Ahram Online: The Biden visit to the Middle East that took place a couple of weeks ago is still subject to considerable analysis. One of the big questions that seem to be still unanswered is about the real motives behind this visit. What was Biden up to really in this three-leg tour?
Mohamed Kamal: What brought Biden to the region is simply the reality on the ground. He came to the Middle East strictly for US purposes – or almost.
Biden was one of those American politicians who had subscribed to the idea that the Middle East is becoming of lesser significance to the US foreign policy, at least from a strategic point of view. Then things happened. There was the war in Ukraine that caused a hike in fuel prices in the US, and this is certainly something that any American president has to deal with given the pressure it puts on the American economy overall. So, when this happened Biden decided to pick up the recipe he knows very well: call up on the Middle East to pump up the oil production. When the calls did not work, he decided to come to the region and personally engage the leaders in the region on a number of issues obviously, not just the energy situation.
There is also this sense that the Americans say that they have about a vacuum that their lesser engagement of the region has caused and that is being filled with some Russian or Chinese presence. This might or might not be true but in any case, this is another reason that could have prompted the Biden visit to the Middle East.
AO: And did Biden score on these two issues? And what did the Arab interlocutors who took part in the Jeddah meeting actually get out of their encounters with the president of the US?
MK: Well, to start with, I think that for the Arab world the visit has a sort of symbolic significance in the sense that it ended what might have seemed as an unprecedented rebuff of an American president to key US Arab allies. It was important to have this visit and to have the president of the US coming to them and addressing all issues in a way that is not offensive or aggressive.
There was a statement that came out of the Jeddah summit [that brought Biden with the leaders of the GCC, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq] and there were joint statements that came after the bilateral meetings that Biden had on the sidelines of the Jeddah Summit. Overall, it is safe to say that the language of all these statements was balanced and did accommodate the views of the Arab countries represented in the summit that Saudi Arabia hosted [mid-July]. They all addressed issues of interest to the Arab world at large. So, from an Arab perspective, I think this is a political gain.
Now what will happen next is a different question. We have to see whether the US will take some action to build on the positions that were included in the statements that came out of the Jeddah meetings. The Palestinian Cause and the case of GERD are among the issues that the US could actually work on, and we will see what it will actually do.
The positions the US expressed in the statements seemed quite positive, but we have to see whether or not the Americans will act upon what they said, or walk the walk after they talked the talk. This is what counts most.
As for Biden, he said that he has promises [from the concerned Gulf countries] to increase oil production. Again, here too the timing and volume of increase are not clear. However, for now, it seems that this statement helped to stabilize the prices of fuel.
Meanwhile, we will have to see what it means for the US to avoid having a vacuum in the region that Russia or China could fill. We need to see if the US will be more involved in the region and to what extent.
AO: Biden was the first ever US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. This is a major move and a major political gain for the US president that he took back home.
MK: I am not so sure that this direct trip could qualify for such a big political gain. Clearly, this US administration is keen to help the current Israeli government with the next general elections. I am not sure how this direct flight would configurate in Israeli politics, but in general, it is clear that the Biden Administration would prefer to deal with the current Israeli government than the possible return of [former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu. Clearly, for the Democrats, especially for Biden [with the legacy of the administration of Barack] Obama, Netanyahu is not the best partner in Israel
AO: Would you say that Biden managed to use this trip to argue the case for his policy on Iran? Is it safe to say that with the security assurances he offered to Israel and to the Gulf there is less apprehension over a possible deal between the West and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme?
MK: Again, I would wait and see. However, for sure the talks that Biden held in the region offered an opportunity for a candid and direct exchange of views on a range of files including the case of Iran. Clearly, the US president tried to dispel the concerns of his partners in the region and to say in so many ways that the US will do whatever it takes to make sure that Iran does not develop military nuclear capacities. What he said amounts to an indirect promise that the US could resort to military options to block any Iranian plans to develop military nuclear capacities. However, at the same time, Biden did say that he believed it is important to negotiate a deal with Iran because it is this deal that would make sure that Tehran will not work on developing military nuclear capacities.
So, in a way, Biden was saying that he remained committed to negotiating a deal but if negotiations did not pay off the US will not allow Iran to have nuclear military capacity.
AO: Let us address the Egyptian-American relations. The meeting that Biden had with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Jeddah was the first direct encounter between the two heads of state, despite previous phone calls. Would you say that this meeting could get the relations back on track and end the cold that seemed to overshadow the bilateral relations?
MK: I would not speak in terms of warmth and cold. I would just say that this meeting offers a step forward. I think it was important and overdue for the two presidents to meet and discuss the wide range of issues that is of interest to both countries – regional or bilateral.
