President Biden’s Middle Eastern diplomatic mission this week contrasts with news reports and public discussion in the past year suggesting that the region has become a lesser priority for U.S. foreign and security policy. Biden’s visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank territory build on a reality that Middle Eastern states have been knitting new relations, notably via the 2020 Abraham Accords. They are doing so in ways that Biden’s visit, and overall U.S. diplomacy, can advance.

President Biden returns to Washington last week, days before his first head of state visit to the Middle East. He will aim to boost the regional cooperation advanced by the Abraham Accords and keep Russia isolated. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
President Biden returns to Washington last week, days before his first head of state visit to the Middle East. He will aim to boost the regional cooperation advanced by the Abraham Accords and keep Russia isolated. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Diplomacy on Openings for Peace

Biden will meet leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and nine Arab states — an opportunity, he wrote on Saturday, to “deepen and expand” the “budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world.” These steps emerge from the Abraham Accords and related agreements, in which the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have normalized diplomatic relations with Israel. As this opening receives significant attention, policymakers also should consider a less noted opportunity rising from the four-month-old escalated Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s international isolation over its attack, and its poor military performance, is likely to weaken its appeal as a security partner. That could create points of vacuum in several Arab states that the United States should seek to fill, not least because of the chance that China otherwise will do so.

Following last year’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq, policy debates and news media discussions reflected a sense of U.S. pullback from full engagement in the Middle East. USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen has noted that policymakers in Middle Eastern states have over years sensed a gradual “retrenching” of America’s role. Thus they are framing new cooperative efforts to ensure their security, with the dangers from Iran as their main focus. Those factors encouraged Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, alongside the United States, to send foreign ministers to a March conference in Israel — a “homegrown” initiative that has created cooperative working groups on regional security, clean energy, tourism, health, education and coexistence, and food and water security. Also in March, Israel, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent senior military officials to a U.S.-convened meeting on sharing information on aerial threats from Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported.

President Biden’s trip, driven partly by the administration’s effort to build a stronger global response against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will let him encourage Arab states’ cooperation with Israel, notably on joint security against Iran, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week.

Biden’s trip will include a visit to the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Alongside the opportunities opened by the Abraham Accords, the long blockage of Palestinians’ demands for self-determination promise only continued violence with the waning in recent years of hopes for a Palestinian state beside Israel. Palestinian and some Israeli commentators have urged that Biden help restore what diplomats have called “a political horizon” for addressing the Palestinians’ needs.

The Ukraine Effect

Biden’s visit comes as the United States and NATO aim to deepen Russia’s economic and political isolation over its assault on Ukraine — and to contain the global economic disruptions of the war and consequent sanctions. News headlines have focused on Biden’s requests to Saudi Arabia and other states to increase oil production, replacing sanctioned Russian exports and reducing global oil prices. Yet analysts warn that Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producing states may have limited capacity or inclination to do so. Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s largest oil exporters, have collaborated on their production levels for years as Saudi Arabia has abstained from joining United Nations condemnations of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine.

One option to engage Arab countries amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis has been less noted. Senate testimony in May by Assistant Secretary of State Jessica Lewis pointed to a new U.S. opportunity to advance cooperation between Israel and Arab nations while reducing risks for negative influence by Russia or China. Russia’s assault on Ukraine, notably its struggle to defeat the vastly smaller, more lightly armed Ukrainian forces, may open a strategic opportunity to dilute Russia’s security partnerships with some nations, she noted. “It is imperative,” Lewis said, “that we provide affordable or subsidized U.S. solutions, not only to off-ramp [defense] partners from Russia, but also to ensure that any global military capability gaps that emerge are not filled by [the] People’s Republic of China” (emphasis added).

Arab countries that U.S. diplomacy might encourage to join the new regional cooperation with Israel are Saudi Arabia, Oman, Algeria and Qatar. The last two have been among Russia’s biggest arms purchasers since 2016, according to the database on arms transfers maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. All four will have noted the lackluster battlefield performance of Russia and its military equipment in the face of smaller Ukrainian forces using limited stocks of U.S.-made Javelins, Stingers and drones.

Algeria and Saudi Arabia were among four Arab states (with Iraq and Morocco) to abstain or not vote in the March 2 United Nations General Assembly condemnation of Russia’s new assault on Ukraine. Yet they and other states also cannot miss seeing the international isolation of the Putin regime, including sanctions that weaken its economy and target officials responsible for an unprovoked war and human rights atrocities. While any country builds its security partnerships on a complex web of factors, many tinged by political, economic or other interests, the performances of partner militaries and their hardware are relevant. Hence so is Assistant Secretary Lewis’ pinpointing of an opportunity.

Of these four Arab states, Saudi Arabia’s normalization with Israel would carry by far the greatest regional influence. But it (like Oman, Qatar and Algeria) has insisted on a restored peace process that can finally offer Palestinians hope for the future that was envisioned by the decades of diplomacy that aimed toward Israeli and Palestinian states side by side. Turning the Abraham Accords into a vehicle for real Middle East peace could mean making that restoration the price for these and other key countries joining them.

Part of security partnerships is arms sales, in which the Middle East’s main alternatives to Russia are the United States, France and China. China has increased its arms exports to Saudi Arabia in recent years. Thus, to the extent that Russia weakens its position as a security partner for Middle Eastern states, U.S. and allied policymakers should stay focused on the likelihood that China will seek to fill the points of vacuum. This is no hypothetical danger, but rather is already on tragic display in Myanmar, where China swiftly dropped all pretense of seeking peace in the civil war and moved to supplant Russia’s reduced ability to support the brutal military junta.

Security Partnerships

The United States’ security partnerships and arms provision include military-to-military relations and mandatory training that aim to strengthen democracies and protect human rights. Training aims “to ensure U.S.-origin equipment is not used to perpetrate human rights violations and to minimize the risk of civilian casualties by our partners,” stated Mira Resnick, Lewis’ deputy, in a Senate hearing last year on security assistance to the Middle East. She added: “We press and hold accountable our allies and partners to reduce civilian casualties. To adhere to the laws of armed conflict. To respect human rights. To enhance their security sector governance processes, and to understand when there is no military solution to a conflict.”

U.S. policy should continue its efforts to improve ways that American security assistance can advance long-term security goals — not least following last year’s surge in military coups. Human rights groups make a case for strengthening the training elements of U.S. security assistance. Analysts even within the U.S. military have noted inadequacies in how the United States measures the effectiveness of its training. Analysts at USIP urge that U.S. security assistance focus its training more on the good governance of police, military and other security institutions.

Finally, President Biden’s current visit reinforces the U.S. record of delivering on security guarantees in the Middle East, notably by supporting the Abraham Accords negotiated under its predecessor. Former Assistant Secretary of State Clarke Cooper noted that baseline record in the months before those negotiations. Distinct from security partners such as Russia and China, he noted, the United States has built and maintained relations that include “our commitment not just to make deals, but to build capabilities,” applying transparency and predictability. “To all those who would defend their nations,” he said, “a partnership with America offers something a purchase from Russia or China never will: friendship.”

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