While in the Middle East, President Joe Biden will face a slew of challenges in his relations with the regional states, including pushing for Israel’s deeper integration into the region, urging Gulf countries to ramp up oil production to alleviate the global energy crisis, and assuring regional governments that the US is still a reliable security partner despite its recent withdrawal from the region.
For American policymakers, the oil-rich but unstable Middle East, plagued by several humanitarian and geopolitical crises, has long been a region of frenemies and a source of compound stress.
With this harsh reality in mind, successive presidents substantially limited US participation in the region since the George W. Bush administration, which made the Middle East the focal point of US foreign policy following the September 11 attacks and the Iraq war. Regional countries have broadened their strategic alternatives during the past decade in response to what they perceive to be the United States’ retreat from the Middle East. All of them established ties with Russia and China. Israel, the United States’ most trusted ally in the region, also relies on military cooperation with Russia for its offensive operations against Iranian targets in Syria.
The timing is not so good
Thus, Biden’s visit comes at a terrible moment when the regional view is that the US is more focused on Russia, China, and internal matters, with less desire for settling regional disputes and providing security to regional allies as it has in the past.
Biden’s brief visit to the Middle East is ostensibly meant to reassure regional governments that a busy administration, engrossed in tackling domestic issues and foreign policy challenges posed by Russia and China, is still concerned about the region. However, this is easier said than done since the Saudis want specific security guarantees, the Palestinians want respect for their basic human dignity, and the Israelis want assurances that the US will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and expanding its malign influence in the region.
However, Biden has other priorities regarding the trip
Every rational person understands that if it weren’t for the months of exorbitant gas prices brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden would not be visiting the region at all, let alone to a country he previously vowed to make a ‘pariah.’ The President’s visit represents a short-term crisis management attempt rather than a broader shift in government thinking about a volatile region.
The necessity for Arab oil to offset rising petroleum costs at home has compelled Biden to return to the region. Nonetheless, as he travels through the region, the President will face numerous challenges, including persuading Arab monarchies to boost oil production, convincing Palestinian and Israeli leaders to restore ties, dealing with the Iranian threat, and persuading Muhammad Bin Salman to formally recognize Israel.
Oil diplomacy and human rights
The President has insisted that his trip to the kingdom is not primarily motivated by oil. However, rhetoric cannot obscure reality. Biden would not have agreed to the contentious meeting with the Crown Prince had it not been for the Russian intervention in Ukraine and its effect on the global oil market. Biden’s decision to downplay the oil factor is primarily due to the Saudis’ inability or unwillingness to increase output sufficiently to relieve pressure on American households before the November elections. Oil would be the most valuable delivery from a visit to Saudi Arabia for the American consumer; without it, it is unclear what Biden would be hoping to bring back from the contentious excursion.
The crown prince’s flagrant disrespect for human rights is another contentious issue between the United States and Saudi Arabia. With criticism from members of his own party, Biden wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post defending his trip to Saudi Arabia. Biden added, “My views on human rights are clear and longstanding, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip.”
On the other hand, the visit presents a textbook example of surrendering ideals for geopolitical and geoeconomic realities to human rights defenders. Even among his fellow Democrats, the visit is seen as a departure from his campaign rhetoric, in which he promised to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by stopping military sales to the kingdom to “make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.”
It is exceedingly improbable that Biden would be able to convince the ambitious prince to take steps to promote human rights in his country, given it is Biden, not the prince, who is demanding concessions.
Saudi-Israeli ties normalization
Biden’s journey to the Middle East is anticipated to aid Israel in various ways, leading to favorable coverage in the mainstream media in the run-up to the midterm elections. The White House stated unequivocally that the President will “reinforce the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity.”
With both Jerusalem and Riyadh concerned about Iran, the Biden administration has been discreetly attempting to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
At a press conference in Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated, “The fact that the president’s going to fly directly from here to Saudi Arabia is probably signifying that there is a linkage between the visit and the ability to improve relations.”