Obviously, one cannot say that the Egyptian-American relations have been put on hold since Biden took office. There has been work and meetings and we saw the Strategic Dialogue meeting where both Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken expressed commitment to keeping the relations moving. The US and Egypt do have a strategic alliance and this alliance is never just about the US aid to Egypt, although recently the US promised to provide economic assistance to help Egypt with the economic recalibration from the economic impact of the pandemic. Currently, the US is also helping Egypt in its negotiations with the IMF to get a new loan. Moreover, the US statements on the issue of GERD seem quite consistent with the Egyptian position that requires a legally binding deal in line with international law. We saw that [not long after the visit] the US envoy for the Horn of Africa [Mike Hammer] came to Egypt.
Overall, there are some promising signs there.
AO: As for the issue of human rights which is not really subject to agreement bet…
MK: I think it is safe to say that Egypt is willing to talk about any issue including human rights. From an Egyptian point of view, it is very important to address the issue of human rights from its many perspectives and not strictly from the perspective of political rights. Both countries expressed their views on the issue as was indicated in the joint statement that came out after the meeting of Presidents El-Sisi and Biden in Jeddah, and it seems that both countries are committed to moving the relationship forward despite any differences on this issue.
AO: But in reality, did the meeting between the two presidents really make all that difference? The Egyptian-US relations are operated at so many fronts and levels and Egyptians have interlocutors in the Pentagon, the Congress, and elsewhere. So, did it…
MK: Listen, it is an established fact that in the US, the president is the most important actor in foreign policy and that his leadership does make all the difference. This is one. Two, it is also clear that for a while US relations with Egypt as with other Arab allies was going through a process of reconsideration in a way given the different priorities of the US today that seems to be concerned about a new world power struggle, the US has keen attention to check both Russia and China, the pivot to Asia, and other issues that have been gaining a lot more attention in Washington. This actually started under Obama.
The US is a leading world power, and it does have considerable resources but at the end of the day, any world power has to manage its resources and its attention to serve its interests in accordance with a priority list. Within this scope, there has been a sort of decline in the relations of the US with some of its Arab allies. There were also the uncontested failures, even by US accounts, in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, the latter being part of the greater Middle East as it would be called in Washington.
Now, from the perspective of the American citizen, there was no point for their country to continue to be so heavily involved in the region if this involvement was not really paying off. Moreover, the US internally has been going through an almost unprecedented state of polarization. This meant that any administration has to give a lot more attention to internal issues and then address its international priorities.
So, it is quite a complex situation.
AO: Today, what are the issues that Egypt and the US could prioritise to help their bilateral relations?
MK: There are so many issues for Egypt and the US to work on, both in the bilateral and regional contexts. For sure, regional stability is a prime issue because whatever the talk about the US comeback to the Middle East is, it is clear that the US is not ready to be so heavily involved in the region. For this to happen, the region needs to avoid any big hiccups. Egypt is playing a crucial role to help the cause of stability in many parts of the region, in Libya and in Palestine. So, this is certainly one area where the two countries can work closely.
Then there are also other areas for cooperation. IT is a good example, especially that the US thinks that China is presenting itself to the region as the perfect technology partner. There is also the possible economic cooperation with its many manifestations including allowing the Egyptians to export a bigger share to the US market – and this has been in the works for quite a while.
AO: Are you confident that the US really wants to go that far in upgrading cooperation with Egypt?
MK: Well, one always has to try to get things done. It might work and it might work but one has to try.
AO: You did not refer to possible cooperation in a regional security framework – something that has been proposed ahead of the Biden visit to the region?
MK: There has been quite a lot of speculations in the press on this issue prior to the visit but from what we saw there was nothing that came out in the discussions of the statement after the meeting. Again, this is a very layered matter; it is quite complex.
As for Egypt, the bottom line is always about its national security, and it will never pursue any plans that run against its national security interests.
AO: What does Egypt have to do to put its perspective on the future of bilateral relations with the US across Washington? Do you think enough is being done in terms of lobbying support in the US capital, for example in the influential world of think tanks?
MK: As I said, in the US the president has a very influential role in the making of foreign relations. This said I agree that relations with the US are very layered. The decision-making process in Washington, in fact, is very complex. So, while the president will always be the most important factor, the president always has a very large agenda of issues to address. This is why it is always purposeful to build relations in Congress, the think tanks, and for sure in the US media. It is very important to engage these players and to be in constant dialogue with them because this is how Washington works, and how to sustain bilateral relations.