Both sides have laid the foundations for a new chapter in US-Arab relations, forging a roadmap on how best to achieve the declared goals of the meeting: security and development.
This is not the post-1991 Kuwait liberation war era, nor that of the fall of the former Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. It is no longer one superpower dictating its views to the others, but a serious attempt by Arab leaders and the United States to reach a mutual understanding that would preserve the interests of both sides.
In order to restore regional stability, in disarray for practically a decade amid the disintegration of several key Arab states – and to confront new, unexpected challenges, such as Covid-19 and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine with all its negative effects on the world economy, all the worse for developing countries – key Arab nations and the United States have reached several important understandings.
In speeches and remarks delivered by Arab leaders and the US president, the two sides recognised the importance of reaching a “fair, comprehensive and ultimate” solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, based on ending Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and concluding with the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine. The final communiqué made a direct reference to the Arab Peace Plan presented in Saudi Arabia in 2002, which stressed the principle of land for peace, rather than peace for peace without ending the occupation.
The fact that Arab Gulf nations, Israel, and the United States are all extremely alarmed by Iran’s growing influence in the region, and reject its concerted efforts to develop an advanced nuclear programme that would enable Tehran to possess a nuclear weapon, will not replace Arab commitment to reaching a just solution to the long-standing plight of the Palestinian people.
Indeed, Israeli leaders have an interest in exaggerating the Iranian threat, and claiming that this should be the top priority, and not Israel’s occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territories. Some Arab states that have recently joined the Abraham Accords, mediated by the former Donald Trump administration, have sought cooperation with Israel in the field of security to counter possible threats. Yet it was an important development that, while Israel has been trumpeting growing cooperation and normalisation with Arab states, the Saudi foreign minister vehemently denied all reports on the possible establishment of a so-called Arab NATO that would include key Arab states and Israel to counter Iran’s threats.
Arab leaders who met with Biden are fully aware that the United States is not in the mood for a new military adventure in the Middle East, particularly if this time the rival would be Iran which has extended its influence in several Arab countries, including those that border Israel such as Syria and Lebanon, along with Yemen and Iraq. While Biden rushed to Saudi Arabia, changing his rhetoric during the election campaign on “isolating” Riyadh, because of rising oil prices following the Russia-Ukraine war, it makes no sense to assume that the United States or Europe would support a disastrous war scenario against Iran.
Even Arab Gulf countries that worry most about Iran’s influence and future plans are now seeking a different approach and looking for understandings and better ties with Tehran.
Iran or any regional power, such as Turkey, would be committing a big mistake if they believed they could fill in the vacuum created by widespread instability in the region since 2011. Arabs in several countries might have gone as far as a bitter civil war among their ranks, but experience has proven that Turkish or Iranian involvement will only make matters worse.
Libya is another key example in this regard. Despite intense international mediation and initial optimism that the country was on the right track to restore its unity and integrity, with one government and one army, after understandings mediated by the United Nations two years ago, little has been achieved so far. The key ingredient to restore stability in Libya was the withdrawal of all foreign troops and militias from the oil-rich country. Turkey, however, continued to provide weapons and military support to one key Libyan faction against another, preventing the restoration of security or heading towards parliament and presidential elections.
Arab leaders and the US president have also reached a clear understanding that Washington was not in a position to lecture the rest of the world on how to run their countries or issue assessments on their human rights record. They all agreed on the importance of building Arab societies on the foundations of democracy, citizenship, equality and respect for human rights. However, at the same time, there has to be a firm commitment to combat extremist ideologies and groups who threaten the very existence of modern nation states.
Reiterating human rights slogans alone will not solve the problems facing Arab countries. They need first to enhance their institutions and develop their capabilities in order to lay the foundations for wise governance, achieve security, enforce law, counter outlawed forces, and provide the supportive climate for basic rights and freedoms, as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed in his speech at the summit.
The United States will be of great help to Arab countries if it provides support to their plans for political, economic and social reforms, boosting investments, and securing job opportunities to achieve sustainable development. These are now the main outlines of a new US-Arab relationship.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.