Fahad Ali describes a significant tour of Biden’s ME sojourn
It was quite surreal to witness Joe Biden’s ME sojourn exchange an awkward fist bump with Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) after poisonously castigating him as an international criminal. This is what is usually dubbed as statecraft that is devoid of personal likes and dislikes. The meeting between Biden and MBS comes three years after Biden vowed, as a presidential candidate, to make the Saudis and MBS a global pariah. Biden was compelled to travel to Saudi Arabia to seek Saudi assistance in pumping more oil to bring its prices down so that the galloping global inflation could be tackled. The visit was given high level of publicity with plenty of optics, photo ops and sound bites but few genuine strategic and geopolitical achievements except increasing oil supply. The visit was also laden with disappointment as though the first acknowledged direct flight of an American president from Israel to Saudi Arabia could be described as historic, there was nothing close to a headline-making agreement indicating that the House of Saud was ready to publicly embrace Israel indicating the lingering affect of decades of mutual distrust existing between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbour.
Biden had talked tough about Saudi Arabia in the wake of the brutal Jamal Khashoggi murder and he later stated that he raised the issue with Mohammad bin Salman and had warned him that there would be consequences if anything occurs like that again. He asserted that he was straightforward and direct in discussing it making it crystal clear that he would always uphold human rights. Interestingly before the meeting, Biden had declined to commit to raising Khashoggi’s murder and the Saudi record on human rights in general. It was accordingly reported that during the tense meeting the Saudi prince told Biden that the US had made mistakes too. Mohammed bin Salman and members of the Saudi delegation appeared pleasant throughout their brief discussion, with the powerful Saudi leader appearing to nod as Biden spoke to him.
Before reporters were ushered out, they peppered the leaders, unsuccessfully, with questions, asking the crown prince if he would apologise to the Khashoggi’s family. When one reporter asked Biden if Saudi Arabia is still a pariah state, a noticeable smirk was briefly spotted on Mohammed bin Salman’s face. Since taking office, Biden has spoken twice with King Salman, the crown prince’s father, who officially rules the country but had dispatched Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to serve as his administration’s point of contact with the crown prince, in what was widely perceived as a snub to the powerful Saudi leader. Saudi ambassador to Washington Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who was part of the Saudi greeting party, insisted that the US-Saudi relationship should also not be seen in the outdated and reductionist oil-for-security paradigm. She elaborated that the world has changed and the existential dangers facing the world, including food and energy security and climate change, cannot be resolved without an effective US-Saudi alliance.
Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, told the Saudi side of the exchange between MBS and Biden over Khashoggi’s murder by stating the crown prince called his death a terrible mistake that Saudi Arabia is paying a price for but that the Saudis firmly reject the totally baseless charges that MBS approved of the murder. He added that nobody holds the United States or President Bush responsible for Abu Ghraib because they know it was not ordered by him. He went on to explain that it happened because people did not follow their orders. Despite any such rebuke he delivered yet it appeared clear that he was more interested in letting bygones be bygones and he attempted to firm up an anti-Iran alliance involving Israel, as well as asking the OPEC states to ramp up oil production to help tame prices.
By the look of it this request was met with a cold shoulder during a summit of Arab states in Jeddah. Undaunted Biden, however, took the opportunity to issue Jerusalem Declaration that stated that the US was willing to use all elements of its national power to stop an Iranian nuclear weapon: music both to the Israelis as well as Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia that had been subjected to missile attacks on its oil installation by Iranian proxy Youthis of Yemen. Delivering a threat from Israeli soil will do little to convince Tehran to seal a new nuclear deal and that could be a cause of worry for the beleaguered Islamic Republic.
A summit with leaders from six Gulf Arab states, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq saw the US President walking a tightrope to bolster Washington’s influence in the Middle East. He told the summit that the United States would remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East. However the matter of fact is Biden’s visit seems to indicate shifting realities in the region. While Arab potentates and strongmen still look up to the US as a patron, they are willing to pursue more independent foreign policies, such as maintaining ties with Russia, that may not align with Washington’s vision. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed the divergence between Washington and key Middle East allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The US president also had bilateral meetings with Iraq’s caretaker prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Biden said he wanted to support Iraq’s democracy. The country has been without a government since national elections were held in October. In his meeting with Biden, the Egyptian president discussed food security and disruptions to energy supplies, the Egyptian presidency said. The United States has committed $1 billion in food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa. Biden also invited his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, to visit the United States. Biden and the ruler of the UAE met on the sidelines of the gathering of Gulf leaders.
The US-brokered deals known as the Abraham Accords established a new axis in the region, where Gulf States share Israel’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear and missiles programmes and proxy network. Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years vied for regional influence but launched direct talks last year in an effort to contain tensions. The Saudis say that US-Saudi efforts to ensure peace and security should focus on enhancing cooperation and reinforcing a rules-based system to confront the vision of chaos promoted by Iran. During his visit to Israel, Biden signed a joint pledge to deny Iran nuclear weapons, which the Islamic Republic denies seeking.
Earlier in his arrival in Jerusalem Biden was greeted by small groups of protesters and billboards decrying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories as apartheid during his brief visits to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, signs of disappointment at the sidelining of the Palestinian quest for statehood during the president’s tour of the Middle East. After pledging $300m in assistance for the Palestinians, he traveled to Bethlehem to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. Significantly, Biden has also not fulfilled a promise to reopen a US mission in East Jerusalem closed by Donald Trump, who broke with decades of diplomatic convention in recognising the divided city as Israel’s capital. Although the president reaffirmed the US’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict during his three-day trip to Israel and the territories, the visit largely focused on the threat posed to Israel and its new Arab allies by Iran’s growing military capabilities. TW