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Biden boosts relations but fails to move the dial

President Joe Biden in Jeddah Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein
President Joe Biden attends a news conference at Waldorf Astoria in Jeddah on July 15

The president hoped to reset Washington’s relationship with the Middle East last weekend. In this in-depth analysis, AGBI explores how he performed on Israel, Iran, human rights and oil

President Joe Biden’s whirlwind tour of the Middle East sought to reinforce America’s commitment to the region after several years of disengagement.

In a speech to kick off the GCC+3 summit held in Jeddah on Saturday, Biden told leaders of the GCC states, as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, that the US would remain an active partner in the Middle East.

“The United States is invested in building a positive future of the region, in partnership with all of you – and the United States is not going anywhere,” he said.

“As the world grows more competitive, and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me how closely interwoven our interests are with the successes of the Middle East. We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”

Two days earlier in Jerusalem, Biden had joined forces with the leaders of Israel, India and the UAE – Yair Lapid, Narendra Modi and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan – to launch the I2U2 collective. The consensus among foreign policy analysts is that this group has been set up with a key aim of countering China’s influence in the Middle East and Asia.

“The desire to contain China’s influence is no doubt a significant motivating factor in the United States’ decision to actively engage with its partner countries in this initiative, which has also been referred to as the West Asian Quad,” Sukanti Ghosh, group senior vice president of Albright Stonebridge, told AGBI.

“To my mind, the initiative seeks to reassure leaders in the region of Washington’s commitment toward them.”

During Biden’s stay in Israel, he also signed a security pledge with Lapid as part of a Jerusalem declaration that aims to deny Iran the opportunity to acquire a nuclear weapon.

So it is striking that when the president moved on to Jeddah, his efforts to secure commitments from the GCC states for a regional security axis that would include Israel did not produce any results.

Iran

Hopes of a revival of the Iran nuclear deal are looking increasingly fragile – and it remains unclear how Biden plans to tackle the immediate threats posed by Tehran and its proxies in the region. Indeed, his messaging on this front has been confused and contradictory.

Before Biden embarked on his Middle East trip, he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that said: “Next week, I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without US troops engaged in a combat mission there. It’s my aim to keep it that way.”

Yet on the second day of his visit to Jerusalem, Biden told a local TV station he was open to “last resort” use of force against Iran – a nod towards accommodating Israel’s calls for a “credible military threat”.

This has clearly riled some Gulf Arab states, with the UAE president’s diplomatic adviser Anwar Gargash saying the UAE was sending an ambassador to Tehran as it seeks to rebuild relations with Iran, adding that the idea of a confrontational approach to Iran was not something Abu Dhabi supported even if Tehran’s actions in the region were not helping diplomatic efforts.

“Abu Dhabi is not open to establishing an axis against any country in the region, especially Iran,” said Gargash.

Joe Biden with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Joe Biden also held talks with his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, in Jeddah. Picture: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein

However, some foreign policy analysts believe Biden is still open-minded about reviving the Iran nuclear deal and that a military alliance against Tehran is more an attempt to advance diplomacy between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

“I don’t think Biden has given up on an Iran deal or rapprochement with Iran. From Biden’s perspective, the anti-Iran military alliance is not about countering Iran in any military sense, but more about establishing an official framework through which to facilitate and normalise communication between Israel and Arab states that have yet to normalise,” said Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a risk and intelligence company.

“The Gulf states understand this which is why they are far less eager about the idea than Tel Aviv, and why there was a lack of enthusiasm for it at the Jeddah summit. It is also worth noting that none of the Gulf states are particularly keen on committing military resources to counter Iran, and would prefer the US to do so instead. The US, however, is not interested, and this has forced Gulf states to explore a dialogue process with Iran in a bid to find some cooperative framework to establish relative harmony.”

The Jeddah communiqué – released by the US and Saudi on the back of their talks – underscored the need to further deter Iran’s efforts to destabilise the security and stability of the region. But the joint statement contained no details of how this would be achieved.

Rather, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, said he was not aware of any discussions on a Gulf-Israeli defence alliance and the kingdom was not involved in such talks.

“As long as the Middle East produces a drop of oil and as long as it provides natural gas and has that geopolitical position, the US is going to be there,” said Scott Lucas, professor emeritus of international politics at the University of Birmingham.

“While the US is still going to remain in the Middle East, it no longer has any leverage and can’t dictate the way things are run because if you’re going to contain the Iranians then you need the Saudis and the Saudis can use that. If you need security of global energy supplies against Russia then you need the Saudis and they’re going to exploit that – that’s power politics. And the Saudis are quite adept at that, especially under MbS.”

Bringing Saudi in from the cold

Biden’s meeting with MbS was the moment the world’s media was waiting for given their well-documented hostility towards each other. Although the two leaders refrained from shaking hands, the image of Biden fist-bumping MbS has dominated media coverage and signalled a new era in US-Saudi relations.

The bilateral talks in Jeddah resulted in the signing of more than a dozen agreements spanning clean and nuclear energy projects, as well as deals with US aerospace and defence firms Boeing and Raytheon and healthcare companies Medtronic, Digital Diagnostics and IQVIA.

Joe Biden with MbS
President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) on July 16. Picture: Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters

Biden and his entourage landed on Friday afternoon. Just over 24 hours later, he was boarding a plane back to Washington, telling reporters that his team had accomplished “significant business” in Saudi.

But did it really deliver what he had set out to achieve?

