. It seems true especially given the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in a significant geopolitical earthquake in the energy world. Although the US and its allies tried to punish Russia through sanctions, this came at a cost in the form of high energy prices as well as food security challenges.
Russia has been an important actor in energy markets not simply as a producer but through its ties to major energy players like Saudi Arabia. Russia consolidated its influence over OPEC through its engagement with the oil cartel. The organization is now often referred to as OPEC+, and the good old days of America asking OPEC to increase production are primarily gone. Increasing oil production and reducing oil prices is a more complicated affair nowadays as oil-producing countries have to consider the potential implications for their relations with Russia.
President Biden’s visit was a result of this urgency in energy markets but also to signal to Russia and China that the US would not soon abandon allies in the region. Despite committing to shift to cleaner energy sources, the Biden administration has not announced a serious energy transition strategy. Reduced US capacity in oil production due to under-investment resulted in more vulnerability to fluctuations in oil prices. While the US could mobilize Europe against Russia, influence over energy markets remained a weakness.
During the first leg of his trip, President Biden met with Israeli leaders to expand security ties with the nation and discuss countering efforts by Iran to destabilize the region. From the moment he landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Biden made a series of pronouncements reaffirming Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security and his own affinity for the country. He suggested that he identifies as a Zionist, echoing previous comments he has made over the years. “I did say and I say again, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he said. There, he repeatedly vowed to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon and said he believed diplomacy remained the best avenue to keep Tehran from obtaining one. However, his hosts were sceptical at best as he is the person who had pushed for a revival of the Iran nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from in 2018.
Standing alongside Biden at that news conference was Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who was dismissive about another nuclear deal as the means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“Words will not stop them, Mr President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table,” Lapid said.
Iran was a main topic of discussion during this bilateral meeting, and the two leaders signed a new joint declaration aimed at expanding the security relationship between their nations and countering what they described as efforts by Iran to destabilize the region. The President reiterated the US’ “ironclad commitment” to Israel’s security.
As he headed to occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Biden struck a more balanced tone without explicitly criticising Israel. He appeared to liken the plight of Palestinians to that of Irish people who struggled under British colonialism.
“My background and the background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people with Great Britain,” he told a Palestinian audience in East Jerusalem.
During the visit, Biden pledged $100m in additional aid to hospitals that serve Palestinians in the holy city. And after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he also said Washington would continue to “insist on a full and transparent accounting” of the killing of Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces in May.
In Saudi Arabia
Next, President Biden went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he attempted to reassure regional leaders that his administration remains committed to actively engaging in the Middle East, and not allowing Russia or China to expand their geopolitical influence. It was the most delicate stop for Biden because as the Democratic presidential candidate, he had, in 2020, promised to avoid the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman because of his presumed involvement in the assassination of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The tense nature of Biden’s relationship with the Saudi Crown Prince can be gauged from the fact that Biden was received by Makkah Governor, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal at Jeddah Airport, while on the same day, an Arab head of state was received at the airport by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman himself.
Biden came to Jeddah seeking solutions to one of his top political problems at home — high gas prices — as diplomacy with the kingdom and other allies in the Middle East was seen as one of the few routes he could take to ease the pain at the pump. But, the trip did not produce any immediate announcements on increased oil production.
The trip came amid high gas prices and widespread inflation in the US and across the globe, in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has been ongoing since February. The high gas and grocery prices in the US are putting stress on millions of Americans and represent a major political liability for Biden’s Democratic Party in this year’s midterm elections.
While gas prices have been falling in recent weeks, high prices have become a thorn in Biden’s side. White House officials said in the lead-up to the Saudi leg of the trip that they did not expect to be leaving with promises of increased oil production, and that prediction came true by the time Biden left the kingdom.
However, President Biden did strike an optimistic note that regional leaders would soon take action given that the next OPEC meeting will take place in early August.
“Based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks,” Biden said after hours of meetings with Saudi leadership.
The main goal of US President Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East was to reaffirm his country’s willingness to engage in a region in which it has continually experienced setback after setback. One thing is clear at the end of this visit: it has left everyone disappointed. So, it is difficult to say this visit was a major success, given the fact that Biden’s political goals were modest in the first place. Biden wanted to strengthen his hand against Iran by showing unity with Israel, but his refusal to talk about military options he may have, once again, exposed differences with Israel on Iran. He wanted to assure Palestinians through a commitment to a two-state solution but with no serious strategy offered. He wanted Saudi support on oil prices but offered no major security paradigm to push the Kingdom toward a new alignment. Biden may have achieved his modest goals, but it is doubtful they will create new regional momentum.
The writer is an expert on International Law.