The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments within the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios. Today, we place the spotlight upon Joe Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as the American head of State, specificly aimed at re-orienting the US’ engagement with its traditional key allies.
On July 13, US President Joe Biden landed at the Ben Gurion Airport for a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories before heading to Saudi Arabia. This landmark visit, the first in the region for Biden as US President, comes at a critical moment in Washington’s relationship with its traditional Middle Eastern partners. Within Israel and the Palestinian territories, a complex scenario awaits President Biden, who will have to juggle meetings between the ad interim Israeli government and Palestinian authorities, with whom relations significantly deteriorated during President Trump’s years in office. Biden’s stop over in Saudi Arabia and meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be no easier. Over the past years, Washington’s relations with Riyadh have been affected by numerous issues, including the Yemeni conflict, the Khashoggi affair, and expanded Russian and Chinese footprints within the Gulf region. In the recent months, the far-reaching consequences of the war in Ukraine have paved the way for a rebalance of America’s position in the Middle East towards a greater role. The President’s direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia, for instance, is a signal of a further step in the Arab-Israeli normalisation efforts initiated by the Abraham Accords. In Jeddah, Biden will also meet representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan (the so-called GCC+3) to discuss a stabilisation of oil markets, expansion of regional economic and security cooperation (Iran will also be on the leaders’ agenda). However, Biden’s visit has implications on the domestic front also. At home in America, the President will have to show positive concrete results to justify his U-turn on Saudi Arabia to his detractors, including those within his own party.
ISPI MED experts respond to Biden’s shifting Middle East policy in his first trip to the region as President of the United States.
When interests do not meet values: the contraddictions of American policy in the Middle East
“This week’s meetings between President Joe Biden and Saudi officials, mainly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), reflect the longstanding tension between American values and its interests. An energy crisis, the prospect of improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the need to constrain Iran, have pushed the Administration to improve a badly frayed relationship with Saudi Arabia. And yet, at a time when President Biden is standing up for human rights, democracy and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, his meeting and by definition rehabilitating MBS, a ruthless authoritarian who he’s shunned for, among so many other human rights abuses, the ordered killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There’s no perfect balance here for US policy. But at a minimum, Biden must publicly press the Saudis on ending human rights abuses and make clear that maintaining a strong relationship depends upon Saudi action on that front. Whatever happens on the President’s trip, the US-Saudi relationship will most likely remain troubled.”
Aaron David Miller, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Biden’s Middle Eastern trip is a test for him at home
“President Biden’s visit to the Middle East comes at a delicate moment, with high oil prices fuelling domestic inflation and the midterm vote just a few months ahead. Until now, the region has been mainly at the margin of the administration’s interests. US-Saudi relations have been quite rocky, especially on human rights, while US-Israel relations suffered the death of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, killed two months ago in Jenin. Public opinion will be far more sceptical if the President hopes to revive ties with the two countries. According to the polls, especially that the democrats hold pretty a critical view of the visit, mainly due to what they perceive as Riyadh’s and Jerusalem’s negative record on human rights. At a political level, the fear is that the visit’s drawbacks could overshadow its few possible takeouts. In the background, there is the problem of US-Iran relations. President Biden’s efforts to relaunch the JCPOA seem to have reached a stalemate, but they remain a source of concern for its Middle Eastern counterparts and a good share of Congress.”
Gianluca Pastori, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI
In Biden’s visit, the spotlight will be on Saudi Arabia (more than Israel)
“US President Joe Biden’s first official visit to the Middle East will centre around US-Saudi strained relations. The president will attempt resetting relations with the absolute monarchy and its de-facto leader he labelled a ‘pariah’ and treated as persona-non-grata. The ongoing war in Ukraine and the need to push energy prices down has made the Biden administration realise they over stepped the mark in distancing themselves from the Middle East and Saudi Arabia. It is still premature to assess whether a substantial positive and long-term change in relations between the countries is in store. In some aspects, it might be somewhat ‘too little too late’ despite the countries’ common interests and longtime relations bound by oil for joint security. A successful visit and improvement in relations between Washington and Riyadh will have great significance for Israel, especially in terms of Israel’s interest in persuading the Saudis to publicize parts of their relations with the Jewish state.”
Yoel Guzansky, Senior Research Fellow, INSS; and Non-Resident Scholar, MEI
Biden in Ramallah: No intention to “resurrect” the peace process
“There is a reasonable suspicion that Biden’s scheduled visit to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is nothing more than a pro forma diplomatic gesture, given that he will already be visiting the new Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, in Jerusalem. As such, it is unlikely that we should expect any tangible results to follow in terms of advancing a political resolution to the conflict. The US President has already demonstrated that he has no intention of expending political capital to resurrect the peace process, and the Op-Ed he recently published in The Washington Post offering justification for his trip to the region never once mentions the goal of a two-state solution – a stark omission that says volumes about the state of American peacemaking. At most, we will likely hear commitments to increase funding for Palestinian humanitarian needs. Instead, Biden’s campaign pledge to reopen the Jerusalem Consulate will be off the table as long as deference to Israeli intransigence remains an overriding US policy.”
Omar H. Rahman, Fellow, Middle East Council on Global Affairs (MECGA)
An ambitious agenda for US-Saudi cooperation could become a double-edged sword
“President Biden is travelling to Saudi Arabia (and Israel before that) with several key objectives. Some of these – namely, getting full Saudi cooperation to lower energy prices, linked to inflation, and boosting Israel’s regional relations – are about bolstering his popularity at home in light of midterm elections. Other goals are linked to establishing new regional security mechanisms amid the likely collapse of the JCPOA talks and reining in ties between Russia and China and the US partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This is a very ambitious set of purposes and, therefore, offers several potential points of failure. This is because US partners will be coming to the table with their own high expectations, especially revamping US commitments to security guarantees. The safest achievement seems to be a formalization of technical cooperation in defence among the Gulf monarchies of Jordan, Egypt and Israel, geared towards neutralizing missile and drone attacks launched by Iranian proxies. This would not be linked to political normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but it would be a de facto normalization of military-to-military communications. In this case, it will be a paramount to US and European interests to make sure that Iran does not perceive this as the stepping stone for an offensive military cooperation, least Tehran would react by escalating, including against Western interests.”
Cinzia Bianco, Research Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
Quick wins will not solve inner causes of the war in Yemen
“Biden is expected to reinforce Saudi efforts to end the military campaign in Yemen and reach an understanding with the Iranian-backed Ansar Allah movement (the Houthis). Buoyed by the truce and the current Houthi-Saudi talks, this approach is likely to succeed. But this will only end one layer of the conflict and safeguard Saudi energy facilities. This would be a “quick win” for Biden, whose primary concerns are global energy supplies and a reset of relations with the Saudis. However, this will not impact the war at its core, that is, it will hardly have an effect on the fight between the internationally recognized government and the Houthis. A regional de-escalation might simply lead to further escalation at the domestic level. The US is indifferent to local Yemeni dynamics that have kept the war going. A majority of Yemenis are fearful of Yemen turning into the Afghanistan of the Middle East: rapidly departing regional powers and continued local fighting.”
Ahmed Nagi, Non-resident Scholar, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center