The Middle East is in the midst of an internal transformation and is resisting attempts by international actors to determine its political outcomes. A combination of people’s protests, revolutions and civil wars, the shale and renewable energy revolution, and the return of great power politics are transforming the geopolitics of the Middle East. In the centre of this, is the relationship between the United States and the region. It would be incorrect to say that the United States has withdrawn from the region to focus on the Indo-Pacific; nonetheless, it cannot be denied that the American influence has declined considerably over the past decade. Militarily, the United States continues to maintain a significant troop presence in the region, however, influenced by its domestic public opinion, there is limited support for military engagement in Middle Eastern conflicts. The United States has also reduced its diplomatic leadership in the region allowing other countries notably Russia to gain influence to mediate for peace in Yemen and strengthen ties with Iran while building ties with Saudi Arabia. The countries of the region too, have also grown assertive in charting their own policy preferences, even if those objectives clash with U.S. interests. This is in some manner a reflection of the internal changes within the countries which is influencing their foreign policy.
It is with this reality in mind that President Biden visit to the region was announced. He is scheduled to visit Israel, Palestine (West Bank) and Saudi Arabia from 13-16 July 2022. The visit provides the Biden Administration an opportunity to reset the relations with this geopolitically important region. However, whether he will be able to achieve this goal remains a question mark, as his visits comes at a time of crisis within the region. Firstly, the flux in Israeli politics has meant that country has scheduled its fifth parliamentary election in four years in November 2022. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is currently heading a caretaker government. Secondly, Iran has recently detained a number of foreign diplomats of western nations such as the United Kingdom, on allegations of spying. The news comes as Iran, the United States and European nations negotiate the return to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
A Changing Middle East
As President Biden visits the region for the first time in his presidency, he would have to navigate the Middle East that is different from the one that he knew at the end of the Obama Administration. The region has undergone political, economic and security shifts while grappling with the human costs of a global pandemic; the effects of climate change and economic degradation; the needs of a burgeoning youth population; and a tidal wave of refugees and migration.[i]
A transformation that the Biden Administration would have to take into account is the change in leadership in the region. Power in the region has shifted to the next generation of leader which has three advantages; first, the generational change of hierarchy has already taken place allowing the United States to develop relations with the leaders who will lead the nations for the next few decades. Second, as young leaders they are more connected and are aware of the aspirations of the young populations of their countries. Lastly, they are open to reforms, in a limited form. They have all expressed interests in social reforms especially with regards to granting more rights to women. Nonetheless, these reforms should not be viewed as a means to bring about political reform.[ii] Thus, expecting deep political change and the possibility of electoral style democracy remains unrealistic.
On foreign policy, the Russian military action in Ukraine has increased the scepticism regarding United States status as a dominant power. The multi-polar reality, characterised by the growing influence of China and Russia in the region has meant that a number of countries have opted for ‘strategically neutral’ position in the ongoing crisis. The rising regional profile of China has further pushed the countries of the region to avoid being drawn into a China-United States competition. Beijing has also emerged as the top trading partner of the region and its growing military presence in the Red Sea and the Gulf, especially in Djibouti, has been a source of concern for the United States. Beijing’s willingness to sell critical military technologies to regional customers, notably drone and ballistic missile systems is viewed as a destabilising factor by the U.S. military.
The other power competing for influence in the region is Russia. During the Cold War years, a primary interest of the United States was to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in the region. Many of the countries in the region, such as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, share deep security engagement with the United States and continue to remain recipients of military assistance and sales. Moscow, in the past decade, has been trying to gain Russia a foothold in the region. It began by supporting President Assad in Syria, strengthening ties with Iran and mediate peace in Yemen. Russia’s engagement with the region through the OPEC helps it to further strengthen its presence in the region. Russia is also attempting to build defence engagements to include sale of military equipment, with the countries of the region. It has deployed its military hardware in Syria and has sold air defence systems to the country as well. It has sold the S-400 air defence systems to Turkey. Russia has also signed a new military cooperation agreement with Egypt in 2021 and is seeking collaboration with other countries of the region such as the UAE to co-produce and co-develop military hardware.
The Biden Administration would need to also be cognisant of the divergent interests of the regional countries. Saudi Arabia and Iran seek to balance each other, Israel shares Saudi Arabia’s views on the need to contain Iran, but the possibility of a broader partnership is currently limited due to lack of public support in Saudi Arabia; the United States is engaged with both Israel and Saudi Arabia to build a partnership that would include economic ties and security arrangements between the middle eastern nations. Israel also faces growing criticism on the issue of violation of rights of Palestinians and for its development plans on its border regions. Coupled with a decline in its ability to influence the next-generation leaders, there is a growing disparity in outlook between the region and the United States on various issues.
