President Biden recently made his first visit to the Middle East as president. It included two days in Israel, as well as separate meetings with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem and two days in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi leg has been politically controversial in the United States, mainly due to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 as well as criticism of the Saudi role in the war in Yemen. Unsurprisingly, much of the US media coverage of the trip, particularly the Saudi portion, was critical. I would like to suggest an alternative, more positive view.
The president’s visit to Israel was a welcome opportunity to show support for a beleaguered ally, but it broke new ground. Israelis hailed Biden’s public statements of solidarity with Israel and his appreciation for his achievements. The Jerusalem Declaration, while appreciated by Israelis, was largely a repackaging of existing US commitments and on the question of how to deal with the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, there was no convergence of views. between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid.
Biden refused to set a deadline for ending stalled nuclear talks with Iran and insisted on continuing to pursue the diplomatic route, while Lapid stressed the need for a credible threat of force if Iran continues to accelerate its march towards a nuclear weapons capability. Still, Biden’s visible displays of affection and reaffirmation of his longstanding sympathy for Israel have struck positive chord among Israelis across the political spectrum.
Even opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu, whom Biden often argued with when he was President Obama’s vice president and Netanyahu was prime minister, appears to have had a friendly meeting with Biden despite their differences over Iran. and the Palestinians. And while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas must have been pleased with his desire to resume direct dialogue with an American president, Abbas was reportedly disappointed by Biden’s outspoken statement that he had no intention of launch a new attempt to establish a Palestinian state under the current conditions. terms.
Moving on to Jeddah, Biden took on the challenge of how to rebuild the US-Saudi relationship, damaged in part by Biden’s statement when he ran for president in the 2020 election campaign that he would treat Saudis as “outcasts” because of their human rights record. . Once president, Biden quickly ended US military cooperation with the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, withdrew Patriot defensive missile batteries deployed to protect cities and Saudi airfields of the Houthis and even drones and ballistic missiles launched by Iran and reversed the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.
The president also said he would only deal with King Salman and not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), even though the king is in poor health and the crown prince is the de facto ruler of the Saudi Arabia. Finally, he ordered the release of a CIA assessment concluding that MbS ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Yet international politics does not stand still and changing circumstances may require substantial changes in policy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the West’s subsequent efforts to restrict Russia’s oil sales, as well as the lack of progress towards a return to a nuclear deal with Iran and therefore the continuation sanctions against Iranian oil, have led to an increase in oil prices. Growing doubts on the part of traditional Gulf allies about the reliability of the United States as a security partner have increased following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and created new opportunities for Russia and China to presented as alternatives to America while Iran doubled its uranium enrichment. To his credit, Biden concluded he needed to rebuild a partnership with the Saudis.
Much of the media criticism of Biden’s visit to Jeddah has focused on his first encounter with MbS. But I believe much of the review has missed the point. Yes, the decision to go for a fist bump instead of a handshake seemed silly to Americans and Saudis and the arguments about how the president directly accused the crown prince of being responsible for the murder of Khashoggi may remain a matter of perception. However, the key point is that Biden has taken a relationship that was broken to the point where the crown prince last spring allegedly refused to take the president’s phone call, and has now made a serious effort to get it working again. .
Time will tell if the visit was a success. The Saudis largely got what they wanted in terms of Biden ending their ‘pariah’ status; for them, the meeting itself was a big part of the message. It is less clear that the United States got what it wanted. Oil markets remain tight and the Saudis still seem determined to work with Russia in the OPEC+ format.
Israeli expectations of meaningful progress towards normalization with Saudi Arabia have proven too high and probably too vocal for Saudi tastes. But new areas of cooperation are at least implied by decisions such as the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli aircraft and the agreed transfer to Saudi control of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
Perhaps more importantly, Biden has said clearly and concisely that the United States has no intention of leaving a vacuum in the Middle East to be filled by Russia, China and Iran. This statement should go a long way to restoring American credibility, even though many of our traditional friends are still waiting for a clear American position on a Plan B when the Iranian nuclear talks are finally declared dead.