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Biden in the Middle East: A visit that has failed before it even starts

From the energy crisis to Israel normalisation, Middle East Eye columnists outline what we can expect to come of the US president's visit
US President Joe Biden (Illustration by MEE)

Madawi al-Rasheed | Red carpet in Riyadh may conceal a coming storm

Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz (R), accompanied by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L), leaving the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz (R), accompanied by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) on 16 March 2022 (AFP)

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US President Joe Biden will arrive in Saudi Arabia after having cherry-picked the authoritarian rulers with whom he wishes to engage. He presents himself as a defender of democracy and sovereignty in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, but then finds himself in the court of King Salman and his son, de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman

For decades, successive US presidents have failed to learn lessons, clinging to the illusion that stability in the Arab world requires authoritarian rulers to control both the people and the resources for the benefit of the West and Israel. Yet, this flawed logic guarantees neither the flow of oil nor the security of Israel.

Despite US military support for rulers in Riyadh and Cairo, among other capitals, the region exploded in 2011 with public demands for dignity, justice and democracy. US allies in the region did everything they could to abort this wave of democratisation and return to the status quo ante, with Saudi Arabia taking the lead by helping to restore military rule in Egypt and tightening its control over its own population.

Biden should push Mohammed bin Salman to introduce small political reforms that could at least put checks on the crown prince's autocracy

It went further by waging war on Yemen. With US military aid, Saudi Arabia bombarded Yemen with air strikes but failed to achieve its objective, namely restoring a puppet government in Sanaa.

It is understandable that the US now hesitates to use force to topple unwanted and unruly dictators, following its abysmal record in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington has plenty of other options to deal with the region's authoritarian rulers. 

The first step would be to neither endorse Mohammed bin Salman nor forget his crimes, such as the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the seven-year Yemen siege. Biden should insist on meeting with the king rather than his son, to avoid losing face and appearing to have succumbed to realpolitik amid the ongoing energy crisis, as other US presidents have done since the Second World War. 

Secondly, Biden should push Mohammed bin Salman to introduce small political reforms, such as an elected consultative council, that may not change the face of absolute monarchy but could at least put checks on the crown prince's autocracy. Biden could thus live up to his earlier promises in support of democracy everywhere, although by visiting Saudi Arabia, he has already broken a key pledge to ostracise its crown prince.   

Thirdly, Biden should not go to Saudi Arabia for the sake of Israel. Saudi normalisation with Israel is almost a fait accompli, and it should not dominate US relations with the kingdom, as this does not fully serve American interests in the Arab world. In fact, the continuous US support for Israel's occupation of Palestinian land has brought the US more enemies than friends in the region.

For once, Biden should think about US interests rather than Israeli interests, particularly after the latter has been confirmed in its position as an apartheid state. Neither King Salman nor his son are particularly relevant to regional peace or to the security of Israel. 

Biden must know that the Arab world has never been as unstable as it is today. Such instability inevitably creeps into the West via successive waves of asylum seekers, terrorism, threats to use oil as a weapon by the very dictators who Biden embraces, and the general meltdown of countries. While Saudi Arabia has been shielded from turmoil thanks to the recent rise in oil prices, other countries are on the verge of collapse. 

But the red carpet in Riyadh may conceal a coming storm, as people become more aware of their rights as citizens rather than subjects. A meltdown in Riyadh would not stop at the sand dunes of the Empty Quarter, but would reverberate across the globe. 

Mr President, you must watch who you shake hands with when you land in Riyadh.

Mustafa Barghouti | Palestinians have no expectations from Biden's visit

There is no intention of this administration to pressure Israel to stop settlements, which would permanently destroy the so-called two-state solution
The Biden administration has no intention to pressure Israel to stop settlement activities (AFP)

From a Palestinian point of view, we expect nothing from President Joe Biden's Middle East tour. All signs indicate he will continue what his predecessor, Donald Trump, started.

One such indicator was the US stand on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Last week, a State Department statement claimed the killing was unintentional. This was clearly aimed at exonerating Israel and sparing the president the embarrassment if questioned about the issue during his visit to Israel.

Biden's policy on the Palestinian question will only lead to the perpetuation of the occupation and apartheid against the Palestinian people

It has become clear that the resumption of the negotiation process between Israel and the Palestinians is not among US regional policy priorities. Also, there does not seem to be any intention on the part of this administration to pressure Israel to stop its settlement activities.

