President Biden, Arab leaders to upgrade parameters of relations in Jeddah

Dina Ezzat , Ahram Online , Friday 15 Jul 2022

Arab leaders and visiting US President Joe Biden are set to discuss the future of Arab-US relations this weekend in Saudi Arabia.

Biden-Bin Salman
A handout picture released by the Saudi Royal Palace on July 15, 2022, shows Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) meeting with US President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. AFP


President Biden is set to deliver a speech on Saturday at the summit in Jeddah – which is bringing together the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, in addition to Egypt, Iraq and Jordan – where he will define the new US approaches to the region following recent regional and global developments.

Biden's meeting with the leaders of all six GCC countries comes after the end of the diplomatic and economic boycott that three of the GCC members – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE – and Egypt had placed on Qatar during former president Trump’s time in office.

Shortly after landing in Jeddah on Friday evening, Biden participated in a working session with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and top Saudi officials in the first meeting between the crown prince and the US president since Biden took office in early 2021.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is also set to meet with President Biden in an Egypt-US summit on Saturday in Jeddah.

This will be the first meeting of the two leaders since Biden was inaugurated into the White House in January 2021.

The meeting comes on the sidelines of a US-Arab summit level meeting that Saudi Arabia is hosting upon Biden’s first visit to the region. Previously, in the spring of 2021, the two leaders held telephone consultations to work on ending an Israeli war on Gaza.

Egyptian and Cairo-based foreign diplomats agree that two years down the road from Biden's presidential campaign against then-president Trump, now-president Biden is in the mood to “make things work” with the quintessential Arab allies.

Biden’s trip to the Middle East, they say, is specifically designed to relaunch the parameters of the US engagement in the region, following years of relative withdrawal that started during the last years of Barack Obama’s second term in office, the four years of Trump in office, and the first two years of the Biden administration.

In statements he made in Israel, where he started his Middle East visit, Biden said that the US made a mistake when it allowed for a vacuum in the region that other forces have tried to fill.

According to diplomats who spoke to Ahram Online, it is clear to all concerned that Biden’s visit to the region is not strictly an attempt to encourage the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries to further increase their oil production, beyond a rise they allowed a month ago, to make up for the drop in oil supplies in the international market with the sanctions the West imposed on Russia’s oil production.

The visit is also an attempt to reassure Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia that any possible deal between the West and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear programme would take into consideration their security concerns – despite the Jerusalem Declaration that Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed on Thursday that clearly stipulated that Iran would be denied all chances to acquire nuclear weapons.

Today, diplomatic sources say, realism prevails on the future of relations with the US. Washington, they explained, is aware that there have been significant changes in the region.

Meanwhile, they added, Arab allies are aware that at the end of the day they cannot just turn their back on the US – due to reasons of military, economic and even education cooperation. The issue now, they argued, is about reworking the parameters of relations, where neither side is expecting to turn back the clock.

In other words, they explained, the US will remain a strategic ally and possibly the top strategic ally, but not the exclusive strategic ally of the past. Meanwhile, Arab capitals, influential as they may be, will need to work to secure the consequential military cooperation with the US.

According to an Egyptian official, it is hard to ignore the many visits that US military and other officials have been making to the region, Egypt included, since Biden was inaugurated. Things are taking a lot more transactional shape now than before, and this, he said, applies not only to Egypt, but also to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

He added that it has to be taken into consideration that the region that Biden arrived to on 13 July is not exactly the region that his predecessor visited in May 2017, when he too visited Saudi Arabia.

Suffice to say that Biden boarded Air Force 1 for a first-ever direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia, who decided upon the visit of the US president to end an embargo on flights from Israel to the Arab country. Saudi Arabia is also contemplating ending a ban it has always imposed on allowing Arab-Israeli Muslims to perform pilgrimage with an Israeli passport. 

“Things are different for sure – Biden is certainly not Trump, but neither is he Barack Obama or George W. Bush, who were, each in his way, dead set on prioritising matters of governance,” according to an Abu Dhabi-based political source.

Biden’s visit started on 13 July in Israel, where the US president met with Israeli Prime Minister Lapid and other top Israeli political figures prior to moving to Bethlehem where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

While in Israel, Biden took part in a virtual four-way summit that brought him together with Lapid, and UAE’s ruler Mohamed Bin Zayed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the context of the recently established I2U2 alliance for cooperation and investment, especially in water, energy, transportation, health, food security, space and technology.

According to the Abu Dhabi-based source, nothing speaks more for the changing priorities of the region than this virtual summit of four like-minded states.

Another sign of change that the Biden visit is revealing is the position of the US president on the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. Biden neither shrugged the Palestinian Authority as Trump did nor did he act firmly to re-engage Washington in launching negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis as successive US presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, have been doing since Democrat Jimmy Carter helped Egypt and Israel reach the first ever Arab-Israeli peace agreement that was signed in Washington in March 1979.

Biden confined himself to promising economic support to the Palestinians. Instead of seeking a move on the Palestinian-Israeli front, the US president was more focused on giving a push to the voluntary Arab normalisation with Israel that has been gaining ground since the signing of the Abraham Accords in August 2020, allowing for normal diplomatic relations, and now flourishing cooperation between Israel, on the one hand, and the UAE and Bahrain on the other.

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