When President Joe Biden entered the White House, the Middle East appeared reasonably stabilised by the robust and energetic policies of his predecessor Donald Trump. Thereafter, the Covid-19 pandemic and its worldwide effects took away much of the attention and then there was China’s rising aggressiveness, which demanded attention in the Indo- Pacific. Sometime later Afghanistan and the unfortunate turn of events there had plummeted Mr Biden’s approval ratings to a record low. The abandoning of Afghanistan was reportedly done in order to conserve strength for the coming confrontation with China in the Indo-Pacific, and subsequently to regain the ratings. Mr Biden relatively ignored the Middle East. It’s the Russia-Ukraine war that turned things around and America has been forced to focus again on the Middle East.
Mr Biden’s idea was that the world’s geopolitical centre of gravity was the Indo-Pacific region, and he appeared content that the Middle East wasn’t causing any of the proverbial “pull” that Iraq and Afghanistan had done on US Presidents in the past. However, since February 2022, the Middle East has progressively returned to the forefront linked with the energy crisis, the general proximity to the centre of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the potential of China and Russia using diplomatic manoeuvres to secure greater influence in this region as the global focus was elsewhere. A review of some of the significant issues in the Middle East will help understand why the circumstances have forced President Biden to alter his priorities and focus. The recent visit took him to Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, where he also met the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and other Arab states.
Interestingly, the visit also focused on some non-traditional security issues such as energy, water, food and climate, and conceptual issues such as multilateralism and new alliances; like the “I2U2” (India, Israel, the US and the UAE) and the Abraham Accords. Yet there remain far too many things that remain in slow ferment in the Middle East and emerge from time to time, but analysts are pointing to some basic changes.
First, the Palestinian conflict seems to be on the backburner although an Arab concern is still reflected; it’s not all abandoned. Donald Trump had outsourced its management to his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and it had taken a decided tilt in favour of Israel. Mr Biden seems quite certain that this isn’t the time to get involved in such complex conflicts and the international environment is not conducive to any lasting progress in this field. He realises that his abiding belief in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue can’t be carried through at present. It’s a virtual admission that there are more pressing things for the US to commit to. The commitment to Israel may have lacked substance ever since Mr Trump demitted office. The fact that Mr Biden is still in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme without any overt messaging of being fully in sync with Israel’s security needs may have been misread. This visit did make that unequivocal commitment. The exceptional relationship between the US and Israel during the Trump presidency, which also led to the Abraham Accords, was expected to become much less warm under Mr Biden. That is the direction it had moved while Mr Biden’s focus was on the pandemic, Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific. However, the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated the importance of the Middle East and the inevitability of the US-Israel special relationship. Mr Biden has tried to move back to support it more fully.
Mr Biden’s antipathy towards Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) due to the Jamal Khashoggi affair is quite well known. However, realism and pragmatism brought him to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The US has invested much in its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also depend greatly on US assurances and support to remain secure against multiple threats, such as from Iran, its proxies and non-state actors.
However, what really forced Mr Biden’s move towards an approach to the Saudis, despite his avowed intent of not being seen in the company of MBS, was the need to reconfigure the energy diplomacy which the US is deeply involved in. Mr Biden’s focus was on enhancing the oil production of Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners to create a wedge within OPEC. Increased oil production would lead to an easing of global energy prices, including within the US where fuel prices are $5 a gallon as the congressional elections loom in November.
Surprisingly, the GCC countries all stood up to resist attempts to dictate the agenda on energy. They were extremely keen to see a path towards more stabilisation through regional cooperation, including improvement of relations with Israel, and not being drawn into the US-Russia-China rivalry. The seeding achieved by the Abraham Accords has been positive. The bolder attitude is reflected in these nations also remaining unhappy with the US attitude of treating the Middle East’s security as a second priority while pursuing its interests in other areas, especially the Indo-Pacific. The Saudis probably perceive the US as playing a tepid role in relation to the war in Yemen or the drone attacks on Saudi energy installations. Hidden in this message is a clear concern about Iran and its nuclear programme; a convergence of interests between these Arab states and Israel is much more real than ever before. Noticeably, a yawning gap exists in the US promises on this. The US-Saudi joint statement looks at “all elements of its national power” to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapon status. Conversely, the GCC summit’s statement mentions the “centrality of diplomatic efforts” as the chief focus.
What was clear from the summit is that the Arab states in general do not favour playing down the Palestinian issue and do not wish to bring about any arrangement in which they would be in a security partnership with Israel against Iran. As much progress which may have been made in the region to water down old conflicts, there appears a trend not to take this beyond a threshold. Fortunately, there are many initiatives within the region towards stabilisation and the animosity towards Israel is only measured, just enough to prevent the Palestinian issue being forgotten.
From all angles, the Middle East remains as important as its geostrategic and geopolitical setting demands. Any attempt to ignore old conflicts can only lead to an inevitable return to them, even as the world races towards a new order.