Although Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, they have formed covert security links owing to their common hostility and mutual animosity toward their archrival Iran. It has long been speculated that it is one of the Arab regimes considering establishing open relations with the Jewish state.
It would be the most remarkable expansion of the Abraham Accords if it happened, given Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Muslim world. Although no one anticipates that Israel and Saudi Arabia would declare official diplomatic ties during Biden’s visit, more modest measures might be taken, such as permitting Israeli commercial planes to fly over the kingdom en route to neighboring nations.
The Iranian threat
For more than a year, the Biden administration has sought to resurrect a 2015 agreement to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Still, talks between Tehran and international powers stalled in March, and subsequent efforts have failed to break the deadlock.
The Israeli and Arab governments desire a more coherent and coordinated policy from the United States to prevent Iran from going nuclear if diplomacy fails altogether. Israel, which opposed the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” from the outset on the grounds that it limited Iran’s nuclear enrichment for a small period of time and did not include Iran’s ballistic missile programme, wants the United States to continue its maximum pressure campaign against Tehran to coerce it into agreeing to a more comprehensive agreement.
The Arabs, on the other hand, appear more frightened by Iran’s disruptive military activities through its proxies in Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon than they are about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Thus, they are clear about what they want from the United States: It must not provide Iran with an economic cushion by lifting the sanctions, as the money would be used to sponsor militant groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis.
The threat posed by Iran is one of the primary motivating factors for Israel and Arab countries to collaborate more closely. Biden is expected to use it as leverage to drive regional governments into a security commitment to act jointly if the Islamic Republic threatens anyone in the region. This security framework would have to involve Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, and Israel, supported by the United States military forces, particularly the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the US Central Command at the Al-Udeid base in Qatar.
What can Biden offer to the Palestinians?
The Palestinian leadership is not overly optimistic about President Biden’s trip since they know Biden’s meeting with President Abbas for a few hours is a sideshow to the main tour. Realizing that Biden does not present a tangible solution to alleviate the ongoing mistreatment of Palestinians, they are appropriately pessimistic.
They are aware that the primary objective of Biden’s trip is to boost Israel’s security and strengthen its regional integration. This requires the impression of a balanced peace effort between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby necessitating a photo op with Mahmoud Abbas.
Despite their pessimism, the Palestinians will not pass up the opportunity to plead their case. The President will undoubtedly be asked to fulfil his campaign promise of reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem, which former President Donald Trump shut down in 2018 as part of a series of controversial decisions that included recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the US Embassy to the holy city.
The Palestinian would also want Biden to compel Israel to return $500 million in unlawfully held Palestinian customs revenues as the consequences of the Ukraine conflict have been devastating to the Palestinian economy.
President Biden’s first stop at Israel demonstrates his reluctance to criticise the Jewish state for its horrific human rights record, which includes the recent tragic murder of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The Palestinians want Biden to defend journalistic freedom by holding an impartial inquiry into the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh.
During Biden’s presidency, there is no significant movement on Palestinian rights
The limited actions the US has taken so far, have mostly been directed at just reestablishing the relationship between Ramallah and Washington, which was disrupted by Donald Trump. Biden is not prioritizing the Palestinians, which has irritated the Palestinian leadership.
The political turbulence in Israel, which led to the collapse of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition government, further restricts Biden’s options. Given the unclear political path ahead, there is little chance of anything more than the bare minimum of American financial help for Palestinians. Additionally, Biden would not take immediate action for the Palestinians due to domestic political reasons, including the impending midterm elections and his extremely low approval ratings. The focus of this trip is Saudi Arabia and Israel, and in the eyes of Washington, the Palestinians are more of an inconvenience than a reason for worry.
So Joe Biden has embarked on a wild goose chase in the Middle East. Israel will pressurize him into further concessions, while Saudi Arabia has little motive to offer the American President what he wants. Meanwhile, the Palestinians will be abandoned once more by everyone.
The writer is an MPhil in English. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.