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Biden’s Middle East Trip Shows the US Is Not Going Anywhere

28 Jul 2022
By Professor Sally Totman
Joe Biden touches down in Israel on 14 July.
Source: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, Flickr,

In mid-July Joe Biden visited the Middle East. The US president was at pains to strengthen economic partnerships in the region and emphasise America’s reliability as an ally.

United States President Joe Biden returned recently from a four-day whirlwind tour to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. Before he left Washington, Biden took the unusual step of writing an op-ed in the Washington Post justifying his reasons for visiting Saudi Arabia. In the piece, Biden stated “it is my job to keep our country strong and secure. We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China, and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.” What is clear now, post-trip, is that the method for achieving these goals, and the main priority, was to strengthen the United States’ economic ties in the region.

Economics Before Human Rights

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been strained since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the release of a US government report stating Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salmon ‒ better known as MBS ‒ approved the assassination. President Biden previously vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” as a result, but economic priorities clearly outweighed Washington’s ongoing outrage at the kingdom’s flagrant human rights abuses. Biden met with MBS (complete with an awkward fist-bump greeting), provided him and other regional leaders with assurances, and discussed future cooperation on energy, security, trade, and climate change, including an agreement to build 5G and 6G telecommunications networks.

Economics Before Peace

The Biden administration is pursuing less ambitious diplomatic goals but more realistic and achievable economic goals in relation to Israel and Palestine. The United States is not looking to actively engage in progressing the diplomatic side of Israel-Palestine Peace Process but rather is looking for other ways to make progress to improve the lives of Palestinians. While Biden reiterated his commitment to a two-state solution, he also noted the “ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations.” Perhaps this is because the Biden administration still views Israel as its most important strategic partner in the region. The tortured wording of the Jerusalem US-Israel Strategic Partnership Declaration speaks volumes:

President Biden reaffirms his longstanding and consistent support of a two-state solution and for advancing toward a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians alike can enjoy equal measures of security, freedom and prosperity. The United States stands ready to work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and regional stakeholders toward that goal. The leaders also affirm their shared commitment to initiatives that strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the quality of life of Palestinians.

While Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might not have received the diplomatic support he was hoping for from the US president, Biden did announce significant additional US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and healthcare services for Palestinians.

Economic Cooperation to Bring US Regional Allies Closer

President Biden began his tour in Israel where he and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed the Jerusalem Declaration stating the United States is committed “to deepen[ing] 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.” Biden followed this up by flying directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, the first official flight in history to do so, where the Saudi government then announced it would now allow all carriers, including Israeli ones, to use their airspace.

This was seen by many, including the Israeli prime minister, as the first steps towards normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, this is likely a long way off given Jeddah maintains normalisation with Israel will not be reached until a two-state solution is reached in accordance with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. That said, there is plenty of under-the-radar cooperation opportunities that are likely to occur with Saudi Arabia via the Arab countries that are signatories to the Abraham Accords.

Economic Cooperation to Minimise the Influence of China and Russia

It seems one of the main priorities for the trip was to reassure the United States’ regional partners that the US remains a valuable partner. Biden bluntly articulated this in his speech to the GCC + 3 when he stated “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran. And we’ll seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Of course, both Russia and China are already heavily involved in the region, with China being Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner. Their ties in the region run deeper than just trade, extending to cooperation on a broad range of key issues such as defence and infrastructure. Moreover, both Russia and China are not prone to commenting on human rights abuses or lax environmental practices. This is very appealing to a region where these two issues exist pervasively. The US will have to work hard to keep their Arab allies from straying economically.

Agreement(s) on Iran

The only item on the US agenda that didn’t involve an economic framework was the topic of Iran. Here President Biden had to walk a fine line in balancing the two differing approaches of his allies to this issue. Israel, the United States’ closest ally, is keen on going straight to military options, clearly articulated by Prime Minister Lapid when he asserted:

Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that the [sic] — if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.

This approach was captured in the joint statement signed by Biden and Lapid where the US gave their “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.”

However, the United States’ Arab allies are not keen on a military solution and would prefer to pursue diplomatic channels. The US supported this approach in both the Jeddah Communique which “stresses the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon” and the Joint Statement of the United States and Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, which noted “the centrality of diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” These statements are in stark contrast to the United States using “all elements of its national power,” but it seems the US made both their Israeli and Arab allies happy by agreeing to their preferred approaches.

Political analysts tend to overanalyse these types of international visits, but it appears with President Biden what you see is what you get. As he asserted in his speech to the GCC + 3 Summit “[t]he United States is invested in building a positive future in the region in partnership with all of you, and the United States is not going anywhere.” And that message was clearly the point of the whole trip.

Professor Sally Totman PhD is a political scientist with expertise on the Middle East and North Africa. She is currently the Head of School of the School of Social Work and Arts at Charles Sturt University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.