With President Joe Biden concluding his Middle East visit, many in the United States are left wondering what tangible benefits the American people gained as a result of the trip, particularly in relation to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Biden’s venture was already highly unpopular before he made his journey to the region. And the trip was conducted at a time when his overall domestic approval ratings, including among Democrats, were particularly low. Indeed, an abundantly apparent whiff of desperation surrounded the visit. Before departing for the Middle East, President Biden even penned an op-ed for the Washington Post attempting to justify his upcoming visit—surely an unprecedented move for any sitting president.
It ultimately appears that Biden accomplished virtually nothing on his trip in terms of tangible advances for US interests and credibility. He also thoroughly reneged on his campaign promise to “recalibrate” the relationship between Washington and Riyadh because of the latter’s disastrous war in Yemen and its murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. However, the visit certainly served to advance the interests of both Israel and various Middle East authoritarians since it demonstrated that the United States is willing to embrace these bad actors regardless of their actions. If nothing else, Biden’s trip will likely serve to embolden these regional players, providing them with a sense of invulnerability.
Off to Israel and Saudi Arabia
On July 13, Biden and his team departed for Israel, where he and Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. The declaration reaffirms the “unbreakable bonds” between Israel and the United States while stating that their partnership is rooted in shared values and interests, and a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. It also stresses that the United States remains committed to never allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and promises to “use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” During a live interview alongside Lapid, Biden reiterated his opposition to removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, and stressed that his administration is willing to use force if necessary to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons capabilities. Lapid emphasized Biden’s statement, adding, “Words will not stop them. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program that the free world will use force.” Instead of working to find a path toward a renewed nuclear accord with Tehran, such rhetoric risks escalating tensions to a dangerous new level.
On July 15, Air Force One departed directly from Tel Aviv for Saudi Arabia, where President Biden was welcomed by the Saudi ambassador to Washington and the governor of Mecca, instead of being greeted by King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). But Biden then met directly with MBS and the leaders of several other Arab states, and attempted to justify said meeting by stating that, “The United States will support and strengthen partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order.” In a joint statement between the United States and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, the two countries “underscored the importance of continuing to strengthen their strategic partnership,” and Biden spoke explicitly about American commitment to upholding Saudi Arabia’s security and defense. Although it is not clear whether the Biden Administration intends to move forward with any additional security guarantees to Riyadh, the US is reportedly weighing the resumption of offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. During his trip, President Biden also reaffirmed America’s commitment to other regional partners such as the UAE, Egypt, and Kuwait.
Although it is not clear whether the Biden Administration intends to move forward with any additional security guarantees to Riyadh, the US is reportedly weighing the resumption of offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.
Biden reportedly made brief mention of human rights while in Saudi Arabia, and apparently indicated that he believes MBS was responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. MBS is said to have pushed back against Biden’s criticism, however, allegedly raising both the issue of abuses suffered by prisoners in the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the lack of US action on the Israeli Army’s May 2022 killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. There has since been a back and forth between the Biden Administration and Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir over what was actually discussed in relation to Khashoggi’s killing. Regardless, the discussion had no impact on Saudi Arabia’s calculus, with al-Jubeir seemingly doubling-down on the murder in an interview, stating, “What you may call a dissident, we call a terrorist.” Additionally, no progress was made on the disastrous war in Yemen beyond rhetorical support by the US and Saudi Arabia for a pre-existing ceasefire. Nor were there any immediate deliverables on the matter of increasing oil supplies, with al-Jubeir stating that the market will continue to determine Riyadh’s oil output. In fact, it was revealed during Biden’s trip that Saudi Arabia has more than doubled its imports of discounted—and sanctioned—Russian oil in the second quarter of this year so that it can use this fuel domestically while selling its own oil at higher prices internationally.
In many ways, Biden’s visit to the region was an effort to double down on the two foundational pillars that have guided US policy for decades: staunch support for select autocrats rooted in the “myth of authoritarian stability” and unwavering support for the state of Israel. Indeed, Biden’s trip was largely a reflection of a new regional order wherein these pillars have been formally merged in the Abraham Accords that were orchestrated by the Trump Administration. This new order is embodied by a regional autocracy-apartheid nexus that is underpinned by American power. But Biden’s Middle East venture should also be viewed in the context of a renewed great-power competition that is taking place not only across the region, but globally as well.