Biden Administration and U.S. policy towards the Middle East
The Interim National Security Strategy Guidance March 2021 of the Biden Administration stated that, “In the Middle East, (the U.S.) will maintain...ironclad commitment to Israel’s security, while seeking to further its integration with its neighbours and resuming the U.S. role as promoter of a viable two-state solution. (The U.S.)...will work with regional partners to deter Iranian aggression and threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity, disrupt al-Qaeda and related terrorist networks and prevent an ISIS resurgence, address humanitarian crises, and redouble efforts to resolve the complex armed conflicts that threaten regional stability.”[iii] It added that, it will achieve the above goals without the use of military force and will not give its partners in the Middle East “a blank cheque to pursue policies at odds with American interests and values.”[iv]
The Israel- Palestine conflict continues to be a dominant factor in the United States policy towards the Middle East. With the planned visit, the Administration is looking to reset the relationship with the Palestinian leadership after the turbulence during the Trump presidency. Ramallah severed ties with Washington after President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. The U.S. responded by cutting aid to the Palestinians and closing the US consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians. During his Presidential bid, President Biden had campaigned to reverse these steps. The exit of President Trump was welcomed by Palestinian leadership; however, the cautious approach of President Biden’s Administration has been unable to overcome the trust deficit.
The initial outlook towards the region was outlined during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the region in May 2021. He stated that, the Biden Administration had four basic objectives, “First, to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security. Second, to start to work toward greater stability and reduce tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Third, to support urgent humanitarian and reconstruction assistance for Gaza to benefit the Palestinian people. And fourth, to continue to rebuild...(the U.S.’) relationship with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority.”[v] However, not much progress has been made in resolving the outstanding issues. While the Biden Administration has partially resumed assistance, it continues to be in talks with Israel to reopen the consulate. President Biden has also been criticised for refraining from addressing the underlying causes of violence between Israel and Palestine, such as the forceful occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel, the economy-crippling blockade on Gaza, and efforts to push Palestinians out of East Jerusalem. While attacks by Hamas and the Hezbollah have been criticised, a similar approach to Israel’s attacks on civilian centres has not been forthcoming from the U.S. In the process, President Biden’s image, and his agenda to lead on human rights and international law issues have been questioned. With the Ukraine crisis and Russia, the Palestinian Authorities are not optimistic regarding any change in U.S. priorities for them. The current political crisis in Israel has also meant any talks between Israel and Palestine remains suspended further frustrating the Palestinian Authorities.
After the Abraham Accords (2020), brokered by the United States, it was Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that recognised the State of Israel and normalised diplomatic relations. Later that year, two other Arab nations, Sudan and Morocco also joined the Accords, raising the number of Arab States with formal diplomatic ties to Israel to six. Nonetheless, normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the key regional power, remains elusive. The official policy of the Kingdom is that there should be no peace with Israel until it withdraws from occupied territories and accepts Palestinian statehood. However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is exploring relations with Israel. The Kingdom also did not oppose its allies in the region from establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Another area of mutual concern between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States is Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia are opposed to the Iran nuclear deal, the revival of the deal will be a likely topic of discussion during President Biden’s visit to the region. Reviving the deal was a campaign agenda for President Biden. After assuming office he appointed a special envoy for Iran to start negotiating with Iran and other signatories to revive the 2015 agreement. However, a year and a half later and after numerous rounds of talks the objective remains unachieved. A point of contention remains the designation of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a critical part of Iran’s security apparatus, as a terrorist organisation by the United States. The recent arrest of foreign diplomats by the IRGC on allegation of spying is likely become another roadblock to the negotiations.
The visit has the potential to deepen the trend of normalisation between Israel and the Arab countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. Even if the chances of establishing a regional security alliance are low, fostering cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbours will demonstrate American commitment to the region. To foster partnerships in the region, President Biden along with his counterparts from India, Israel and the UAE will hold the maiden virtual summit with the I2U2 heads of state for discussions of the food security crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs.[vi] In October 2018, the foreign minister of the four partner nations had held a virtual summit to discussion possibilities for joint infrastructure projects collaboration in transportation, tech, maritime security, economics and trade, as well as for additional joint projects. The United States is keen to explore security cooperation among the four nations. It also reflects its keenness to take advantage of the Abraham Accords to deepen engagements between Israel and the UAE without risking its ties with other Arab nations.
The visit by President Biden showcases the United States commitment to Israel and its security, and is a continuation of American bi-partisan policy. Nonetheless, the visit comes at a time of internal political crisis in Israel. The parliament or Knesset has been dissolved and Prime Minister Bennett is leading a caretaker government till the next elections, scheduled for November 2022. The domestic political instability has impacted foreign policy with the possibility of talks between Israel and Palestine suspended.
