While most attention in the US has been focused on the economic downturn and soaring inflation, a key foreign policy move by the Biden administration stole the headlines of many outlets in recent weeks, and it was not the Ukraine war.
US President Joe Biden officially announced his first trip to the Middle East since taking office over a year ago.
Stops during his July trip will include the West Bank, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Little scrutiny or attention was paid to the president’s itinerary on his first two destinations, while there is continued criticism by much of Biden’s own party as to why he is visiting the country he vowed to make a “pariah” while he was running for president.
But with midterm elections in the US projected to see a Republican takeover of at least one of the two chambers on Capitol Hill, Biden has been forced to recalibrate his foreign policy.
The colossal withdrawal from Afghanistan is believed to have upped Russian President Vladimir Putin’s appetite to invade Ukraine further, and Washington is now worried that Beijing could follow suit and invade Taiwan.
Despite the average US voter not traditionally impacted by US foreign policy, record gas prices for Americans have raised questions about why this is happening.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the primary reasons. But Republicans blame Biden for peddling a “clean energy” policy, put forth by mostly progressive Democrats, at the expense of the US becoming energy independent.
Biden heavily campaigned on “ending fossil fuel,” and last week, the White House said there was “no need” to drill for more oil inside the US. Instead, crude should be refined to push out to gas stations.
Seeing the potential for rising gas prices, Biden dispatched senior officials to the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, to get oil-producing countries (OPEC+) to scrap a deal with Russia and increase their oil output. This request was rebuffed more than once, and observers blame Biden’s aggressive approach toward the Gulf as the main reason.
Biden irked Gulf capitals after his comments on the campaign trail and then by targeting Saudi Arabia and the UAE with some of his first foreign policy moves. These included removing the Iran-backed Houthis from the terror blacklist, freezing weapons sales to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and refusing to engage with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden also declassified intelligence on the killing of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, which blamed Saudi government officials.
Next month, Biden is scheduled to meet with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz and the Crown Prince.
“I think the Administration has recognized that there is little utility in prolonging a dispute or disruption in US-Saudi relations and it’s time to open a dialogue on a number of important regional and global economic issues – ones that matter to Saudi Arabia and to the interests of the United States,” said Karen Young, director of the Middle East Institute’s Program on Economics and Energy.
The US is also working tirelessly to help Europe find alternatives to Russian gas in a bid to choke off a central resource for the Kremlin’s funding of its war on Ukraine. One of these alternatives is encouraging Gulf countries to sell more oil and gas to Europe.
“Clearly, there is recognition in the [Biden] administration that the Middle East will play a greater role influencing markets, particularly to Europe finding alternatives to Russian gas, than it previously has,” said Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University.
Facing Iran and its proxies
Nevertheless, the rough patch in relations that Washington and Riyadh have experienced since Biden took office could be smoothing out. Warming relations between Arab countries and Israel have also impacted how the US shapes its policy on Iran.
Apart from the exorbitant oil prices in the US, Biden’s adamance on reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran in return for sanctions relief appears to be all but ended.
Easing US pressure on Iran and the regime that preaches “death to America” goes back to the days of former US President Barack Obama, who called on Saudi Arabia to “find an effective way to share the neighborhood” with Iran. This was preceded by secret talks between Washington and Tehran that led to the 2015 nuclear deal, which did not include countries neighboring Iran and most impacted by Iran’s support for terror groups and proxies.
After Biden revoked the terror designation of Yemen’s Houthis, the group grew emboldened and increased its ballistic missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The UAE was reportedly frustrated with the slow response from US officials after Houthi attacks struck deep in the heart of the country twice earlier this year.
Saudi Arabia has also expended a significant amount of Patriot anti-missile interceptors in response to hundreds of Houthi attacks. Washington is likely to announce the sale of anti-missile interceptors in the coming weeks, according to US sources familiar with the matter.
Iran did not and has not done anything to positively contribute to the yearslong war in Yemen, according to Biden’s special envoy Tim Lenderking. On the flipside, US officials say that Saudi Arabia has taken steps, including working to mitigate civilian deaths during Arab Coalition air strikes on Houthi targets, to help reach the first two-month ceasefire in seven years. The truce was recently extended for another 60 days.
Meanwhile, the so-called shadow war between Iran and Israel has burst out into the open. Israel is believed to have been behind several assassinations of Iranian scientists and members of the IRGC.
During Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Riyadh will be looking for an American recommitment to the region’s defense, Maksad said, “US partners feel the US minimized support and the arms needed to protect themselves from Iran and Iran proxies.”
For his part, commentator on Middle Eastern politics Ali Shihabi told CNN that “Saudi Arabia wants as much involvement from the US as possible in constraining Iran, so that will be a discussion that will dominate the GCC-Biden meeting.”
Biden is heading to Saudi Arabia upon a formal invitation from King Salman and to participate in the GCC+3 summit, which will include Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
Warming ties between Gulf, Israel
The Biden administration initially hesitated to use the term “Abraham Accords” when referring to the peace deals between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, brokered by the Trump administration.
US officials have since backtracked on this policy, which seemed to be a directive at the start, and embraced the normalization treaties. They have also publicly stated their ambition to expand the number of countries that have signed peace deals with Israel.
One of the most significant breakthroughs would be a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal. But Saudi Arabia has been clear that it would not agree to such a deal until there is an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
But economic ties appear to be making some leeway and Saudi Arabia has granted certain flights the right to use Saudi airspace.
As they face the common threat from Iran and proxies it has bolstered, Israel’s defense minister recently announced a new alliance between the US, Israel and unnamed Arab countries to communicate and share intelligence to thwart drone and missile attacks.
US military officials have long urged the integration of regional air defense systems in the face of Iran.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior VP at the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Biden’s initial efforts to isolate Saudi Arabia had “backfired.”
“With the ongoing energy crisis spurred on by the Ukraine war, the United States appears to need Saudi Arabia more than ever,” Schanzer told Al Arabiya English.
He also said normalization efforts between Israel and other Arab countries appeared to be moving in a positive direction without US engagement.
“This appears to be a reset of the administration’s broader foreign policy,” he said, welcoming Biden’s trip to the region as “a welcome development.”
But Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia will be looked at by all sides to see if the decades-long relationship can be patched up.
“Saudi Arabia and its leadership expect to be treated like any other country, including ones where there are differences of policy and form of government, but which can be effective partners with the United States,” Young told Al Arabiya English. “And that seems like a reasonable policy the Biden Administration should also adopt.”