Gulf Research Fellow
European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)
Fellow, Middle East Program
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Executive Vice President
Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
Sarah Leah Whitson
Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)
Arab Center Washington DC
About the Webinar
On July 14, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) held a virtual seminar titled “Biden’s Trip to the Middle East: Objectives and Potential Outcomes.” Panelists were Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations; Zaha Hasan, Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Trita Parsi, Executive Vice President at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; and Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan moderated the discussion.
Sarah Leah Whitson began her presentation by calling the meeting that will be held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia between President Joe Biden and Arab leaders as a “summit for autocracy” that highlights the United States’ support of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. She said that Biden’s visit to the region reaffirms old and already failed US foreign policy decisions and reflects what she called the “shame” of supporting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and others. She asserted that the administration’s arguments for the trip’s benefit for American interests, including the need to increase oil supplies, counteract the threat of Russia and China, contain Iran, and support Israel, are all entirely false. She stated that it is not logical to expect Saudi Arabia to deliver oil supplies to the international market since doing the exact opposite actually helps maintain high prices that benefit Gulf countries. If the president is serious in this endeavor, Whitson stated, he could allow Venezuelan and Iranian oil to flow to the international market. As for relations with Russia and China, Whitson said that Saudi Arabia has good relations with the two countries and is expanding its economic and military ties with them. The issue, she asserted, is related to weapons sales to the Gulf, which do not benefit the American people, but instead are a boon to weapons manufacturers. She stated, “The sooner we can unhinge our policies from the profit interests of weapons companies, the safer, healthier, and stronger our country can be.”
Whitson discounted the idea that Iran is a threat to American interests and criticized talk about an Arab-Israeli axis to contain the Islamic Republic. She said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken himself considered the idea a folly in an article he wrote in 2017, saying that it would entangle the United States in a sectarian conflict in the region. Besides, Whitson said, creating such an axis would be a disincentive for Iran to agree to a nuclear deal with the United States. But even though Blinken previously opposed the idea of a regional security alliance, he is now defending and promoting it under Biden. As for Israel, Whitson sees a Saudi-Israeli relationship as enhancing Israeli security above all else and confusing Israeli interests for American interests. There is no way to ascertain that normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel will serve American interests; instead, it is likely to allow the two to gain leverage against the interests of the United States. To Whitson, any normalization will only enhance and strengthen authoritarianism in the region and help the US avoid addressing Palestinian rights.
Trita Parsi said that what is being done with the Abraham Accords is not new, but is rather a repetition of old ideas, policies, and initiatives that have been going on for decades. Moreover, it merely maintains the focus on containing Iran that has reigned supreme in US policy since the country’s 1979 revolution. The strategy has gone by many names and shapes but has not changed in its core principle, except on one occasion: when the JCPOA was signed in 2015 under Barack Obama. While normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel will help suppress popular aspirations, its other serious outcome is the formation of an alliance to oppose Iran. Parsi said that the Iranian component is part of the glue of the Abraham Accords and that this “necessitates that the enmity [with Iran] survives, that it endures. If you actually have an improvement of relations…between Iran and some of the GCC states it actually takes away the core foundation for the survival of the Abraham Accords.” This would mean that “we are going down the path…that actually cements conflict in the region.”
Parsi added that the accords do not even include the issue of Palestine, and seek to sidestep resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the accords were, in truth, directed against Iran. He said that during the 1990s, when the United States shepherded the Oslo Accords, Iran was willing to assist in making them work, but that the effort to isolate Iran resulted in Tehran’s working with Palestinian factions to instead try to thwart the Oslo Accords. Now, he said, Iran sees that the Abraham Accords are directed against it and is thus likely to again interfere in the Palestinian issue in order to thwart peace and defend itself. Parsi discounted the idea that Biden went to the Middle East to work on increasing oil supplies, saying that oil is not an issue for the US administration. Otherwise, he said, the United States could allow Iranian oil to flow to the international market quite quickly. Finally, Parsi said he was encouraged by the efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to apply dialogue and diplomacy to advance a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such work, he said, prevents further militarization of the region, helps local stakeholders resolve issues among themselves, and does not require a US role.