The most important aspect of the visit remains the visit to Saudi Arabia. It comes nearly a year after the Biden Administration released the executive summary of the U.S. intelligence report which “assess(ed) that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”.[vii] The Administration concluded it could not risk a full rupture of its relations, as the U.S. relied on the Kingdom for its help to contain Iran, to counter terrorist groups and to broker peaceful relations with Israel.[viii] The Administration has been clear “that U.S. policy demanded recalibration in relations with this important country but not a rupture. And that is because we have important interests interwoven with Saudi Arabia, and engagement is essential to protecting and advancing those interests on behalf of the American people.”[ix] Saudi Arabia is a regional power and as such the United States would need its support for the UN-lead peace talks for Yemen, expanding its regional economic and security cooperation through collaboration on climate change and infrastructure development and ensuring food and energy security, as the crisis in Ukraine continues to destabilise global oil and food markets. In Saudi Arabia, President Biden will participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
The visit to the oil-rich Kingdom comes at a time when President Biden is addressing high gas prices and inflation at home with allies and partners facing similar predicaments. With the growing influence of China and Russia in the region, further friction in the relations with the Kingdom may likely increase greater cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia; and Russia and Saudi Arabia, neither of which is in the United States’ national interest. President Biden would have to balance between the Administrations stress on human rights and the need for a pragmatic foreign policy doctrine.
Looking ahead, the United States is likely to face a number of challenges. First, would be Iran. The revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal is important and the Biden Administration would have to decide its policy on the way forward on the deal as nuclear non-proliferation is a critical aspect of the United States outlook towards the region. The United States would have to also work together with its partners and allies as Iran lays allegations of spying on western diplomats. Second, existing tensions between Israel and some of its neighbours, including Hezbollah in the West Bank and Lebanon, and a range of groups operating from Syrian territory, could erupt into a wider conflict.[x] Third, terrorism will remain challenge from the region that would have to be addressed by the Biden Administration. The most critical challenge for President Biden is the growing importance of China and the re-emergence of Russia in the geopolitical matrix of the region.
President Biden will need to take this opportunity to reassure its allies and partners of the continued United States commitment to the security of the region. Recognising the current geopolitical realities, the United States needs to reassess its role from being just a regional security guarantor to that of a regional partner on a range of issues. The economic changes in the region allow the United States to explore new opportunities for cooperation beyond the traditional sectors of military and energy to tourism, clean energy, and information technology.
The United States continues to have enduring interests in the region. The Arab states will remains essential exporters of oil and gas to the world including to the United States and, its allies and partners. The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that energy resources are global commodities and their secure supply is essential.[xi] The region is also critical for international commerce. The Red Sea; the Suez Canal and the Bab-el-Mandeb are vital for global trade, especially energy trade and the United States along with the countries of the region has a role to play to guarantee freedom of navigation in these waters. A dysfunctional and destabilising Middle East impacts United States interests and working with the region to build a stable regional environment is in American interest and one that President Biden hopes to accomplish during this visit and his tenure.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Discalimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] The Middle East Institute, “The Biden Administration And The Middle East: Policy Recommendations For A Sustainable Way Forward,” March 2021, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2021-03/The%20Biden%20Administration%20and%20the%20Middle%20East%20-%20Policy%20Recommendations%20for%20a%20Sustainable%20Way%20Forward.pdf, Accessed on 27 June 2022
[ii] Becca Wasser and Jeffrey Martini, “The Next Generation of Leaders in the Gulf,” https://www.rand.org/blog/2016/02/the-next-generation-of-leaders-in-the-persian-gulf.html, Accessed on 27 June 2022
[iii] The White House, “Interim National Security Strategy Guidance March 2021,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf, Accessed on 28 June 2022, pp. 11 & 15
[v] Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability, 25 May 2021, “https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-press-availability-5/, Accessed on 04 July 2022.
[vi] Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Trip to The Middle East,” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/06/14/background-press-call-by-a-senior-administration-official-on-the-presidents-trip-to-the-middle-east/, Accessed on 07 June 2022
[vii] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Assessing the Saudi Government's Role in the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi, 11 February 2021” https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Assessment-Saudi-Gov-Role-in-JK-Death-20210226v2.pdf, Accessed on 04 July 2022
[viii] Julian E. Barnes and David E. Sanger, “Saudi Crown Prince Is Held Responsible for Khashoggi Killing in U.S. Report, The new York Times, 17 July 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/26/us/politics/jamal-khashoggi-killing-cia-report.html, Accessed on 04 July 2022
[ix] Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Trip to The Middle East, June 13 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2022/06/14/background-press-call-by-a-senior-administration-official-on-the-presidents-trip-to-the-middle-east/, Accessed on 05 July 2022
[x] Brian Katulis and Peter Juul, “Seeking a New Balance for U.S. Policy in the Middle East,” September 2021, https://americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Seeking-A-New-Balance-for-US-Policy-in-the-Middle-East.pdf, Accessed on 28 June 2022.
[xi] Gerald M. Feierstein, Bilal Y. Saab, Karen E. Young, “US-Gulf Relations At The Crossroads: Time For A Recalibration,” Middle East Institute Policy Paper April 2022, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2022-04/US-Gulf%20Relations%20at%20a%20Crossroads%20-%20Time%20for%20a%20Recalibration.pdf, Accessed on 01 June 2022