When U.S. President Joe Biden finally arrives in the Middle East in mid-July, it will be 18 months since he assumed office. They say a week is a long time in politics. A year and a half in the geostrategic relations of the Middle East is an eternity.
Biden’s first official visit to the region, from 13-16 July, will see him stop first in Israel, where he will meet Israeli and Palestinian officials, before flying to Jeddah, to attend a summit dubbed the ‘GCC+3 Summit’, organized and hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here, Biden will meet the leaders of all six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - plus those of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. His to-do list is much bigger than simply attending meetings, however. There are plenty of states he must win over – and plenty to fight for.
The recent and dramatic shift in Biden’s stance towards the Middle East - from cold and distant, to warm and open – is evidence of a desperate effort to rescue the lost popularity of his administration and his Democratic Party. The stakes are high. All such trips by American presidents in recent years have been important. Each of them marked fundamental changes in the political and economic agendas of the region that eventually echoed the global policies of western countries, including the U.S. itself.
Yet, this visit feels different. Whereas in the past the U.S. was, if not driving the train, up front setting its course. Now, for the first time, it feels as if Biden simply wants the U.S. to board this metaphorical train of change, which is now moving under its own steam, at a speed and in a direction set by the regional capitals themselves. With the western world’s attention understandably diverted by war in Ukraine, this fundamental shift has gone largely unnoticed.
Most agree that the new driver is Washington’s oldest regional ally, Saudi Arabia, which President Biden unjustifiably said would be “a [human rights] pariah” in the immediate aftermath of the killing in Turkey of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA said was probably ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Biden’s comments seemed designed to please his left-leaning voters back at home, where political attention spans can be short. In the Middle East, however, such comments linger, and are remembered long after they are made.
BALLOT BOX REDEMPTION
The 18 months it has taken for the 79-year-old Biden to visit has been marked by big economic problems and dubious decisions in the realms of foreign and defence policy. It may also have taken almost two years for his administration to realise that the success or otherwise of his time in office may be closely correlated to what he can achieve in the Middle East, as was the case with most of the former administrations.
The lack of any big triumphs on the world stage as he approaches the middle of his four-year term may begin to unnerve members of his Democratic Party, who will be out competing in the mid-term elections for Congress and the Senate in November. It may also reflect badly on his party’s chances in the next presidential elections in 2024.
Biden’s declining approval ratings suggest as much. The latest survey by the Politico and the Morning Consult, from 4-5 June, found that 58 percent of voters disapprove of the president’s job performance, the lowest such rating since he took office. Ironically, his Republican predecessor Donald Trump, who was battling the Covid pandemic, fared better in national satisfaction surveys around the same point in his reign.
With the war in Ukraine turning ugly, the White House incumbent needs a big foreign policy win soon. If the Abraham Accords, which thawed relations between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, was Trump’s chef-d’oeuvre, and if the nuclear deal was former Democratic President Barack Obama’s, then what is Biden’s? What will be his accomplishment or masterstroke? To-date, his main effect on the region has been to tinker with the decisions of Trump. This has led to muddled policies benefitting neither the U.S. nor its regional allies.
Exhibit A is Biden’s appeasement of Iran, angering America’s historical allies in the Arab Gulf region. Exhibit B was the Biden administration’s snail-pace response to the war that erupted in Gaza just four months after he took office. And Exhibit C, perhaps most telling of all, was the hasty and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which led to the loss of hundreds of lives, paved the way for Taliban’s second coming, and opened the door to the region’s terrorists. To-date, these comprise his Middle East legacy.
DISAPPOINTED MIDDLE EAST
There are several items on the agenda of the GCC+3 Summit that Biden will prioritise. They include: efforts to block threats to regional security, especially from Iran; the potential for more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel; progress on improving human rights conditions in Arab states; and regional solutions to global food and energy crises, exacerbated by war in Ukraine. Yet Biden’s main aim from the visit should be to fix strained ties with key Arab countries and find ways to regain their trust. If he succeeds, his administration will benefit from what the region can offer to ease the global crises - solutions that the U.S. cannot find on its own.
The outstretched arms are far removed from his early days in office, when Biden divorced himself from the headaches of the Middle East and chose to review all Trump’s decisions regarding Arab Gulf countries, including the crucial arms sales deals Trump approved to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Months before, during the presidential election campaign, Biden was vague on Middle East policy, save for the repetition of Obama-era platitudes. He even had harsh words towards Riyadh and Cairo. Against these beginnings, his Afghan withdrawal was no surprise.
Upon touchdown, he will find that much has changed. Today, the participation of the United States as a leading partner to Middle East countries in handling regional challenges is both less necessary and less urgent. During the perceived 18-month U.S. absence from the region, countries began building new geopolitical structures to deal with their own problems and lead their own future. Within these, Saudi Arabia plays the most influential role.