In fact, Biden has made it clear that his main goal is to support Israel, and even boasted about providing it with $4bn in financial support, the largest sum given to Israel in US history.

There is no doubt that Biden is visiting the region to follow in the footsteps of former US President Donald Trump. Most likely he will continue to build on the so-called Abraham Accords and support normalisation between Israel and Arab states without a solution to the Palestinian question and in contradiction to the Arab Peace Initiative.

His administration has failed to make even the smallest steps towards re-engaging the Palestinians, such as opening the US consulate office in Jerusalem, reopening the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, or removing the PLO's name from the terrorism list in the US Congress.

If this administration can't open a consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, despite promises to do so, we can't expect it to pressure Israel to stop the settlements. Therefore, we can say that the Biden administration's policy, like Trump's, will only lead to the perpetuation of the occupation and apartheid against the Palestinian people.

The objectives of the visit are to normalise relations between Israel and some Arab states; to support Israel fully; to trap Arab countries into joining a military and intelligence alliance with Israel, and push them into conflicts with other countries; and lastly to secure energy resources for the US as it is struggling with a rise in oil prices.

If this US administration wants to make real change, it must call for an end to the Israeli occupation and the apartheid regime against the Palestinians. It should exercise immediate pressure on Israel to stop all settlement activities that are destroying the very last potential of the so called "two states solution". And it should also voice support for an independent Palestinian state with defined borders. Without these conditions, the visit will be pointless.

Nader Hashemi | The Middle East is in tatters, and the prognosis is bleak

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) speaks during the Negev Summit in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker on March 28, 2022.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) speaks during the Negev Summit in the Israeli kibbutz of Sde Boker on 28 March 2022 (AFP)

Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia has been widely praised by the US foreign policy establishment. According to this view, good policy is routed in realpolitik and pragmatism, not altruism and human rights. A rapprochement with the "Talented Mr Bone Saw" (Mohammed bin Salman), while offensive to American values, can be justified by focusing on US national security interests rooted in the global energy crisis, rising inflation and the ongoing threat from Iran

The central problem with this approach is that it represents more of the same failed policy, rooted in short-term calculations and erroneous assumptions. What is needed is a long-term vision for US policy in the Middle East and a grand strategy to guide it. This must be rooted in a firm commitment to invest in the peoples and societies of the region, not in the dictators who rule over them.  

Since the US became the dominant external actor in the Middle East after the Second World War, its focus has been on supporting authoritarian regimes, hoping to preserve regional stability, promote development and protect US interests. Looking back over the past 77 years, the objective reality suggests the opposite. 

A long-term vision for US policy in the Middle East must be rooted in a commitment to invest in the peoples of the region, not in the dictators who rule over them

This region is in tatters, and the prognosis is bleak. When judged by key indicators, such as civil and political rights, media freedom, censorship, women's representation, the status of minorities, and state-sanctioned executions, the countries of the Middle East score dismally. Adding to this grim picture is the expansion of mass poverty and economic destitution. 

Data on global inequality reveals that the Middle East, despite an abundance of wealth, has some of the highest wealth inequality scores. According to the World Inequality Lab, "the Middle East [is] the world's most unequal region," with the top 10 percent capturing 61 percent of national income. Oxfam has further observed that the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly expanded the problem of mass impoverishment across the region.

The picture becomes bleaker still with the 2021 Global Peace Index, which notes that MENA "remained the world’s least peaceful region". With the region riven by instability, "conflict in the Middle East has been the key driver of the global deterioration in peacefulness since 2008".  

Repressive Middle Eastern regimes are largely responsible for this state of affairs. These national security states operate like criminal enterprises. Their primary focus is on retaining power and crushing domestic opposition to their rule. They are not our allies; rather, they are the key fomenters of regional instability by virtue of how they rule and how they treat their citizens. 

Further investment in such monumentally corrupt ruling elites is a fool's errand. 9/11 taught us this lesson, but sadly, it was not learned.

In a rare moment of candour nearly two decades ago, then-US President George W Bush admitted the problem: "Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe - because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.

"As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo."

As Biden sets off for the Middle East, no one in Washington wants to have this conversation. It might take another 9/11 moment, or another Arab Spring revolution, to put this topic on the US foreign policy agenda - but by then, it might be too late. 

