Five Takeaways from Biden’s Visit to the Middle East
Forget retrenchment: Strategic competition and boosting security cooperation, particularly to counter Iran, will keep Washington focused on the region.
President Biden made his first trip to the Middle East last week, visiting Israel and Saudi Arabia. While the trip yielded little in the way of flashy announcements — like new normalization agreements or Saudi Arabia boosting oil production — it did demonstrate that the United States remains focused on enhancing the region’s security architecture, particularly to counter Iran. Still, there were some notable developments, like a U.S.-Saudi agreement to build 5G and 6G telecommunications networks and Riyadh opening airspace to Israeli flights. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the president affirmed Washington’s long-standing commitment to Israel and said that now was not the time to reengage on peace talks with the Palestinians.
USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Robert Barron, Sarhang Hamasaeed, Hesham Youssef and Mike Yaffe discuss five major takeaways from the visit.
1. Re-starting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not a U.S. priority.
Kurtzer-Ellenbogen: With public assertions that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations,” and that his support for a vision of a two-state solution is not one that is realizable “in the near term,” Biden left little doubt that his administration will not be seeking, let alone actively pursuing or promoting, Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic progress.
This takeaway was concordant with the overall message of Biden's trip. In response to a regional perception of U.S. retrenchment, the administration seemed to offer a retort that the United States hasn't left but has simply reoriented its lens and terms of engagement. In this new posture, there’s an implicit message that getting mired in 20th century conflicts in a 20th century manner has given way to prioritizing 21st century cooperative challenges and opportunities as a route to regional security. Energy, water, food and climate all took pride of focus above or alongside public talking points on more traditional conceptions of security, and an emphasis on multilateralism and new alliances ruled the day.
This was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Declaration. Signed by Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the document effectively summarizes Israeli and U.S. positions, postures and policies in relation to each other and to issues of shared concern. Amid a list that included a handful of joint commitments — and a roster of issues from preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, to new intra-regional partnerships and the Russian attack on Ukraine — the Palestinian issue took low billing and reflected minimal ambition. The reference was notable both for its framing as only a United States — rather than bilateral — interest, and for its highly hedged language around what both sides can commit to. Specifically, the text references Biden’s “longstanding and consistent support of a two-state solution, and a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians alike can enjoy equal measures of security, freedom and prosperity,” and affirms that “the United States and Israel commit to continuing to discuss the challenges and opportunities in Israeli-Palestinian relations” (emphasis added).
To this end, while in Bethlehem during his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and while in East Jerusalem visiting August Victoria Hospital, Biden announced several positive initiatives and reinvestments in Palestinian society and in the U.S.-Palestinian relationship. He also found ways throughout the trip to message and leverage the potential of the Abraham Accords process as a boon — rather than a blow — to conditions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation. But, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Jeddah, the president was as directly clear about his commitment to the goal of a Palestinian state as he was that the waging of U.S. diplomatic engagement, or wielding of U.S. leverage, toward that goal is off the table in favor of practical steps aimed at improving conditions on the ground for Palestinians and fostering more constructive Israeli and Palestinian engagement.
At the end of the day, the message on the U.S. 21st century “peace process” reset was that when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and occupation, this administration will embrace the art of the possible and practical over the ambitious and aspirational.
2. Expanded regional security and economic cooperation — which includes Israel — is a major U.S. priority in the region.
Barron: The president’s July trip underlined the Middle East’s changing regional geometry. Since the August 2020 Abraham Accords, U.S. policy has been to deepen cooperation between American allies and partners in the region, including Israel. Thus far, the Biden administration has supported multilateral and multi-thematic efforts toward this end. Most prominently, in March, a number of Middle East foreign ministers met in the Negev, seeding the ground for what was dubbed in June the “Negev Forum” — a group including Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, the UAE, Israel and the United States — which has been framed as a step toward “a new regional architecture” to enhance security, integration, cooperation and prosperity. Biden also held a virtual meeting with the leaders of the newly formed “I2U2” group — Israel’s Yair Lapid, India’s Narendra Modi and the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed — to discuss the economic and political goals of this emerging “quad.”
The president’s visit began in Israel, where he signed the “Jerusalem Declaration,” stating that the United States is committed to “building a robust regional architecture; to deepen the ties between Israel and all of its regional partners; to advance Israel’s regional integration over time; and to expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.” From Israel, the president flew directly to Saudi Arabia, the first official such-flight in history, where the Saudi government announced that it will allow overflight rights to all carriers, including Israeli airlines. Lapid celebrated the decision as “the first official step of normalization with Saudi Arabia.” In the president’s meetings with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, the issue of greater regional integration and cooperation (particularly in countering Iran) was a consistent theme.
Still, while the Biden administration has been clear in its interest to broaden normalized relations in the Middle East, major announcements like those from UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan are not expected. Saudi Arabia quickly stressed that normalization with Israel is not on the table until a two-state solution is reached, per the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. In the same vein, few other Arab countries seem eager to join the Abraham Accords or fully normalize with Israel until a solution is reached on the Palestinian issue. So, as was the case in Jeddah, the administration is likely to remain content with smaller steps and under-the radar cooperation: an area where, undeniably, there is still a lot of progress that can be made.
3. Despite differences, U.S.-Saudi cooperation will continue.
Hamasaeed: Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and meeting with its leadership, especially with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman — often referred to as MBS — was a difficult, pragmatic and possibly necessary step for both the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the broader region. Relations between both countries, especially at the leadership level, have reached a low point under the Biden administration amid the Ukraine war. The killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a public U.S. government report stating the crown prince approved the operation was a primary reason for the relationship backsliding.
