Under pressure at home for high energy prices and his willingness to sacrifice principles for national interests, President Joe Biden’s Middle East trip – with visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia which included participation in a meeting with nine Arab leaders in Riyadh – came at a critical time for the region.
This attempt by the US president at a reset of relations frames his efforts to manage tensions with Iran, support greater regional security cooperation, and manage geopolitical competition in the Middle East – all of which also benefit America’s British and European partners.
Regional concerns have long been mounting over Washington’s strategy to revive the Iran nuclear agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and over the distraction of American domestic politics and US geopolitical repositioning.
These sentiments were worsened by the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan and limited US reaction to repeated Houthi-sponsored drone and missile attacks, stemming from the war in Yemen, hitting Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in January.
Biden’s change of heart
After the Trump administration’s warm embrace of these states, Biden committed to defending human rights issues around the region and had previously refused to directly engage with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) for his involvement in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in Istanbul.
But the Russian invasion of Ukraine provided a catalyst for frustrated American partners such as Israel, the United Arab Emirates UAE), and Saudi Arabia to make public their mounting grievances with Washington by refusing to initially condemn Russian aggression, to take a neutral war posture, and to remain committed to their existing OPEC+ output arrangements.
Therefore, Biden’s controversial fist-bumping with MBS on this trip reflects his willingness to provide a pragmatic course correction that will, over time, allow the US to again have constructive influence on important issues in the region such as human rights and social development, but is primarily focused on geopolitical regional dynamics.
Iran’s role in the region and its advancing nuclear programme as the principal source of regional insecurity was a major topic of conversation, as regional states have long opposed the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the JCPOA after Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal.
Since 2019, Tehran’s programme has advanced significantly and without adequate IAEA oversight, but negotiations ongoing since April 2021 have not yet produced a positive outcome. Because the JCPOA only covers Iran’s nuclear programme and does not constrain Iran’s support and transfer of lethal aid to proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, regional states would prefer to see maximum pressure sanctions enforced as a means to contain Tehran’s destabilizing efforts.
Without any ‘plan B’ in place to manage Iran’s nuclear acceleration or to prevent a cycle of forthcoming escalation, President Biden took a strong step to protect Israel by signing a joint declaration to ‘never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon’ with the US committing to ‘use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome’.
Shared security threats, which include Iranian missiles and drones, are providing a convergence of interests towards regional security cooperation. What began with the September 2020 Abraham Accords – the UAE-Bahraini normalization agreements with Israel – are now paving the way for broader regional multilateral coordination.
Building on this, the US and regional states aim to organise a regional air defence network and, to bolster such cooperation, Biden has taken first steps to support more formal Israeli-Saudi public engagement which lead to normalized ties.
The Kingdom announced it was opening its airspace to all airlines, which enabled Biden to be the first US president to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. Additionally, the transfer of Red Sea islands to Saudi control requires Israel to maintain the right to navigate the Straits of Tiran freely. And Israeli Muslims are expected to be able to directly travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj rather than through Jordan.
This air defence integration plan will no doubt take significant time to develop, particularly in a conflict-rife, trust-limited region but, for Washington, supporting such an initiative would bolster regional security, capacity-building, and burden-share demands. Meaningful support for the Palestinians and the two state solution was noticeably absent and remains a void in the President’s agenda.
Can the US counter China’s growing influence?
By providing greater regional reassurances and support, the Biden administration is playing a longer strategic geopolitical game. The US has become increasingly concerned about China’s economic and strategic reach through the Middle East, yet it has not been effective in providing alternatives to counter China.
Beijing has comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Algeria, and Iran, and maintains lower level strategic partnerships with nine other regional states. And GCC states have strong commercial energy ties with China as Riyadh is Beijing’s largest oil provider.
Amid frustrations with Washington, Riyadh has turned to Beijing to develop its indigenous missile capabilities, while it has been reported the UAE agreed to allow China to build a secret port facility. And Washington also flagged that Huawei’s 5G network poses security risks for mobile infrastructure.