Biden’s primary motive in visiting Saudi was to pressure Riyadh into pumping more oil so as to tame the sky-high energy prices that have driven US inflation to a 40-year high and pummelled his polling numbers.

The president knows that driving down energy prices will have a significant bearing on the Democratic Party’s performance in November’s midterm elections – and the rest of his term of office. He believes that getting OPEC kingpin Saudi on side is the fastest route to doing so.

According to a statement released by Saudi’s state news agency, the two countries agreed to consult regularly on global energy markets in the short and long term, as well as working together as strategic partners in climate and energy transition.

In other words, the Biden administration will be pinning its hopes on the OPEC+ alliance pledging increased output at its August meeting.

A nod to Saudi-Israel normalisation

Arguably the greatest foreign policy “win” secured by Biden was Riyadh’s announcement that it would be opening its airspace to all air carriers, including Israeli flights – breaking its historical precedent of not officially recognising or cooperating with Israel.

In the months leading up to Biden’s trip, the White House had sought to formalise security and economic deals between Saudi Arabia and Israel, in a bid to set the stage for a more substantive deal.

Given this background, it was notable that the kingdom made no further announcements about plans to normalise ties with Israel and made no reference to the Abraham Accords – the US-brokered agreements signed in September 2020 between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain with the aim of normalising diplomatic relations. In May this year, Israel and the UAE signed a free trade agreement, the first of its kind that Israel had concluded with an Arab country and the fastest FTA to be signed in Israel’s history.

The UAE-Israel Business Council has forecast that bilateral trade will exceed $2 billion this year and rise to $5 billion within the next five years. In the years leading up to the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel had steadily increased cooperation with the UAE, but Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Saudi’s foreign minister, told reporters after the GCC+3 summit that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace had nothing to do with establishing diplomatic ties with Israel and was not a precursor to further steps. 

Not long after, a White House official was asked about the possibility of a widely anticipated Saudi-Israeli normalisation agreement – and replied: “It’s going to take some time.”

Foreign policy experts believe Riyadh will continue to pursue its informal, backdoor engagement with Israel and private security cooperation as regional efforts to counter Iran gather pace.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been thawing bilateral Israeli relations for well over a decade,” Dr Najat Benchiba-Savenius, founder and director of Gazelle Advisory Group, an independent advisory firm to royal Arab families, told AGBI.

“MbS needs to carefully navigate domestic support for the Palestine cause, global Muslim support as the custodian of the two holy mosques as well as the already normalised nations of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. 

These US-brokered agreements cannot be seen to fail by the US government but millions of Arabs see it as a derailment and a total dereliction of the Palestinian cause. King Salman has for decades supported Palestine both verbally and through financial packages and it may well be that an open-door policy for normalising Israeli-Saudi relations does not occur until MbS ascends the throne.”

Human rights

“For an American president to be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden told reporters in Jeddah. He added that he had raised the issue at the top of his meeting with the crown prince on Friday, telling MbS that he directly blamed him for the infamous killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

MbS reportedly replied that any attempt to impose values on another country was viewed as counterproductive to the relationship and called out the US for double standards on not holding Israel’s government accountable for the killing of Abu Akleh, an American citizen who was shot — according to witnesses and visual investigations — from an Israeli military convoy.

“Very few in the Gulf believe the US has ever been committed to human rights in the region, and Biden’s trip to Israel did not surprise anyone in its assertion of unyielding and unconditional support for Tel Aviv at the expense of the Palestinians,” said risk and intelligence specialist Hamdi.

“Furthermore, the trip reaffirmed the perception in the Gulf that the economy matters far more than international human rights in US elections, and that the issue of human rights is a political ‘luxury’ that US presidents draw on for popular support when times are good, and swiftly discard when times are bad. It is worth noting, however, that the crown prince will be frustrated that the Khashoggi murder still dominated the headlines as US journalists kept shouting questions about the issue in public at every opportunity.” 

Yemen

In an effort to highlight an example of successful joint diplomacy, Biden pointed to the truce in Yemen – the first nationwide truce in six years.

“We agreed to work together to deepen and extend the Yemen ceasefire,” said Biden. “And it’s been in place more than three months, resulting in the most peaceful period in Yemen in seven years. We further agreed to pursue a diplomatic process to achieve a wider settlement in Yemen.”

However, no tangible details were shared. “I think the one key challenge for Saudi is that they’ve got themselves into a mess in Yemen and there are a lot of people in Washington who don’t want closer ties with Saudi,” said the University of Birmingham’s Lucas.

“But the big issue is that if the Saudis continue to kill civilians in Yemen then they’re in a cul-de-sac with no apparent exit and that’s what the Americans want – they want the Saudis to have to look for a political resolution.”

Undoubtedly, Biden’s visit to Saudi has delivered a PR coup to the kingdom in helping to rehabilitate its image on the world stage.

However, analysts remain circumspect about to what extent this will translate into future foreign investment, which took a sizeable hit in the wake of the Khashoggi killing because of concerns over the prospect of reputational risks and sanctions.

“There is no doubt that Biden’s visit has highlighted Saudi Arabia’s enduring relevance, and that the Saudi crown prince cannot be ignored,” said Hamdi.

“Yet, investors will be concerned that the headlines were less about Bin Salman’s ‘victory’, and more about the Khashoggi issue and human rights. The scenes of journalists relentlessly shouting questions about Khashoggi and human rights will temper the extent to which this visit restores any investor confidence regarding reputational risks of doing business in Saudi Arabia.”

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