However, there is the wider trend of Saudi Arabia and other regional countries being unhappy with the United States’ changing posture in the region — described as retrenchment, divestment or recalibration, among other names — without consideration of the needs of its partners, particularly security needs. The Saudis and the UAE expected more support from the United States in the Yemen war and in addressing associated risks, such as the Houthi’s drone and missile attacks. Saudi Arabia and other regional countries are critical of U.S. efforts to go back to the Iran nuclear deal without addressing Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional influences through proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
Taking a close look at the record, one could find several issues that Saudi Arabia found embarrassing, particularly in regard to how Washington responded. Perhaps none of them became as personal and distancing for the leaders as the MBS-Khashoggi one. Direct personal engagement with the American president is important to Saudi Arabia’s leadership as well other Middle Eastern leaders. Biden’s visit re-established that direct in person engagement and diplomacy, and reaffirmed that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in the region need each other, even if they do not always share the same values. There is plenty to continue cooperation on: security, energy, trade, climate change, economic development and more.
President Biden provided assurances that the Saudis and regional leaders needed to hear. He said that the United States “will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways” nor allow any country to dominate the region, including Russia, China and Iran. In the past, high-profile Saudi and UAE facilities have been hit despite the security capabilities that partnership with the United States has afforded them. Biden’s visit provided much needed energy toward continued cooperation, but it will take time to see how events might test U.S. assurances and mutual expectations.
4. The United States and its regional partners agree on the ultimate objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, but are less unified on how to achieve this with escalation on the horizon.
Youssef: Dealing with Iran — including the nuclear deal — has always been a controversial issue between the United States on one hand and Israel and several countries in the Gulf on another. Biden and Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration, with Washington pledging to “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and “to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” The U.S.-Saudi joint statement “stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” On the other hand, the Joint Statement of the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council Summit underscored “the centrality of diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” The difference between the United States using “all elements of its national power” and the “centrality of diplomatic efforts” is glaring.
While Biden’s patience is running thin, he still said that he continues “to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.” Lapid argued that “words will not stop them… Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran … is to put a credible military threat on the table.”
The Iranian response was swift. Kamal Kharrazi, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran is a nuclear threshold state capable of producing an atomic weapon, but it did not decide to do so. Israel also lost no time in responding. The Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) chief of staff said that diplomacy can fail, and that an attack on Iran is at the center of IDF preparations.
The Gulf countries have been more focused on Iranian policies and the threat from its proxies, particularly the Houthis and Hezbollah. It is doubtful that meetings addressed this issue in any details other than Biden’s reference to “integrating air defenses and early warning systems to ensure that we can defeat airborne threats,” that was not mentioned by any other leader.
The message from several countries that participated in the summit toward Iran were more reconciliatory. In the summit’s press conference, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said that their hand is extended to Iran and expressed the hope that their dialogue yield positive results, adding that there is no such thing as an “Arab NATO.” Qatar reiterated its proposal for a regional dialogue with Tehran. Anwar Gargash, the Emirati president’s diplomatic adviser, said that the UAE is planning on sending an ambassador to Tehran, adding that they would not take part in an axis against Tehran. Joining an alliance against Iran was previously opposed by both Egypt and Jordan. Kharrazi welcomed the Saudi statement; the Emirati step, but added that it made a historic mistake by normalizing relations with Israel; and the Qatari proposal, saying that his country would be ready for talks with the participation of countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey.
Future developments will hinge on whether the return to the nuclear deal is achieved or not. In both cases, this will not be the last chapter in this episode.
5. Forget retrenchment: Strategic competition with China and Russia has Washington still focused on the Middle East.
Yaffe: The trip’s overall impact is still emerging, but can be gauged on a couple of metrics. There are short-term deliverables such as increased oil production, Israeli overflight of Saudi airspace, joint statements between leaders and the like. There are also larger, less tangible and long-term goals, measured in years, sometimes decades: among others, engendering a stronger sense that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the end-goal; spurring greater cooperation around security, economy and climate change; and promoting reform toward human rights and pluralism.
In this second category, one of the administration’s clearest top-line goals for the trip was to reassure regional partners that the United States remains a valuable and impactful partner — that Washington is not abandoning the Middle East, ceding the region to Chinese and Russian influence. In the president’s speech to the Gulf Cooperation Council, he emphasized, “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran ... We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled, American leadership.”
Russia’s and China’s relationships with the Middle East are in some ways similar, but in many other ways quite different. Both could be called “revisionist” in the sense of welcoming an end to the United States’ place as the preeminent superpower in the region (and world); on that both agree. But in most other ways, their priorities diverge. Russia’s role in the region is long-standing and multi-dimensional (military sales and geo-political gravitas, among other things). Russia has been keen to seize opportunities to advance its political aims (see Russian relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen and Libya). China, on the other hand, lacks Russia’s domestic oil resources, and relies on the Middle East as a “gas station” for its economy, importing many times more barrels of oil per day from Saudi Arabia than does the United States, for example. As such, where Russia has leveraged Middle East instability for its own political aims, China much prefers stability and opportunities for deeper trade and investment relationships. China’s targeting of Iraq for its “Belt and Road” initiative, the region’s largest recipient, is indicative of this trend.
The United States’ continued commitment to the region has been a central message for at least a year. But especially in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and at a moment when the narrative is focused on perceived American “pivots” elsewhere and “retrenchment” from the region, the president used this trip to try to shift these views — throwing the weight of his position to stress the United States’ value as a power and a partner — on U.S. leadership, security, economy and soft power. As the geopolitical picture continues to change, and some predict a “New Cold War,” this positioning can be expected to become a longer-term trend.