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Against the odds, Biden achieved a low key US-Gulf reset

The US president did enough to restore relations with Saudi Arabia to what they were a decade ago but what comes next is paramount

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and US president Joe Biden stand for a family photo ahead of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit Reuters/Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and US president Joe Biden stand for a family photo ahead of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit

President Biden’s visit to the Middle East had mixed results. The minimum requirement was met in that there were no major perceptible fallouts with the US’s two major allies in the region – Israel and Saudi Arabia.  

Any disagreements were largely kept behind closed doors, and the trickiest obstacles dodged or deferred. 

Yet many may still ask, was this all worth it? Above all, the enduring theme was one of American weakness.

The presidential mission was domestic. Biden needed to shore up support at home prior to the mid-terms in November by getting key oil producers to increase exports and to show that the US was still a presence in the Middle East. 

The US leader also wanted to galvanise support for Ukraine and ensure Russia and China were not going to be usurping American influence.

He also wished to draw more Arab states – especially Saudi Arabia – closer to Israel’s orbit en route to full normalisation of ties further down the line. 

On the energy front, Saudi Arabia has no capacity to produce more oil and it is unlikely that the remaining GCC members can do much either. The crucial price at the pumps in the US and the cost of heating is unlikely to be lowered much as a result. 

Biden also appreciates that the US has to assert its influence in the region. China looms large and so does Russia. Saudi exports a huge percentage of its oil to China.

Beijing has increased its influence in Saudi and will continue to do so. More Saudis are learning Chinese as a second or third language.

And, as for Russia, some of the Gulf countries represented in Jeddah have not adopted the US line on Ukraine, and appeared not to shift on this either. 

To prevent these powers and Iran from enlarging their regional footprints, the US has to demonstrate it has not abandoned the area even if Biden, like Trump and Obama, has zero desire to get sucked into any more Middle East military adventures. 

The question allies are asking is if the US is going to ensure their security and how. Biden will have much to prove to a region still sceptical that the US will be engaged as they wish. 

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia insist on a tougher US position on Iran. The stalled nuclear talks appear to be going nowhere.

Saudi Arabia wants to know if the US still has its back given Biden was referring to it as a “pariah” state only two years ago. 

The new Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid explicitly pushed the option of military force against Iran, but Biden stayed schtum on this. He merely kept to hoping diplomacy would work, and that Iran must not be permitted to develop a nuclear bomb.  

For the Palestinians, he did not bring any new initiatives. In fact, he made zero promises of this at all. 

In terms of normalisation with the rest of the Arab world, Biden was full of ambition. He made much of the Saudi agreement to permit Israeli overflights and progress on the future of the Red Sea islands. It is not normalised ties yet, but another step in that direction. 

This tour smashed any notion that Biden would be a pro-human rights president. 

Biden had to handle the issue of two murdered journalists. In Israel he said nothing about Shireen Abu Akleh, the US-Palestinian journalist almost certainly killed by Israeli forces in Jenin in May. 

Biden arrives back at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland following his trip to the Middle EastReuters/Evelyn Hockstein
Biden arrives back at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland following his trip to the Middle East

Just contrast that with how he handled the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Though the Saudis dispute this, Biden claimed to the press in Jeddah that he had raised the case with crown prince Muhammad bin Salman at the top of the meeting: “[I] made my view crystal clear,” Biden claimed he said. 

The double standards did not go unnoticed. Israel got a free pass; Saudi Arabia a warning.

Yet for all that, the Saudis sat smug in the knowledge that it was Biden who had to kowtow to them. It was the American president who lost face, not the Saudi rulers.

The chemistry between the president and the Saudi crown prince was tough to decipher. It was fist pumps on meeting, not a warm embrace but few expected that.

Will MbS be invited to the White House? Will a functioning relationship resume? 

The two have agreed it is in their mutual interest to work together. Disagreements on human rights cannot be allowed to get in the way.

Biden is keen to build on the ceasefire in Yemen. Saudi needs an exit plan there. A collective strategy on Iran is essential if challenging, but it is still not clear what the US will actually do.

A functioning US-Saudi relationship has been restored to something like it was a decade ago. It is not the lovefest of the Trump years but based on a pragmatic understanding of their mutual interest. 

The wider US-Gulf partnership appears to have had the desired reset. Much talk of unity and shared interests papered over the enduring cracks.

For all the talk of joint security, tackling Iran, combatting terrorism and oil and gas prices, the key test is what comes next and that is far from clear. 

Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding

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