Before and since President Biden took office, debates have proliferated around an American “retrenchment” from the Middle East. The administration has consistently asserted that it is not withdrawing from the region, only aligning strategy and resources — “right-sizing” in the parlance of the moment. Still, most of the region remains unconvinced.
For his first trip to the Middle East as president, Biden chose to visit Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and Saudi Arabia. Biden visited Saudi Arabia despite considerable domestic U.S. opposition over the Kingdom’s human rights record, clarifying that he was going as a part of a larger summit, and for reasons having “to do with national security for the Israelis.” The White House worked to set manageable expectations for the visit: neither the Israelis nor Palestinians are in a place to re-enter negotiations, and the president was there to largely to share perspectives on a wide array of topics with a diverse set of partners — the summit in Saudi Arabia, included the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan (GCC+3). Despite the administration’s initial denial, energy issues were front and center, along with confronting China, Russia and Iran.
The Middle East always has a way of attracting international attention, often through crises and violence. Successive wars in Gaza (the most recent example being the Islamic Jihad-Israel clash over the weekend), violence in Jerusalem, Iranian nuclear ambitions and proxy war escalations, violent non-state actors and — most recently — an energy crisis spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have further demonstrated the inescapability of the Middle East for the world’s great powers.
Throughout the trip, international attention focused on decoding the president: his positioning, requests, reassurances and fist bumps. Less attention was paid to interpreting the messages the regional powers sent to the United States. While participants in the summit came with a host of diverging priorities and objectives, from regional security and cooperation to putting bilateral relations back on track, collectively they sent five key messages for the Biden administration:
1. The United States continues to have major interests in the Middle East and should not radically disengage from the region.
Regional leaders have repeatedly conveyed concerns to the administration about the reduced U.S. footprint in the region (a trend which started under Obama and accelerated under Trump). On this trip, Biden appeared to respond to this concern, telling the GCC+3 that “as the world grows more competitive and the challenges we face more complex, it is only becoming clearer to me how closely interwoven America’s interests are with the successes of the Middle East.” He added, “we will turn our attention and our resources to supporting our partners, strengthening our alliances, and building coalitions to solve the problems facing this region and the world,” signaling that the United States is not leaving the region, while recognizing the need to reconsider its level of engagement and future role there.
If the Biden administration seemed to hear and agree to a certain extent with the regional concern and assessment, the future U.S. role in the region — from strategy to tactics — remains up in the air. In a Washington Post op-ed, Biden stated the goal of his trip to the region was to “start a new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement there.” Still, he said, “our objectives are focused, realistic, and achievable so that we can target our resources, rebuild trust, and deliver real results.” Many throughout the region remain unclear and/or skeptical of this “new chapter” of American engagement, its effectiveness and implications — a sentiment that was undoubtedly felt by the American delegation. It is not clear whether opening a new chapter is a strategic decision or a tactical step until the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis ends, and whether the new level of engagement will be seen as effective by the region.
2. The countries of the region are ready for burden sharing, but are neither waiting for nor catering to U.S. demands.
For most of the “unipolar moment” that followed the Cold War, it was clear that countries in the region tried to accommodate U.S. requests and took them seriously. However, this will no longer be automatic — in this new U.S. approach to the region, reciprocity will increasingly be expected. This was evident in the response to Biden’s statement about an integrated regional air defense, in which Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Ben Farhan said he was not aware of “discussions on defense co-operation between GCC members and Israel.” It was also evident regarding oil production. Biden said he had “a good discussion on ensuring global energy security and adequate oil supplies to support global economic growth and I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.” Farhan contradicted the president, saying that there were no discussions on oil, and that the issue will be raised during the OPEC+ meeting in August.
Countries in the region are also taking steps on issues in which a stronger U.S. role would have been expected in the past: the dispute with Qatar has been overcome; the Saudis held five rounds of a security dialogue with Iran with an anticipated advance to the political level; the UAE is considering sending an ambassador to Iran; Turkey is ameliorating its relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel; a cease-fire is holding in Yemen; and Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE are reengaging with Syria.