Jonathan Cook | No hasty US retreat from the world's main oil spigot

An oil installation in northeastern Saudi Arabia is pictured in June 2004 (AFP)
An oil installation in northeastern Saudi Arabia is pictured in June 2004 (AFP)

With the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Israel began, with US oversight, the process of openly normalising relations with two Gulf states: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain

The accords have ostensibly focused on deepening economic, technological and diplomatic links. But Washington's ultimate goal is to fully integrate Israel into a regional Arab "defence" alliance against Iran and its allies in the Middle East. 

Success hinges on formal ties being established between Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to a report last month by Axios, Washington intends to use Biden's visit to the region this week to develop a "road map for normalisation" between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Biden will symbolise that push personally by being the first US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. But as White House officials observed on Monday, normalisation between the two would be a "long process".

The groundwork was laid early last year when the Pentagon quietly reorganised its military command structures to move Israel into Centcom, its Central Command in the Middle East. Then, a few months ago, Centcom reportedly hosted in secret for the first time the heads of both the Israeli and Saudi militaries, as well as representatives from Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Jordan, at a summit in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. There, they apparently discussed closer security coordination.

To underscore a burgeoning climate of trust, Biden is expected to announce a new security arrangement involving Saudi Arabia in the Straits of Tiran, the entrance to Israel's only Red Sea port, Eilat.

Washington knows that the loyalty of its Middle Eastern allies depends on each being persuaded that the US military will continue to guarantee its security

One of the inducements for strengthening ties is Israel's pioneering military technology. Biden will reportedly be shown a new laser-based interception system, Iron Beam, the latest of Israel's missile defence systems. Since launching its devastating war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia has faced repeated drone and missile strikes on infrastructure, including oil installations.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz has characterised what he terms a fledgling "Middle East Air Defence Alliance" as "already operative," with joint mechanisms for intelligence-sharing and intercepting drones and missiles being developed.  

Arab states have become among the biggest customers for Israeli military tech, buying more than $3bn in weapons systems over the past two years. Israel is said to be lobbying Washington for permission to sell Iron Beam to the UAE and "likely also to Saudi Arabia".

Israeli officials reportedly aspire to build a network of radars, detection and interception systems, based on Israeli technology and coordinated with US bases in the region. Such a network would not only make Gulf states' security dependent on Israel, but it would give Israel earlier warning of attacks. 

Putting Israel in the driving seat would allow Washington, at least in principle, to become less directly involved, freeing its hands to focus on what it characterises as bigger "threats" from Russia and China. But complete integration may not be plain sailing. 

As long as King Salman is alive, the Saudis will be reluctant to formalise an alliance with Israel in violation of their official commitment to make normalisation dependent on Israeli recognition of Palestinian statehood. Israel will not oblige on that score.

Riyadh and the UAE have both been trying to tread a difficult path that involves allying more closely with Israel, while also building tentative bridges to Tehran. Israel's continuing hard line, which prompted the Trump administration to tear up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, could make navigating that course harder.

Further, Saudi Arabia has hedged its bets by failing to strictly follow US sanctions towards Russia, and it continues to cosy up to China. Riyadh will bargain hard with Washington for every concession it makes towards Israel. And any regional defence alliance will have to deal with deep divisions within the Arab world on Israel; Iraq recently passed a law criminalising normalisation.

Ultimately, Washington knows that the loyalty of its Middle Eastern allies depends on each being persuaded that the US military will continue to guarantee its security. For that reason, if no other, there is not likely to be a hasty US retreat from the world's main oil spigot. 

Mazin Qumsiyeh| Israel-Palestine policy follows failed formula


Some pundits are hopeful about Biden's upcoming visit to Israel/Palestine and Saudi Arabia. But I, and most Palestinians, see it as an exercise in futility, retracing the footsteps of previous US presidents, from Harry Truman to Donald Trump, with only minor exceptions. American foreign policy is still driven by lobbies, rather than by national interests. 

Truman famously said he supported the formation of Israel in Palestine because of his Christian upbringing. But in a closed cabinet meeting, now declassified, he said he supported it because he needed backing for his election from Jews who were in favour of the idea. Every subsequent president has since had to adjust US policies to accommodate such demands. 

Two minor diversions can be cited: President Dwight Eisenhower pressed Israel, France and the UK to end their 1956 campaign that had Israel occupying the Sinai and Gaza; and in the early 1960s, President John F Kennedy pushed Israel over its development and possession of nuclear weapons. In 1963, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee was founded to advocate pro-Israel policies in Washington.

