Biden ineffective in the Gulf

Ahmed Mustafa, Tuesday 19 Jul 2022

US President Joe Biden tried to mend relations with a “unified” Gulf and Arab world but the results are not up to expectations.

Biden, bin salman


Just one day after US President Joe Biden ended his visit to Saudi Arabia, one of the main goals of his first Middle East trip as a president was tested. The result indicated that it might take a while for the agreements concluded in the visit to have a visible impact on the ground.

As markets opened for business in Asia after the weekend on Monday, oil prices reached the hundred-dollar-per-barrel threshold they had just missed last week. Oil markets did not reflect the supposed Saudi promise to Biden to increase oil production to lower prices. They kept going up as fears of supply chokes persisted.

The US administration repeatedly denied that Biden’s visit to Jeddah was about oil. But once he flew direct from Israel to Saudi Arabia, marking the Saudi opening of their airspace to flights from Israel, oil was not only in the news but in the president’s remarks and in Saudi officials’ statements.

After meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman on Friday, Biden felt he “had secured Saudi Arabia’s agreement to produce more oil in the coming weeks”, as the president told reporters. The Crown Prince then announced that his country will increase its oil production to 13 million barrels per day to satisfy demand if needed and balance the market.

Contradictory statements from the Americans and Saudis about Biden raising the issue of the Khashoggi murder, oil and other issues marked the first part of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The second part of the visit was meeting Gulf and three other Arab leaders in a Development and Security summit the Saudis hosted in Jeddah.

Though Biden said his message to Gulf and Arab leaders was “We will not walk away (from the region) and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran”, none of the leaders present in Jeddah reiterated that message. So, the whole trip was just a reset of America’s relations with the Middle East, strained since Biden came to the White House early last year. Saudi commentator Abdel-Aziz Alkhames told Al-Ahram Weekly, “It was inevitable for Biden to visit, mainly to repair the damage he caused to relations. It would re-establish better cooperation between the US and the region”.

From a Western perspective it was mainly a win for Saudi crown prince and UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed. Oxford University historian Andrew Hammond said of the visit: “Just the sight of decrepit Biden having to go begging in KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] to make up with them was pathetic. Saudis and Emiratis were in a very strong position. They got what they wanted more than ever.”

But a very significant byproduct of Biden’s visit was the apparent realignment of Saudi-Emirati relations. Rumours recently spoke of a slight rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on regional issues, ranging from Iran and Yemen to normalisation with Israel. But the Jeddah summit with Biden showed a unified position of the two countries – at least apparently.

The summit was preceded by only three one-on-one meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Iraq and UAE. The one who won an invitation to visit the White House was the UAE president. In fact, just a day before Biden arrived, the UAE signed a cooperation agreement with Iran that might not be significant in a practical sense but does send a message. Official Emirati statements reiterated the position that the UAE is ready to compromise with Iran for the sake of peace and stability in the region without the help of a third party.

Yet, as Alkhames strongly suggested, “Saudi-Emirati coordination has been crystal clear, as it was in the past as well. You notice that the UAE didn’t ask for the floor to deliver its own speech at the summit. That is because they assumed that the Saudi statement spoke for them, communicating the same stance.” He also added, on one of Biden’s goals, “I don’t think the attempt to push the region, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, away from China and Russia was successful. Relations with these powers are already established based on mutual interests with the two important countries. A lesson is learnt from past mistakes, and the countries in the region are going to deal with Washington differently, putting their national interest first with no ‘free lunch’ for the US or anyone else.”

The Emirati stance on raising oil production to help Biden internally, with his administration facing public anger over fuel price increases, has been harder than the Saudi, especially that according to oil experts the UAE is already quite close to the maximum possible daily production. But Alkhames said, “as for oil, there might be an increase in production but definitely based on market conditions. Everybody is hurt by inflation, consumers and producers alike. So increasing production will be subject to the ultimate goal of balancing the markets and thus ensuring fair oil prices.”

It appeared that promises and diplomatic rhetoric were the main outcome, and with the Saudi crown prince now getting a sort of “American exoneration” – as one Western diplomat described it – the region is back to good relations with Washington but on a different footing. “It seemed like a visit aimed at making up with allies showing more independence from the United States than before, as the Ukraine war has shown. Biden framed it as an attempt to reassure regional allies of a continued US commitment to the region but also to bring Israel even closer to his Arab allies and push them towards joint defence arrangements, aimed against Iran. So he gave the impression of pushing the region towards confrontation at a time when tensions are actually quite a bit lower than during the Trump years, as Washington is trying to revive the nuclear deal with Tehran. We can only assume this is another one of those hawkish moves often made to offset a dove-like one, i.e. finalising a deal with Iran that would see sanctions lifted and limits on Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Regardless of public statements and any possible backstage deals, pressing the reset button on Gulf relations does not guarantee a proper startup. One might need to switch off and on multiple times before returning to normal operation. But the current regional and global environment does not provide an ideal situation for more attempts, so the status quo persists for now.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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