Some countries are also not waiting for the United States to satisfy their security needs. When Saudi Arabia felt that the Washington was not forthcoming, it started developing its ballistic missile program in cooperation with China and may purchase Russian S400 missiles. When a deal to procure F-35 from the United States faced difficulties, the UAE purchased 80 Rafale French fighter jets — almost certainly not the preferred route from the U.S. perspective.
3. The countries of the region do not want to be forced to take sides in the new Cold War.
On the trip, President Biden said that the United States “will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” Countries in the Middle East do not place these three countries in the same basket and are resisting U.S. pressure to take sides on both China and Russia. Most do not view China and Russia as adversaries and have repeatedly told their Western allies that they will not take sides. They are willing to accommodate legitimate U.S. concerns, but not to compromise these relations.
As for Iran, much of the region shares the West’s preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear program. However, several Gulf countries are more concerned about Iran’s hostile and hegemonic policies in the region — particularly through proxies — which they feel is not given adequate attention by Western partners. They believe that competing priorities and low political bandwidth hinder advancing this crucial objective. Farhan‘s statement extending the Saudi hand of friendship to Iran was welcomed by the latter and aimed to reassure Iran that a reset in U.S.-Gulf relations was not a hostile anti-Iranian move to aggravate tensions.
4. The region sees no clarity in U.S. policies toward conflict resolution in the region.
While Biden said that the United States “is clear-eyed about the challenges in the Middle East and about where we have the greatest capacity to help drive positive outcomes,” this is not evident to the countries in the region. On the contrary, the sentiment has been that the United States has not provided enough clarity on its strategy to achieve significant progress in resolving conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya, or how to stabilize the situations in Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq and Tunisia. The region believes that the United States does not have a Plan B if nuclear program negotiations with Iran fail. These are undoubtedly intractable problems, without clear answers, but behind closed doors the U.S. delegation no doubt received requests for greater clarity on the directions the Biden administration is considering.
5. The United States should be more forceful in advancing an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Middle East leaders hold no illusions about the near-term prospects for a breakthrough toward the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Likewise, in his press conference with Palestinian President Abbas, Biden shared this pessimism. The Biden administration’s agenda around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been to improve lives, reduce violence and maintain options for a future negotiation, while reiterating that Palestinians and Israelis deserve "equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.” Biden said that “we cannot wait for a peace agreement to be reached or for every issue to be resolved to deliver on the needs of the Palestinian people that exist today” announcing considerable aid for the Palestinian people, but little in the way of policy steps desired by the Palestinians.
However, the Arab position — stressed by all the countries in the Jeddah Summit — remains that this conflict must not be ignored. In his visit to Jerusalem, Biden highlighted U.S. support for Israel and later touted Saudi Arabia’s decision to open airspace to all civilian carriers as “a big deal,” describing it as “the first tangible step in the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations.” However, Farhan said that this step does not amount to normalization and “is not in any way a precursor to any further steps.” The message was clear: The normalization agenda cannot be advanced in the absence of meaningful progress toward the two-state solution.
The administration, despite its (understandable) lack of optimism toward resolving the conflict, seems to have heard this. On the trip, the administration made its strongest attempt to-date to re-establish the goalposts. The U.S.-Saudi joint statement emphasized the two-state solution as “the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with the internationally-recognized parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative”; the U.S.-UAE joint statement stressed “the importance of protecting the prospects of a two-state solution”; Biden said that “there must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel”; he reiterated that the specific boundaries of sovereignty in Jerusalem must be resolved through final status negotiations, reaffirmed the need to preserve the historic status quo, and recognized Jordan’s crucial role as custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem; and the administration maintained its commitment to reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. These are all positive steps, but much can and should be done to realize these statements and prevent unilateral measures which undermine a two-state outcome.
President Biden’s trip to the Middle East was an important move in restoring complex strategic relationships. No one can claim that a roadmap was achieved on areas of mutual interest, or that warm relations were restored with Riyadh, or that all differences with the UAE were ironed out. But it was a step in the right direction. How the United States addresses the full slate of critical issues — Iran, regional security, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and follows-up on the summit’s agenda items will determine the next chapter in the U.S. relationship with the Middle East.