After his first 18 months at the White House, US President Joe Biden went on his first tour of the Middle East, his fourth foreign tour since January 2021 and starting with a two-day official visit to Israel from 13 to 15 July. This was followed by a meeting with Chairman of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.
On 15 July, Biden became the first US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, a “historic” first. He released a statement calling the Saudi decision to open the country’s airspace to all civilian carriers, including those of Israel, a “historic decision.” It was an “important” step on the road to building a “more integrated and stable region,” Biden said.
The statement added that the opening of Saudi airspace to all countries without exception could help build momentum towards Israel’s further “integration into the region.” Biden promised to do all he could “through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement” to advance the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Saudi foreign minister later denied that his country’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli civil aviation was a prelude to later normalisation. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between the two statements.
The day before, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that the Saudi decision was the result of “President Biden’s persistent and principled diplomacy” with Saudi leaders over many months. He said the decision “paves the way for a more integrated, stable, and secure Middle East… which is vital for the security… of the United States… and for the security of Israel.”
Biden held meetings with Gulf and Arab leaders over the course of 48 hours during the summit in Jeddah, one of the most important being with Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman after his meeting with Saudi King Salman.
This meeting was closely followed in the US and was much commented on, mostly in a negative light, by the American left. But a minority believed it was right for Biden to meet with Bin Salman, who is expected to rule the country for decades to come. Hence, realpolitik entailed that the two leaders should meet.
The meeting between the two has reset US-Saudi relations after a period of doubts, ambiguity, and mutual suspicions. It represents the foundation of a new strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the US and one that is comprehensive in scope.
Biden concluded his visit to Jeddah and his meetings with Arab leaders including Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, attending an unprecedented summit with nine Arab leaders including the Gulf rulers as well as the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
The summit was rightly called the Security and Development Summit, since the participants delivered remarks on the challenges, security and otherwise, facing the region. The Gulf leaders were unanimous in singling out the Palestinian question as the most important in terms of the future security and stability of the Middle East.
The other pressing issue on the minds of the participants was how to deal with Iran and its militias. Biden assured the Arab leaders that the US would never allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon, even if the situation compels it to use force if all diplomatic efforts fail. It was probably the first time that a sitting US president has not publicly ruled out the use of force against Iran. Previously, the US position was limited to saying that “all options are on the table.”
Biden seemed to want to reassure the Gulf leaders of US intentions at a time when there have been doubts in the Gulf about the US resolve in countering Iran. To reassure the Arab leaders about the US vision of the Middle East, Biden highlighted the importance it places on its strategic partnerships in the region and reaffirmed the US’s “enduring commitment” to the security and “territorial defence” of its Middle Eastern partners.
He laid out the five elements of a Biden Doctrine for the Middle East, namely partnerships, deterrence, diplomacy, integration and values. By deterrence, he meant defending the freedom of navigation through Middle Eastern waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab Al-Mandab, and not tolerating efforts by any country to dominate another through military buildups or threats.
Biden reaffirmed the US commitment to defending the free flow of trade through international strategic waterways through the use of multiple joint naval task forces in partnership with longstanding partners integrated through the US Central Command. These partners could include Israel.
Wherever possible, Biden said, the US administration will build political, economic, and security “connections” between US partners, this being the element of “integration” in the Biden Doctrine. In other words, Washington will encourage the gradual and cautious integration of Israel into the Middle East region. The opening of Saudi airspace to all civilian carriers is an example of such integration.
The first four elements of the doctrine deal mainly with US interests. But the fifth is about values and the promotion of human rights and other values in the UN Charter.
Biden’s tour represented a turning point in US strategy and involvement in the Middle East, and the Jeddah Security and Development Summit could be considered to be transformational in the annals of US-Arab relations. However, it is too early to tell how far the Biden Doctrine will impact the fortunes of the Middle East. One of the objectives of the tour needs careful consideration by the Arab rulers who attended the Jeddah Summit with Biden.
The objective in question deals with the region’s central role from the US perspective in connecting the Indo-Pacific region with Europe, Africa, and the Americas. It means by implication that US partners in the Middle East could find themselves to be the unwilling parties to any future confrontation between the US on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. A related objective is not to leave a “vacuum” in the Middle East that could be filled by Russia, China, and Iran.
Biden’s tour of the Middle East has opened new opportunities as well as new challenges for the region. What will happen now will depend on how the Arab countries engage the US in the years to come and how they manage their relations with the main competitors, some would say adversaries, of the US, namely Russia and China.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.