Biden’s Compulsory Return to the Middle East
The United States’ President, Joseph Biden, is finally making his first official visit to the Middle East on 13th-16th of July. According to an official statement by the White House, the American president will first stop in Israel, where he will meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials. Then, he will fly to Jeddah to attend a regional summit coined as ‘GCC+3 Summit,’ which is organized and hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the Summit, Biden is expected to meet with leaders of all the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in addition to the heads of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. The drastic shift in Biden’s stance towards the Middle East, from cold and distant to warm and open, is clearly a desperate attempt to redeem the lost popularity of his administration and his Democratic Party.
All similar trips by former American presidents to the Middle East region were important. Each of them marked fundamental changes in the political and economic agendas of the region, that eventually echoed into the global policies of western countries, including the United States, itself. Yet, the particular significance of the prospected visit by President Biden to Saudi Arabia, next month, is that, for the first time, the United States is trying to catch the train of regional change that is moving forward without its consent and despite its will, at a time when the western world is overwhelmed by the consequences of the war in Ukraine. What is even more interesting is that the driver of the new Middle East train is Saudi Arabia, the U.S. oldest ally in the Arab Gulf region, which President Biden unjustifiably labeled as an adversary to please his voters from the extreme leftists and Islamists.
Ballot Box Redemption
Unlike his predecessors, either from the Democratic or the Republican camps, it took President Biden more than 18 months, highlighted by massive economic losses and puzzled foreign and defense policies, to realize that the success of his administration, as was the case with most of the former U.S. administrations, is closely correlated to what he can achieve in the Middle East. The fact that his administration could not score a big triumph on the global stage, after almost two years in power, is not going to serve the member of his Democratic Party, who are going to compete in the mid-term elections of the Congress and the Senate, this November. Likewise, it may reflect badly on his party’s chances in the coming presidential elections, in 2024.
The declining approval ratings of President Biden is a clear indication on that. The latest survey by the Politico and the Morning Consult, conducted on June 4-5, found that 58% of voters disapprove of Biden’s job performance, which is the lowest approval rating and the highest disapproval rating that Biden got, since he took office in January 2021. Ironically, his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, did much better on citizen satisfaction surveys. According to the same institution, 45% approved of Trump’s performance, despite the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic towards the end of his term.
If the Abraham Accords between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors is the chef-d'oeuvre of former Republican president, Donald Trump, and the nuclear deal with Iran was the masterpiece of former Democratic president, Barak Obama, what exactly Biden’s accomplished or targeted master stroke is. For almost two years in power, the Biden Administration has done nothing other than obsessively altering every decision, either good or bad, that had been made under the Trump Administration. That simply led to muddled policies that are not doing any good to the U.S. or its allied.
That includes, for example, appeasing Iran on the expense of tearing long-established ties with U.S. historical allies in the Arab Gulf region. Add to this the record that Biden Administration achieve by giving the slowest response ever by a U.S. administration to the episode of war that erupted in Gaza, four months after Biden took office. And, above all is the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which resulted in jeopardizing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, creating a new refugees’ crisis, and availing the space for terrorist organizations to re-arise.
Disappointed Middle East
There are several important items on the agenda of the GCC+3 summit, that President Biden may see as a priority. They, probably, include blocking threats to regional security, especially from Iran, the potential of more Arab countries normalizing ties with Israel, improving human rights conditions in Arab states, and finding solutions for the global food and energy crises that are arising from the global standoff around the Russia-Ukraine war. However, in fact, the main goal of the Biden visit should be to fix strained ties with key Arab countries and find a way to regain their trust, so his administration can benefit from what the region can offer to the current global crises, that the U.S. cannot handle on its own.
It was clear to all observers that the Middle East is not the top priority for the new US Administration of President Biden, unlike the case with almost all his predecessors. On his first few months in office, President Biden divorced himself from the headaches and troubles of the Middle East. Even, he decided to review all the decisions President Trump has made in favor of some Arab Gulf countries, including the crucial arms sales deals to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Then, everyone got surprised by the decisions paving the way for US withdrawal from the Middle East. That was particularly highlighted by Biden Administration’s decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Middle East uncertainties towards Biden Administration were magnified by the fact that during his electoral campaign, Biden was largely vague about his prospected foreign policy in the Middle East. When asked about the Middle East, he only repeated some nostalgic phrases from the Obama era about adopting a new approach towards the Islamic world. Meanwhile, he did not hesitate to fire threats against the ruling regimes of some key Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to please his political Islamist voters and campaigners.
Today, the participation of the United States as a leading partner to Middle East countries in handling these regional and international challenges, is no longer needed as urgent as it was before. During the intentional long absence of the Biden Administration away from the region, the Middle East countries have managed to build a new geo-political structure, wherein Saudi Arabia plays the most influential role, to deal with their own problems and lead their own future.
Within the past 18 months, the intra-disputes between Arab countries were successfully resolved by the Gulf reconciliation. At the same time, the long-term diplomatic conflicts between Arab and non-Arab states of the Middle East – namely, Turkey, Israel, and Iran – are either resolved or brought to negotiation table. Even the difficult topic of normalizing ties between Israel and more Arab countries, without the involvement of the United States as a facilitator, has become even more possible.