Early signs are positive, with regional disputes between Arab countries having already been successfully resolved by Gulf reconciliation. Likewise, long-term diplomatic tension between Arab and non-Arab states in the Middle East – including Turkey and Israel – have either been resolved or brought to the negotiating table. Even the difficult topic of normalising ties between Israel and other Arab countries, without the involvement of the United States as a facilitator, is becoming increasingly feasible.
Some think Biden has realised that he is hurting U.S. interests by withdrawing from the Middle East, arguing instead for the reallocation of U.S. resources to confront China. Yet in this evolving world order, U.S. power and interests are increasingly dependent on the wellbeing of the Middle East, not the other way around. Amidst the global turmoil, the Middle East has realised that it can survive without U.S. help and the U.S. has realised that its prosperity is tied to the economic and geostrategic power of the Middle East.
All this makes Biden’s courtship of regional capitals that much more important. He will know that most states in the Middle East, including non-Arab countries, had hoped that Donald Trump would win a second term. The pragmatic approach of the Trump administration relied on personal diplomacy, employing a political language that the region’s leaders knew, understood, and responded to. Direct, back-channel communication from and to the White House created opportunities and limited threats, namely from Iran. To succeed on his visit, Biden could do worse than follow the blueprint of his predecessor.
WINNING BACK TO SAUDI ARABIA
Key to success will be Riyadh. The U.S. cannot afford to lose Saudi Arabia as a partner. The role of Saudi Arabia in the global energy crisis is just one example of this truism. Yet there are others. Security challenges in and from states like Yemen, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as the economic crises in several Arab countries, all evidence this. Add to that the fracture of Egypt and Syria as the main complementary poles responsible for keeping the region in balance, and the growing reliance on Arab Gulf monarchies in designing and leading the future of the Middle East, and Biden’s mission becomes clear.
Saudi Arabia’s main role over the next phase of geopolitical development will be in leading the formation of new coalitions, whose purpose will include the defense and security of the region. Such coalitions will prove to be direction-setting. One proposed tie-up, which excites analysts with its potential, comprises Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. This four-pronged team, currently in the very early stages of formation, would have the ability to contain most of the region’s threats, in part owing to the four countries’ geographic locations at three strategic regional gateways, in part owing to their combined military, diplomatic, and economic heft.
In other areas, the Saudi leadership has been quietly using its experience to fix strained ties with neighboring non-Arab countries, in the knowledge that confidence-building in foreign relations takes time. Saudi Arabia’s young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), seems to understand the size of the challenge and is actively preparing both himself and his country to meet it. In this, the U.S. could have been more helpful.
In his face-to-face meeting with Biden, MBS may raise the issue of recent U.S. choices, such as the review - immediately after Biden’s inauguration in January 2021 – of Trump’s decision to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The following day, the U.S. State Department suspended arms and ammunition sales that Trump agreed with Saudi Arabia. Biden also temporarily paused the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, signed in a contract with Lockheed Martin during Trump’s tenure. Last, but not least, is Biden’s move to revive talks with Iran on the nuclear deal, and to ease the suffocating economic sanctions imposed by Trump.
These choices have had real-world consequences. In the past year, missile and drone attacks launched by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia have intensified, targeting strategic economic sites in the main Saudi cities. More recently, the Houthis have expanded their operations to hit targets in the UAE, including an oil facility close to Abu Dhabi Airport. Would this have happened had the White House not halted the arms sales? The idea of an American president adopting policies that militarily weaken his Middle East allies while empowering his Middle East enemies seems, at best, illogical.
According to the White House, Biden will meet MBS at the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah. Arguably, this face-to-face encounter is the most important of the whole visit. If all goes well, it will mark a new era in the Saudi-U.S. relationship, help to erase the effects of flawed policies to-date, and serve the interests of both countries. The stakes are high.
A LESSON FROM HISTORY
The context is monumental. A century ago, two world wars led to the death of an old world order and the birth of a new one, with the emergence of the United Nations, and the great power rivalry between Washington and Moscow, which ultimately left the U.S. enjoying cultural, economic, political, and military hegemony across the world. How times change. The balance of power moves. Influence wanes. Tectonic plates shift. Empires rise and fall. A succession of crises – in health, finance, and war – has led to seismic shifts similar in feel to those of a century ago. It is on this wave that Biden surfs.
It is still within his power to keep the U.S. in a leadership position. Likewise, he can open the door for eastern rivals – Russia and China – to challenge as superpowers. It all depends on the decisions he makes, on the partners and allies he keeps. The policies his administration adopts towards the Middle East over the next two years will be a crucial moment in this worldwide game of chess.
* Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.