Cinzia Bianco began by widening the focus of the discussion, addressing broader discourse on US foreign policy in the region. In particular, she spoke of concerns among outside observers, including many European states, over the perceived inconsistency in the United States’ aims and objectives in the Middle East. Whether the US intends to take a leadership role in the region, or to instead redirect its focus toward more global challenges is widely debated in such circles, as are US attitudes toward Saudi Arabia, and US interest, or lack thereof, in reviving the JCPOA. Bianco also pointed out that the unspoken goal of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is widely believed to be the restoration of ties between the two nations; but the current administration is unwilling to even say as much. As Bianco put it, “The main message of the past couple of months…has been one of incredible inconsistency.”
This obfuscation, she went on to say, is deeply disconcerting to states both in Europe and the MENA region, as they depend on the transparency of US interests. Opinions on the course of Biden’s Middle East visit among European, Saudi, and American circles, Bianco stated, are widely divergent, with some predicting a restoration of US-Saudi relations, and others positing that the uncertainty of Democratic success in the US midterm elections leaves Saudi Arabia with little incentive to repair ties with the Biden Administration. Saudi Arabia’s course of action in approaching global energy demands, as well as its attempt to balance alignment with the United States, China, and Russia is a matter of serious debate. Bianco urged that the United States ought to reflect on the incentives, both positive and negative, that it wields with its partners and adversaries. The careful use of both carrots and sticks is central to foreign policy, she explained, and an approach that is unclear about what incentives are on offer is fundamentally flawed. Speaking of the rose-colored glasses though which Biden is clearly viewing the situation, Bianco stated, “I think it’s really important that we start from looking at the region and the realities as they are, rather than as we wish them to be.”
Zaha Hasan focused her comments on President Biden’s attention, or rather lack thereof, to issues of concern for Palestinians and Palestinian Americans. Hasan argued that Biden has been “avoiding any discussion of Palestinian rights and Israel’s obligations under international law” during this trip, which she says is really about reaffirming US commitment to Israel, and attempting to deploy that commitment in the Middle East in order to “stop the bleeding” of high inflation and oil prices ahead of midterm elections. As a result, Palestinians and the peace process are only gratuitously on the agenda for Biden’s trip, while Palestinian rights appear nowhere at all. Hasan discussed the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration, which was released on July 14, the second day of Biden’s trip. Hasan emphasized several troubling aspects of this agreement, including its very name, which she called a “gift” to Israel that further cements the country’s annexation of East Jerusalem and “implies a US continuing commitment to the notion that Jerusalem undividedly is Israeli.” In addition, the document promises a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two nations, including billions in grants for weapons and missile defense. It also calls out Palestinian nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation and apartheid, including at the UN, the International Criminal Court, or as carried out by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and it affirms that antisemitism may include criticism of Israel, which Hasan fears opens the door for the stifling of free speech. Finally, the declaration makes no mention of a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and instead includes measures to shrink the conflict using “economic palliatives.” Concerning these many aspects of the declaration, Hasan argued, “It is hard to see what the US gets out of all of this.”
Hasan concluded by listing key matters that are missing from Biden’s agenda for this trip. She stated that there is no mention of accountability for the Israeli Army’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Nor is there a single word on Israel’s having designated six Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist organizations, despite the fact that European countries have reviewed this designation and found it to be utterly without merit. Biden’s trip also fails to address Palestinian Americans’ grievances about the confiscation of properties they own in Palestine, including property on which the United States plans to build its new embassy in Jerusalem. In addition, Biden has remained silent about the impending eviction of more than 1,000 Palestinians from the Masafer Yatta area in the occupied West Bank. Especially in light of Biden’s July 9 op-ed in the Washington Post, in which, as Hasan said, the president “asserted…that fundamental freedoms and human rights in Israel and the West Bank would be on the trip’s agenda,” the reality of what has occurred so far is all the more disconcerting.