Turning New Page in Arab-American Affairs

The US president’s visit to Saudi Arabia went beyond the normal agenda items
U.S. President Joe Biden boards a plane following an Arab summit, at King Abdulaziz International Airprot, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. President Joe Biden meet at Al Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. Iraqi Prime Minister Media Office/Handout via REUTERS
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen looks on as EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson, Egyptian Minister of Petroleum Tarek El Molla and Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources Karine Elharrar sign an agreement during a ministerial meeting of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo, Egypt, June 15, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Shokry Hussien)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Joe Biden give a statement, in Bethlehem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 15, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S President Joe Biden after going out of the U.S Marine One presidential helicopter for his departure to Air Force One upon leaving ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, in Lod, Israel, July 15, 2022. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS

The short pause in the almost century-long relationship between the United States and Middle East allies was perhaps necessary for all involved parties to realize and appreciate the extent of their interdependence and compatibility. On his first visit as U.S. president to the Middle East in mid-July, Joseph Biden has exhibited wisdom and courage by clearly admitting that his initial policy “to pivot away from the Middle East had been a mistake.” By doing so, Biden did not only rebuild trust with regional leaders, but he also restored, in a heartbeat, the glorious image of the democratic America in hearts and minds of ordinary people in the region.

For the past six years, the absence of the traditional image of America enabled the rise of the Russian and Chinese influence on the region, and killed the momentum of democratic change that over-swept the region a decade ago. President Biden’s re-commitment to the Middle East, with a fair understanding of the new reality of the region under the reshuffling world order, promises a better future for Middle East countries, as well as for the United States and Western allies.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz receives U.S. President Joe Biden at Al Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

In his remarks to the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah, President Biden confirmed that the United States will continue to engage in Middle East affairs as the main partner. “As the world grows more competitive and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me that – how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the successes of the Middle East,” Biden confirmed to the participants of the GCC+3 Summit. “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran. And we’ll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Historically, the success of the United States foreign policy, as well as a great deal of its domestic policy, has mostly been dependent on positive engagement by Middle East allies, especially those with geo-political advantage, like Egypt and Israel, or those with economic supremacy, such as the Arab Gulf states. The energy crisis that has been overwhelming our world since the eruption of the Russia-Ukraine war in February is living proof to this. It is not a secret that securing energy resources was one of the main issues that compelled the return of the current American President to the region. Last month, Egypt and Israel signed a historic agreement of trade, transport, and export of natural gas with the European Union.

In parallel, the angle of Middle East security, either on regional or domestic levels, has always been drawn by the compass of defense policies adopted by consecutive dwellers of the White House. In his meeting with Arab leaders in Jeddah, President Biden asserted that “For the first time since 9/11, an American President is visiting [the Middle East] without American troops being engaged in a combat mission in the region.” Yet, Biden reiterated U.S. continued commitment to fighting against the terrorist organizations that have been wreaking havoc all over the region for years.

“We maintain both the capacity and the absolute determination to suppress the terrorist threat wherever we find it … We’re going to continue our counterterrorism efforts working with a broad coalition of countries, including everyone around this table,” Biden reiterated to Arab leaders. This important statement was one of the early points that Biden successfully scored in his quest to revive the bond of trust with regional leaders. It explains the logic behind the American forces’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, only six months after Biden assumed office, exposing Arab countries in the Gulf and the Levant regions to huge security threats.

U.S. President Joe Biden, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and GCC+3 attend the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Another important issue that motivated Biden’s visit to the region is rescuing the lost popularity of his administration and the Democratic party before the mid-term elections for Congress in November. The curve of Biden’s approval ratings has been declining over the recent months, threatening a serious downfall of the Democratic party in the coming house and presidential elections. However, it seems that Biden and his team did not allow their worries about the party’s stance in the elections distract them from focusing on the main goal of the visit, which will serve the American nation for the long term, namely, winning Middle East leaders, and all the good they can offer, to his side, while re-establishing U.S. position as the most influential superpower in the world.

Contrary to the demands of the far leftists, who comprise the majority of Biden’s electoral constituency, Biden chose to do business with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, rather than marginalizing or penalizing them. In an opinion article, published in the Washington Post, one week before he came to the Middle East, President Biden explained to his critics that it is not possible for the U.S. to progress with its international agenda, without positively engaging with the Middle East.

“As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure … To do these things, we have to engage directly with countries that can impact those outcomes. Saudi Arabia is one of them, and when I meet with Saudi leaders on Friday, my aim will be to strengthen a strategic partnership going forward that’s based on mutual interests and responsibilities, while also holding true to fundamental American values.”

The far leftists, who went as far as describing Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia as a “betrayal to American values,” are even more angry after the completion of Biden’s visit. Their lobbying efforts against particular Arab leaders had gone to waste. President Biden laughed with the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and called the Egyptian President, El-Sisi, a “valuable friend.” He also offered financial aid and strategic support to enhance the performance of the Egyptian state in handling the economic crisis and related regional conflicts.

A large portion of such lobbyists are ridiculously blinded by an idealist rhetoric that is too detached from the reality of the Middle East. Human rights and democratization are extremely important for the Arab people. That is why the Arab Spring revolutions erupted in the first place. Yet, the calls for weakening Arab states and penalizing Arab leaders are not going to serve the purpose of improving human rights conditions in the region at all. On the contrary, it may backfire in a way that hurts the U.S. and the west as much.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S President Joe Biden gesture as they stand for a family photo ahead of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Contrary to the claims widely promoted in media by Biden’s critics, the new relationships that he has built with Arab leaders will enable him to work better with them on improving human rights conditions and taking actual, rather than artificial, steps towards allowing democratization to progress in their countries. Biden is a democratic president, which makes questioning his unconditional commitment to human rights and democratization a silly joke.

In that regard, we should not ignore the fact that, over the past five years, the political Islamist groups operating from the U.S. have deeply infiltrated into the American far leftist groups, under the flag of human rights. They include many of Muslim Brotherhood members and sympathizers, who resorted to the U.S. after their purge from Egypt and other Arab countries in 2013. They are abusing the political power of the far left in America, to take revenge on certain Arab leaders, who had been active on smashing the Muslim Brotherhood, in the past few years – particularly, the Egyptian, Saudi, and UAE leaders.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

The good news is that President Biden and his team have finally decided to shake off this unprofitable approach towards the countries of the Middle East, and instead focus on re-engaging and re-collaborating for the good of all. “From the start, my aim was to reorient – but not rupture – relations with [Saudi Arabia] that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years,” wrote Biden in the Washington Post op-ed.

The biggest achievement that Biden has accomplished in the Middle East earlier this month was effectively laying a solid foundation for the ‘personal diplomacy’ dynamic that works perfectly with the mindset of the leaders of the region, especially the Arabs. The global energy and food crises, the threat of Iran on Arabs and Israel, and the U.S. rivalry with Russia and China, must have been unavoidable topics on the agenda of the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah. However, it was clear that Biden’s main goal from the visit was to regain the trust of the regional leaders in his administration, and thus win them to his country’s side, so the West can benefit from what they can offer to solve the current world troubles, especially the soaring energy crisis. That was particularly clear in the friendly one-on-one conversations that Biden convened with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, and even the Palestinians. President Biden has successfully accomplished this goal. To compensate for his eighteen months of absence, Biden has successfully sprung open more than one Pandora’s Box on his first Middle East tour to show that the United States is still the most influential partner to the region.

 

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.


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