In the early 1990s, then-US secretary of state James Baker briefly tried to push a peace process by suggesting linking US aid to Israel with halting its illegal settlement-building in the occupied territories. But President George HW Bush quickly backtracked, saying there were thousands of lobbyists on Capitol Hill who were tying his hands: "I am this lonely guy in the White House," he said. 

In the end, this attempt to prop up the status quo is bound to fail

Taking stock of history since 1948 helps to explain why the US exempts Israel from legislation that prevents aid to countries that persistently violate human rights; why Israel got away with targeting a US ship in 1967; why Israel consistently gets away with competing with the US in arms sales to despots and dictators; why countries that normalise with Israel can engage in gross violations of human rights; and why US taxpayers continue to funnel billions of dollars in annual aid to Israel, a small and wealthy country.

Taking stock of this history also helps to explain why Biden is reneging on his election promises to reverse some of the Trump-era damage in Israel/Palestine, including through his failure to reopen a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Biden's agenda will surely continue to mirror that of Trump's. Dutifully, the Palestinian quisling president (whose term expired 13 years ago) will welcome and thank Biden. 

In the end, this attempt to prop up the status quo is bound to fail. The best evidence of this can be found in the growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, and in the chorus of human rights groups that have labelled Israel an apartheid state

Kadir Ustun US has no vision to challenge regional dynamics

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech during a national event at the Turkish Pavilion of Expo 2020, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on February 15, 2022
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at the Turkish pavilion of Expo 2020, in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on 15 February 2022 (AFP)

Biden's visit to the Middle East comes at a time when regional actors are reaching out to each other to reconcile their differences. The trip is unlikely to change the broader US retrenchment in the region, despite Biden's vow to launch a "new and more promising chapter of America's engagement there".

Biden touts the absence of American combat missions in the region, the diplomatic isolation of Iran, the relative calm in Yemen, and the prevention of a larger war in Gaza as accomplishments on his watch. Defending his decision to visit Saudi Arabia, Biden argues that he never advocated for a "rupture," but rather for a reorientation of relations. The visit is clearly meant to reassure regional allies, without offering a new vision for US policy in the region. 

Middle East powers have already started adjusting to US retrenchment, amid the country's focus on extricating itself from regional conflicts. Their main challenge has been to find a solution to the Iran nuclear standoff, but the inconsistent policies between successive US administrations have made that impossible so far - a situation that has significantly fuelled regional tensions.

Yet, while the US says it has been aiming to reduce its regional footprint, it remains a key actor on multiple issues, including the Iran nuclear file, Iraqi politics, countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the Yemen war, among others.

Players such as Turkey will continue to balance western powers against each other, while developing intra-regional relations

In many ways, US policy continues to matter, and regional players have had to make their calculations accordingly. Meanwhile, Russia and China have sought to increase their influence in the region, pushing regional powers to seek a balancing act.

Turkey, for its part, has been seeking to maintain relations with western powers, improve relations with regional powers, and get directly involved when its interests are at stake. This posture is unlikely to change any time soon.

One persistent aspect of Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East is its commitment to stability and predictability. A stable environment allows Turkish trade to increase and diplomatic relations to develop, serving its national interests. If Biden's visit is seen as contributing to regional stability, this would be welcome in Ankara. 

Turkey's recent openings with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel have aimed to repair bilateral relations and bolster regional stability. At the same time, Turkey wants to avoid isolating Iran, while also competing with it on multiple fronts.

Biden likely missed an opportunity by not returning to the Iran nuclear deal immediately after assuming the presidency, and he is now struggling to strike a deal with a somewhat disinterested and demanding Tehran. Turkey would prefer a diplomatic solution through a new nuclear deal, which could generate regional buy-in.  

On the issue of Russia and China, Biden's promise to unify the western alliance in the face of such adversaries has had some successes but also some failures. While the West has broadly united against Russia, such a united front has not yet been forged against China.

When it comes to the Middle East, there is little indication that there exists such a broad perspective. In a difficult and complicated region, such a comprehensive vision might be impossible. Yet, with or without a fully developed strategic vision from Washington, regional players such as Turkey will continue to balance western powers against each other, while developing intra-regional relations to further their national interests.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

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