During the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman s visit to Cairo on Tuesday, 14 investment agreements to a value of $7.7 billion in the energy, pharmaceutical, food, and fintech sectors were signed. In March, the kingdom deposited $5 billion in the Central Bank of Egypt to support the economy. (photo: AP)
This week, as the Middle East prepares for the first visit of US President Joe Biden since his inauguration in January 2021, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett collapsed. Bennett will step aside to be replaced by his Foreign Minister Yair Lapid who will serve as interim prime minister until new elections can be held.
Despite the turmoil, Israel’s foreign policy parameters are unlikely to see any significant changes ahead of elections. According to a Washington-based diplomat, consolidating relations with the Arab countries and working with regional allies to constrain Iran’s political, economic and military capacities will continue.
Biden is expected to arrive to Israel on 15 July where he will meet with the acting prime minister and other senior officials before heading to Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He is scheduled to arrive in Saudi Arabia on 16 July where he will be received by King Salman, and later joined by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Biden’s encounter with the king and crown prince is expected to be short, and will be followed by a meeting with the leaders of all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. The US president and the GCC leaders will then be joined by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
Since his inauguration Biden has met with the king of Jordan twice at the White House, and once with the prime minister of Iraq and with the emir of Qatar. He has also met with the president of Turkey and the Israeli prime minister. According to informed diplomatic sources, during these meetings the US president was keen to ensure Washington’s key regional allies were onside with America’s priorities in the Middle East and pave the way for what seemed at the time to be an imminent nuclear deal between the West and Iran.
As hopes for a deal with Iran receded and the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought an open-ended war to the heart of Europe, the US and its regional allies found themselves facing a new set of circumstances which Cairo-based Western diplomatic sources say has contributed to the timing and design of the Biden talks in the Middle East, particularly the trip’s Saudi leg.
According to one diplomat, Washington has realised it must reconsider its policy of disengagement from the Middle East. He argues that Biden and his aides, who needed to apply pressure and exercise charm in equal measure to persuade Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the war on Ukraine and agree to a partial increase in oil production to help control soaring oil prices, understand that they are in no position to either pull out of the region or criticise allies over matters of governance.
In an attempt to regain its traditional clout Washington is now moving towards greater engagement in the region which the diplomat says is likely to translate into at least some intervention on the Palestinian-Israeli front “despite the very obvious limitations of trying to push serious political negotiations there,” closer rapport with its Gulf allies, especially Saudi Arabia, and a less confrontational approach to disagreements over human rights and democracy with regional allies. Statements staking out these new policy guidelines have come from the US State Department and to a lesser extent the White House.
A Gulf-based political analyst says the leaders of countries in the region also realise they cannot forgo their strategic alliances with the US, which for Gulf states are ultimately about national security and stability, and that however cautious Gulf leaders are being about supporting the US and Europe against Russia no Gulf capital can afford to turn its back on Washington.
He also points out that the desire of Israel and Turkey to work with leading regional capitals, including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and with Washington, on regional stability has been intensively discussed by regional leaders including President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, King Abdullah of Jordan, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the new leader of the Emirates, Mohamed bin Zayed.
According to diplomatic sources in Cairo, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have discussed with regional leaders what the Biden administration can do to promote Middle East stability without abandoning diplomacy with Iran, pressuring Israel into peace talks with the Palestinians or overlooking the US administration’s commitment to democracy and human rights.
There are no illusions, say sources, either on the side of Biden or his Middle East interlocutors about what the summit in Saudi Arabia can produce. Biden, they say, is already going to make history when his plane flies directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. And the fact that while in Saudi Arabia he will discuss political and security cooperation between Israel and its allies probably represents a more significant takeaway for the Democratic president ahead of mid-term congressional elections than securing another increase in oil production.
The same sources add that Riyadh is likely to be content with its positioning as a top regional policy-maker, and one that has put tensions with the US aside for the sake of joint interests, irrespective of any unease over the protocol arrangements for Biden’s stopover in Saudi Arabia and exactly when the crown prince joins the president and king.
Gulf countries will also be told by Biden that any deal with Iran will not overlook their security concerns, shared by Israel, while Egypt, Jordan and Iraq will brief the Americans on what they consider the essential requirements for regional stability: prioritising economy over governance, and managing the troubling situation of the Palestinians and ongoing conflicts in Syria and Libya. Turkey, for its part, will be happy to be re-integrated in the Middle East, not just through economic cooperation but also possible security collaboration while Israel, sources agree, is in a win-win situation.
Pre-Biden visit consultations have been underway for a while. This week, President Al-Sisi met with the monarchs of Jordan and Bahrain and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia who arrived in Cairo on Monday, travelled to Jordan on Tuesday and Turkey on Wednesday.
While the immediate political crisis in Israel has not resulted in any announcement of a delay to Biden’s regional visit, diplomatic sources who spoke hours after the news broke of the Israeli government’s collapse say even if the visit is delayed again, America’s re-engagement in the Middle East will continue to pick up.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.