A New Regional Order
Talk of potential Saudi normalization with Israel was ubiquitous leading up to Biden’s visit. And although Saudi Arabia and Israel did not formalize relations during Biden’s trip, it was reported that the Israeli government approved a deal that would see the transfer of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi control. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, announced that it would begin allowing Israeli airlines to use its airspace, and would allow direct charter flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. President Biden described such moves as the first “tangible” steps toward normalization between the two countries. However, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan pushed back against such claims, stating that the move has “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel.” Saudi Arabia appears content with continuing its policy of “tacit normalization” with Israel, which yields myriad benefits for Riyadh without it having to formally establish relations with the Zionist state. Informal Israeli-Saudi ties, however, have been growing considerably for years and are becoming increasingly public. The strategic interests of elites within Saudi Arabia and Israel have gradually converged, especially following the 2011 Arab uprisings. The shared desire of these states to maintain the regional authoritarian status quo, uphold their dominance over the balance of power, push back against rivals such as Iran, and keep Washington deeply engaged as their security guarantor in the Middle East has already ushered in dramatic new levels of cooperation.
Saudi Arabia appears content with continuing its policy of “tacit normalization” with Israel, which yields myriad benefits for Riyadh without it having to formally establish relations with the Zionist state.
In addition to the topic of possible Saudi normalization with Israel, the notion of a more formal regional alliance—possibly including a formal US security guarantee—also received a great deal of attention ahead of Biden’s visit. One development that is of particular interest is Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s announcement prior to the trip that Israel is building a US-sponsored regional air defense group called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). The details surrounding MEAD remain vague, but news of the alliance came on the heels of reports of high-level cooperation between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt to create such a mechanism, with some sources mentioning efforts to bring Saudi Arabia into the deal as well. Bipartisan legislation was even introduced in Congress calling for the US Defense Department to present a strategy toward integrating such an air defense network into existing security structures in the Middle East. Although there was no immediate movement on the issue during Biden’s visit, he did express that “the United States is committed to advancing a more integrated and regionally-networked air and missile defense architecture” within the Middle East, and vowed to “accelerate our cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other partners in the region.” However, the Saudi foreign minister stated that he was not aware of any discussions regarding such an alliance and denied that Saudi Arabia was involved in any talks. Whether such a coalition may actually materialize therefore still remains uncertain.
Biden’s trip has also been framed as a necessary response to the return of great-power competition both globally and within the Middle East. Without a doubt, both Russia and China have considerably expanded their presence in the region over the past decade. Washington’s fears over these advances received a new impetus following the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, namely the actions of US regional partners in the wake of the invasion. Such actions included the UAE abstaining from a United Nations Security Council draft resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion, Saudi and Emirati leaders reportedly declining to take phone calls from Biden, the Emirates serving as a safe haven for the money and assets of Russian oligarchs seeking to evade sanctions, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE refusing to budge on oil production levels. These moves were followed by a plethora of analyses penned by American commentators stressing the need to “recommit” to the Middle East or risk China or Russia gaining at the United States’ expense.
Inadequate attention has been paid to the serious limitations facing Russia and China in the region and to the ways in which regional actors have sought to manipulate the US’s anxiety about losing its relative position.
While in the Middle East, Biden specifically addressed this issue, stating that the United States “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” He also stressed that Washington “will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways.” While “regional powers” here likely refers to Iran, Biden’s mention of “foreign powers” was a clear reference to Russia and China. Though the issue of great-power competition in the Middle East has become a central focus of both the Biden Administration and the American foreign policy community, inadequate attention has been paid to the serious limitations facing Russia and China in the region and to the ways in which regional actors have sought to manipulate the US’s anxiety about losing its relative position. Indeed, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent actions of regional states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE should demonstrate to Washington how these actors are manipulating the return of great-power competition to advance their own strategic imperatives at home and abroad. Viewed in this context, Biden’s visit appears thoroughly out of step with both regional and global realities.
Although President Biden may have appeased a wide array of autocrats and human rights violators during his trip to the Middle East, he ultimately left the region without having secured any tangible deliverables for the American people. The trip was an extremely unpopular prospect before the president even departed, and he is now taking significant criticism from all sides. In the end, the visit was primarily a signal from Biden that he remains committed to the two foundational pillars of US Middle East policy, and to the project initiated by his predecessor to merge the two more formally into a unified approach to the region.
As Biden continues to build on the Abraham Accords, he is effectively sidelining popular Arab opinion and the issues of Palestine and Palestinian rights in favor of a security- and business-driven approach that maintains the rather bleak regional status quo. It is also likely, moving forward, that the Biden Administration will provide additional American security commitments in the region, commitments that have become increasingly unpopular among the American public in recent years. Thus, while Biden’s visit may have benefited various Middle East players, it accomplished very little for the president on the domestic front.