Apparently, President Biden has realized that he is hurting the interests of his country by withdrawing from the Middle East, under the propaganda of reallocating the U.S. resources spent on the Middle East to confront the growing Chinese power. The new reality of the Middle East and the changing world order have created a situation where the United States’ balance and power is heavily dependent on the well-being of the Middle East; not the other way around. Under the ongoing global crises, the Middle East can survive without needing the help of the United States, but neither the United States nor the west can survive without benefiting from economic and geo-strategic power of the Middle East.
Therefore, Biden’s top priority goal of his prospected visit to the region, next month, should be to win the Middle East leaders on his side. To do so, he simply needs to follow the recipe of President Trump. Most regimes in the Middle East, including non-Arab countries, had been praying that Donald Trump could have remained in power for another term. The pragmatic approach of the Trump Administration, which relied on ‘personal diplomacy’ was the perfect political language that the Middle East leaders could understand and respond to. This proximate, non-institutional, communication between Trump and the leaders of the region, created a better off situation for almost all the countries of the region, while limiting the Iranian threat in a tight corner.
Winning Back Saudi Arabia
The United States cannot afford losing Saudi Arabia as a key partner in the Middle East. That has been brutally proven by the role of Saudi Arabia in handling the global energy crisis, and the regional challenges ranging from the civil war in Yemen, the security threats coming from Iran and Afghanistan, and the economic crises bursting out in several Arab countries. The main characteristic defining the newly formed regional order is 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, especially Saudi Arabia, in designing and leading the future of the Middle East.
The rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, following the United States withdrawal and the revival of the Islamic State (IS) terrorists in Syria and Iraq are additional threats at the eastern gates of the Arab Gulf region, that are not expected to fade away any time soon. Out of this reality, Saudi Arabia’s main role in the next phase will be forming new coalitions, inside the Middle East, and with neighbor regions and countries, that can block the rising security threats and keep the region moving in the right direction.
One proposed coalition, with high potential of success, is composed of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. The new coalition, which is currently being formed, on a very slow pace though, could mitigate and control most of the strategic threats the region is currently facing or expected to face, in the future. That is mainly because of these countries’ strategic geographic locations, at the gates of the main three continents, as well as the complementary military and economic powers they have.
As the most politically and diplomatically experienced country in the Arab Gulf region, the Saudi leadership has been calmly working on fixing strained ties with neighbor non-Arab countries, with the understanding that building steady foreign relations requires time and guarantees. In face of these complications, Saudi Arabia is blessed by a young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who understands the size of the regional challenge and is actively preparing himself and his country for it, despite the many obstacles thrown on his way by some western powers, including the United States.
Immediately after President Biden’s inauguration, in January 2021, the U.S. State Department decided to review Trump Administration’s decision to designate the Houthis in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). The next day, the State Department announced holding for review arms and ammunition sales agreements that the Trump administration signed with Saudi Arabia, and to temporarily pause the sale of F-35 fighter jets that are due to UAE upon a contract signed with Lockheed Martin under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced its intention to revive talks with Iran on the nuclear deal and ease the suffocating economic sanctions imposed by Trump.
In less than a year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE started to pay for the flawed policy of the Biden Administration. The missile and drone attacks launched by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia intensified and frequented, targeting strategic economic sites in Saudi main cities. By the beginning of this year, the Houthi started to expand their operations to target the UAE with a deadly drone attack that hit an oil facility close to Abu Dhabi Airport. There is no logical argument that can appropriately explain why the American President is adopting such a policy that is militarily weakening Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while re-empowering Iran and its affiliated proxies and militias.
In an official press briefing, the White House confirmed that the American President will meet with the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, during his participation in the GCC+3 Summit, in Jeddah, in July. The face-to-face encounter between President Biden and Prince Mohammed is, allegedly, the most important event of the whole visit. If successfully accomplished this will mark a whole new era in the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which will erase the effects of the flawed policy that Biden adopted towards the region during his first two years in office, and will be positively reflected on the serving the interests of the United States and the Middle East countries.
A Lesson from History
Around the same timing, one century ago, the World Wars (1914-1945) marked the death of an old world and the rebirth of a whole new one. It was not an easy process, but eventually it resulted into a world capable of coexisting under one universal system of governance, represented by the United Nations. This was a unipolar system, wherein the United States of America acted as the one great power that enjoyed the greatest cultural, economic, political, and military influence over the world for more than seven decades. The current cluster of health, economic, and security crises, on the global stage, is causing an effect similar to that of the World Wars, in terms with its huge influence on changing the balance of power in the world. It is still in the hands of the Biden Administration to keep the United States on the top as the most powerful country, or simply leave the court open for eastern rivals – Russia and China – to emerge as the new superpowers of the newly emerging world. The policy that the Biden Administration is going to adopt towards the Middle East, in the next half of his first term, is the determining factor in this world game of chess.
Also, read on Majalla