Joe Biden’s first visit to the Middle East is over. Starting 13 July, the US president toured Israel and the Palestinian territories where he met with senior officials, then went to Saudi Arabia to confer with Saudi leaders and the leaders of the other five member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
Biden’s four days in the Middle East held few surprises, say diplomats in Washington, Cairo, and Arab Gulf capitals. Biden acted as expected. He confirmed his country’s support for Israel, most notably by signing, with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the Jerusalem Declaration which guaranteed Washington’s underwriting of Israel’s military security in the face of any attempts on the part of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Biden made some conciliatory signs towards the Palestinians, visiting Bethlehem where he met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and paid lip service to the two-state solution though without any commitment to involving the US in relaunching the long stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Nor did he mention reopening the American Consulate in East Jerusalem or the Palestinian Consulate in Washington, both closed by his predecessor Donald Trump.
In Saudi Arabia everything went according to the script which one Riyadh-based source says was agreed well before Biden’s flight arrived in Jeddah from Tel Aviv. Biden’s interaction with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman was strictly circumscribed. After thorough discussions between the protocol teams on both sides it was decided Bin Salman would walk the visiting president through a corridor of Al-Salam Palace after the exchange of a fist bump rather than handshake. The fist bump was trailed as being fixed upon on the advice of medical teams to avoid the risk of Covid-19 infection.
“Clearly, if Biden wanted to have serious talks and get deals done he had to talk to Bin Salman, he is the effective ruler and there is no secret about it,” said the Riyadh-based diplomat. The protocol teams therefore came up with a formula that included talks with the attendance of both sides’ delegations “which allowed the Saudis to announce that Biden was going to have bilateral talks with Bin Salman, and the White House to say there was no bilateral meeting”.
In their bilateral/non-bilateral meeting Biden and the crown prince of the oil-rich kingdom took great pains to accommodate one another. Biden sidelined the Jamal Khashoggi case — Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince, was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul — and, according to the Riyadh-based source, promised to review a decision to ban the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia. For his part, Bin Salman gave the green light to increase oil production beyond the levels agreed ahead of the visit, and promised to work with the US, the UN and other international and regional players to reach a long-term truce in Yemen.
According to diplomatic sources who spoke before and after the visit, the mutual compromises made during the course of Biden’s trip show that realism is now the modus operandi when it comes to US-Saudi relations. Today, they say, there is awareness within the American administration and among Gulf leaders that while both sides still need one another the forms of engagement that proved effective during the war to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein invaded in the early 1990s are now a thing of the past.
According to one Abu Dhabi-based source, with new leaders in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and with the rise of other world powers, the dynamics of regional and international relations have changed. He argued that Biden’s invitation to the newly inaugurated UAE President Mohamed Bin Zayed, arguably one of the most influential political leaders in the region, to visit the White House for talks before the end of the year, is not just intended to draw a line under a phase of tension between the two countries but is meant to allow for consultations on how to make things work in a way that is compatible with the interests of both sides.
“This is not just about bilateral matters but about regional and international issues,” the source said. The UAE, he added, is now a key player on many fronts, not just due to its temporary seat on the UN Security Council but because of its active diplomacy. While in Israel, Biden, Lapid, Bin Zayed, and Narenda Modi took part in the first virtual meeting of the I2U2, a grouping designed for four-way cooperation in technology, food security and investment.
According to Egyptian diplomatic sources, Biden has decided that it is best for Washington to engage with Cairo rather than pressure it on matters over which they disagree, including governance issues. One source argued that the joint statement issued following the first bilateral talks between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Biden showed that while differences clearly remain there is now a wish to work together and manage them behind closed doors rather than in the open.
Biden’s visit to the region, say Al-Ahram Weekly’s sources, needs to be viewed through a lens that takes into account a US foreign affairs strategy increasingly focused on pushing back China and Russia from traditional zones of US influence following the US’ retreat under Donald Trump. They even argue that Biden’s initially firm positions on democracy and good governance were in fact part of the US diplomatic offensive against China and Russia.
Egyptian sources say it is not in Washington’s interests to dilute its focus on containing China and Russia by placing too much emphasis on human rights. They argue that while democracy and human rights remain integral to US diplomacy, they are a diplomatic tool that different US administrations use in different ways. Having determined to reassert its position in the Middle East, especially ahead of a possible new nuclear deal with Iran, the Biden administration has taken a conscious decision to turn down the volume when it comes to broadcasting its differences with its Arab allies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.