The aim, US President Joe Biden said, before setting off on a Middle East tour that ended in a summit with his Arab counterparts on 16 July in Saudi Arabia was to start a new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement there.
In an opinion article in the Washington Post titled “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia” on the eve of his four-day tour, Biden laid out the selling points of his ambitious diplomacy by emphasising that the tour “comes at a vital time for the region, and it will advance important American interests.”
Outlining some of the critical disputes in the Middle East, Biden sought to defend his administration’s policies and pledged to build on “promising trends” that he boasted “the United States can strengthen in a way no other country can.”
On the stalled indirect talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, Biden wrote that he “will continue to increase diplomatic and economic pressure until Iran is ready to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal,” known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
On Saudi Arabia, where his administration’s relations have been strained over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden said his aim was to “reorient – but not rupture – relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years.”
Biden stressed Saudi Arabia’s role in helping to support the truce in Yemen and pressing for additional oil production as part of efforts to help stabilise oil markets with other OPEC producers, two issues which he hoped would help to reinforce US-Saudi ties.
Biden’s account of his trip also focused on his efforts to promote US security interests in the Middle East by countering Russia’s and China’s increasing influence in the region, which he attributed to the “mistake” of “walking away from our influence.”
The other key issue on Biden’s agenda was to push for Riyadh’s diplomatic normalisation with Tel Aviv in order to “help build momentum towards Israel’s further integration into the region.”
The normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be the most significant expansion of the so-called “Abraham Accords” associated with former US president Donald Trump.
Yet, some major disagreements surfaced during the three stops on his controversial tour, which Biden decided it was worth the political cost of carrying out in order to counter dwindling US influence in the Middle East despite mounting opposition and scepticism.
In Israel, Biden diverged from Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Iran. While Biden said he still wanted to give diplomacy a chance to persuade Tehran to join a new nuclear deal, Lapid insisted that words alone would not thwart the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.
“Words will not stop them, Mr President. Diplomacy will not stop them,” Lapid said. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear programme, the free world will use force,” he said at a joint press conference.
During his visit to the Palestinian Territories, Biden reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict after meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the Occupied West Bank. However, he claimed that the “ground is not ripe” for restarting the talks between Israel and Palestine.
Abbas, who has been trying to convince successive US administrations to take a more active role in stalled Middle East peace efforts, warned that there was a narrowing window for the two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In a final communiqué issued following their summit with Biden on 16 July, Arab leaders reiterated that any settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be based on the two-state solution and take into consideration the 2001 Arab Peace Plan that trades normalisation for the return of the occupied territories.
In Saudi Arabia, the trickiest diplomatic terrain Biden encountered on his Middle East trip, Biden had to bounce back on his earlier promise to make the kingdom into a “pariah” nation and was compelled to do business with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, whom the US intelligence community had earlier concluded had sanctioned Khashoggi’s murder.
In exchange, Biden may have been able to secure a half-hearted Saudi commitment to raising oil production, badly needed to balance the international market and ease high petrol prices and widespread inflation in the US and across the globe.
However, Bin Salman’s announcement that Saudi Arabia would increase oil production to 13 million barrels per day pending the outcome of a meeting of the OPEC+ group of countries on 3 August did not have an immediate effect on the market, probably because of expert doubts that the kingdom has much more oil-production capacity to deliver.
If Saudi Arabia does not increase its production, high oil prices will continue to pose a political threat to Biden and other leaders who are hoping to quell an oil-market rally that threatens global economic growth and is hindering efforts to choke off Russian oil revenues in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine.
Further setbacks appeared when Biden met with Arab leaders in Jeddah for their summit meeting on Saturday, where he sought to integrate Israel into the region as part of a new axis aimed at encouraging more Arab countries to normalise their relations with Israel, seen as the crown jewel of Biden’s landmark trip.
Riyadh has taken a small step in allowing Israeli planes to fly over its airspace, but all eyes have nevertheless remained on Saudi Arabia with a view to seeing whether it will take steps to improve its ties with Israel including by establishing full diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir told the US network CNN that the kingdom would not fully normalise its ties with Israel until an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital was established.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud also shrugged off reports about “any discussions regarding a GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council]-Israeli defence alliance in the integrated air defence network the United States is hoping to establish with Mideast allies.”
There were also further divergences of opinion, underscoring the multiple versions of a summit that Biden had hoped in his Washington Post piece would produce “promising trends which the United States can strengthen in a way no other country can.”
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi emphasised two themes that have always been dear to Egyptian policymakers: Arab national security and a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.
Calling for the mobilisation of Arab potential to confront the “dangers surrounding our Arab world,” Al-Sisi renewed Egypt’s demand that the region be declared a nuclear-free zone under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) supervision, a demand opposed by Israel and stalled by the US.
The UAE showed a clear reluctance to support regional escalation against Iran. On the eve of the Jeddah summit, UAE Presidential Diplomatic Adviser Anwar Gargash said the idea of a confrontational approach to Iran was not something Abu Dhabi supported.
Stressing that his country would not be part of an anti-Iran axis, Gargash told reporters that “our conversation is ongoing... we are in the process of sending an ambassador to Tehran. All these areas of rebuilding bridges are ongoing.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, whose country’s parliament has just made it illegal to normalise relations with Israel and where Iran enjoys unprecedented influence, made it clear that he wanted the summit to focus on energy, food security, environmental challenges and cooperation on infrastructure and trade.
Biden and his foreign policy and national security teams may believe that the US still has plenty of influence in the region, enabling it to contain creeping Russian and Chinese power in the Middle East.
But in order to “build on this moment with active, principled American leadership” and return to a region Biden has long abandoned and sit with leaders whom he has abhorred as autocrats could require much careful follow-up.
Whether Bidden has left his mark on the Middle East by rekindling regional alliances and reestablishing US supremacy, and whether his trip will succeed in curbing petrol prices back home before crucial mid-term elections, remains to be seen.
To many sceptics in the region, Biden may simply have returned to Washington with “Hunain’s slippers” – a classical Arabic proverb about a Bedouin man who loses his camel while looking for lost footwear.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.