US President Joe Biden's first visit to the Middle East is scheduled for 13-16 July after he has already made five overseas trips elsewhere. This illustrates the declining position of the region in US foreign policy, compared with his predecessor Donald Trump, whose first foreign visit as president was to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. This was a break from all US presidents who preceded him.
The White House and the Saudi Royal Court confirmed last Tuesday that Biden will make an official visit to the Kingdom at the invitation of King Salman, who he will meet on the first day along with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who is also Minister of Defence. Biden will participate in a joint summit on the following day at the invitation of the Saudi monarch alongside the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. This will be the largest Arab-American summit since the start of Biden's presidency in January 2021.
The agenda for Biden's meeting with King Salman and his son will focus on security, military and commercial cooperation, investments, the Yemen war, energy security, oil production and environmental challenges. However, Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration and everyone else knows that the main objective of the US president's visit is to convince Riyadh to boost its oil production. In the process, Biden also hopes to convince the Saudis and the Gulf states to reach a rapprochement with Russia, and to reassure his allies about Washington's commitment to their security. Initiatives covering investments, cooperation, Iran's nuclear programme, the Houthis, and Iran's allies and proxies in the region may also be thrown into the mix.
In reality, the visit is a victory for Saudi Arabia's approach, supported by the challenges and pressures within the US, which is expressed by popular anger at the high level of inflation and commodity prices, especially fuel, that stretch the average American family budget. It is no coincidence that the US president's popularity ratings have fallen to their lowest level since he took office.
Russia's war in Ukraine, and the subsequent US and Western sanctions, with the boycott of Russian oil and gas being a major part of the sanctions, have contributed to the rise in fuel prices to record levels. For the first time, the price of a gallon of petrol in the US is more than $5 — as much as $6 in some states — which is a red line for US consumers.
This difficult reality has forced Biden to change his position on Saudi Arabia from not dealing with it directly and only communicating with King Salman, to planning to visit Riyadh and meet with Bin Salman, who he has avoided since the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Biden has had to bend after being reassured by the Saudis that they are willing to cooperate with Washington.
The Deputy Defence Minister in Riyadh is Prince Khalid Bin Salman, the crown prince's brother. He confirmed to the American news site Politico that the Biden administration realises the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia as an important ally and that it is difficult to achieve security and economic development in the region and globally without Saudi Arabia playing a cooperative role. Washington also realises that Saudi-American relations are the cornerstone of regional stability and a stable global economy; and that Saudi Arabia is interested in defining the relationship with the US in this century.
The dilemma in the Gulf's relationship with the US over the past 80 years is that it is not balanced between two rivals; it is a connection between the most powerful military and economic power in the world at the head of a liberal-democratic axis that believes in the free market, civil freedoms, democracy, political participation and domination over the global system, and a group of monarchical regimes in the Gulf which believe in very few, if any, of these liberal ideals.
The US gives due consideration to the influence and effects of foreign issues on domestic affairs, despite political changes between Democratic and Republican incumbents of the presidency. To understand US policies and any developments we must also understand the famous American concept that "all politics is local". Thus, to understand the development of US foreign policy we must look at its impact on America and its citizens. The current inflation rise and unprecedented increase in the prices of commodities, especially fuel, is a case in point.
The Gulf States, meanwhile, have limited military and economic capabilities compared with the US and other influential world powers. They need protection, cooperation and a US military presence, providing reassurance that America's political and military retreat and transformation intended to contain China's expansion and Russia's interventions and wars will not be at the expense of its security presence and commitments elsewhere, especially in the Middle East. This is the most important thing that Gulf and Arab leaders need to hear from President Joe Biden, as a serious commitment and not simply a slogan. That is how the summit, and Biden's visit, will achieve its realistic goal.
The US president will visit Israel and the occupied West Bank before going to Saudi Arabia against the backdrop of an escalation that is reminiscent of the atmosphere prior to Israel's invasion of Lebanon in July 2006. There is a shadowy war taking place between Israel and Iran, with killings in Tehran and a fierce cyber war from the Mediterranean, Syria and Lebanon to the heart of the Iranian capital. The target is Iran's nuclear programme and reactors, scientists and senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers. There have also been threats to level Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground, and fears of Israelis being kidnapped and killed in Turkey.
The threats issued by the Secretary-General of Hezbollah to stop Israel from drilling for oil and gas in a Lebanese maritime zone were followed by a response from the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Aviv Kochavi, who said that his forces are "dealing with six fronts in six dimensions in the face of large and diverse threats." Kochavi named Iran's nuclear programme as the greatest threat. He added that Israel will hit military and civilian targets that help to support "terrorism"; its plans cover the potential destruction of thousands of targets. The real challenge remains for US President Joe Biden to succeed in his visit to the region by reassuring his sceptical allies, defusing such escalation and both silencing the war drums and preventing open conflict.
Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 19 June 2022
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.