President Joe Biden had different plans for engaging the Middle East. But the world has a way of intervening.
Biden had spent the last 18 months mainly ignoring the region — a far cry from former President Donald Trump, who relished in cozying up to Israel and Saudi Arabia for domestic political purposes and to counter Iran.
Biden sought to downgrade the importance of the Middle East so as not to wade into intractable problems like brokering a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. In a sign that he was planning to conduct himself differently than his predecessors, he also pledged to end the customary coziness with Saudi Arabia after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.
But over the past few months, the posture has changed, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Now Biden and his team have concluded they must ramp up Washington’s presence in the Middle East so China and Russia don’t fill an America-sized hole, so that Tehran can be kept at bay, so that a ceasefire in Yemen can hold, faster modernizations can happen in Saudi society, and maybe even better relations between officials in Jerusalem and Riyadh.
And then there’s that pesky matter of needing Saudi Arabia’s help to keep the oil flowing after the tap from Russia dwindled following the invasion of Ukraine.
It’s not the Middle East Biden wanted. But when he lands there this week, it’s the one he’ll get — a trip filled with opportunities but also a minefield for the president, as his team knows.
“It is better for us to be present, even if it hurts,” a senior U.S. official told POLITICO, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive trip.
U.S. and Israeli officials, as well as experts, say there’s no guarantee Riyadh will pry the oil spigot open. And anything the president achieves could be overshadowed by images of him backslapping with scandal-plagued leaders, like former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose alleged orchestration of Khashoggi’s murder led then-candidate Biden to promise he’d make the kingdom a global “pariah.”
But that may end up being the price he has to pay. Biden’s presence will demonstrate America’s commitment to Israel’s normalization of relations with Arab states, U.S. officials say, and end Saudi Arabia’s freezeout. Both are required for the United States to more effectively counter Iran, maintain a fragile ceasefire in Yemen, combat terrorism and build unity against Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine.
For months, Biden and his inner circle have agonized over whether to make the trip at all. Biden, for a time, angrily rejected meeting with the crown prince, arguing that the presidency “should stand for something,” according to two people with knowledge of his thinking. He eventually relented but the administration has been defensive about his travel, and played up his commitment to using the moment to shine a light on human rights abuses. It’s still unclear if Biden will make any comments about Khashoggi in public, though it’s expected he’ll make his anger about the brutal assassination known in private.
Biden’s ambivalence was on full display at a news conference late last month in Madrid when he downplayed both the chances of a meeting with the crown prince and that such a thing would be done as a request for more oil. But White House aides have since confirmed that Biden would meet with the Saudi king and his coterie — which just so happens to include the infamous prince.
The big deliverable is Biden himself
In a Saturday Washington Post op-ed, Biden outlined why he’s headed to Saudi Arabia and the region writ large.
“I’ll travel to the Middle East to start a new and more promising chapter of America’s engagement there,” he wrote. That was about as specific as the president got.
Though he’ll meet with the Israeli government in Jerusalem, it will be with caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid after a fragile government collapsed, moving Israel to prepare for a fifth election in under four years.
Biden will then head to the West Bank for a chat with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, though the two-state solution is all but dead and the PA hasn’t held an election since 2006 for fear of losing to Hamas, a terrorist group that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist.
On Friday, he’ll land in Jeddah for a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a gaggle of autocrats that will listen to Biden’s pleas for enhancing energy security.
And then he’ll have a bilateral sit down with Saudi King Salman, 86, who, in poor health, has all but ceded control of his country to his son, Mohammed bin Salman.
ew people expect many tangible deliverables. “This trip is an effort to go broad, but not deep,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
There will be some announcements: $100 million for Palestinian hospitals and potentially an agreement whereby Saudi Arabia permits Israeli airlines to overfly its airspace. There also may be discussion of a Middle East integrated air-defense system which would feature Israel and neighboring countries working in unison to thwart Iranian missiles.
“Whether or not you want to use the word ‘alliance,’ it’s your business, but that’s the idea,” a senior Israeli official said, in reference to the proposed idea of joint air defense.
The most notable development will actually be what the United States gives Israel and Saudi Arabia: the president’s presence.
After 18 months of keeping the region at arm’s length, Biden now wants to convey that all the attention given to Ukraine won’t distract his administration from securing regional interests with its allies and partners. Persistent engagement, not the cold shoulder, will help calm a turbulent region.
“We’ve been working very, very hard across the whole range of relationships, and whether it’s diplomatic, whether it’s economic, certainly in a security [and] military perspective, to try to bring about some changes there,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters last week. He specifically cited the U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Yemen, which he claimed couldn’t have happened without deep American involvement, the continued fight against ISIS, support for Kurdish-led fighters in Syria and the advise and assist mission for Iraqi troops.
The case for deeper engagement will be well received in both Israel and Saudi Arabia, but Biden will have more convincing to do in Jeddah.
“It’s unclear what the relationship is going to be, from the Saudi perspective, in the future,” said Jonathan Panikoff, the former deputy U.S. national intelligence officer for the Near East who’s now at the Atlantic Council think tank. “There’s been 18 months of a lack of clarity. A lack of clarity is worse for the Saudi leadership than knowing ‘yes, we’re going to be your partner’ or ‘no, we’re not going to be your partner.’”
Still, it’s not lost on Israel and Saudi Arabia that Biden has traveled to Europe three times and Asia once before he deigned to set foot in there.
Initially, the Middle East travel was to be added to the beginning of Biden’s trip to Germany and Spain for a pair of summits at the end of June but aides expressed worry about stretching a grueling international trip for the 79-year-old president to more than ten days. A decision was then made to separate the trips, sending Biden into the triple-digit heat of the Middle East in mid-July.
Still, if those ties improve after the Middle East visit, then Biden’s America-is-back tour will have made it harder for Russia and China to gain a regional foothold, U.S. officials argue. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and the National Security Council’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, pushed to convince Biden that this trip was necessary. The president accepted, knowing full well that he had a lot to lose and little to gain in the short term.
Biden’s many pitfalls
Diplomacy in the Middle East is already tricky. The difficulty level will be dialed to 11 this week.
Surprises tend to happen whenever a top U.S. official lands in the Middle East. In 2010, the Israeli government announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in contested East Jerusalem just hours after then-Vice President Biden had given a speech underscoring America’s support for Israel’s security.
Asked by POLITICO if Israel planned any settlement announcements or evictions of Palestinians before, during, or right after Biden’s trip, the senior Israeli official answered generally: “We will do everything possible to make that visit a success. Period.”
What’s already on Biden’s schedule is thorny enough.
The Biden administration has long said it would put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. But Biden will be pictured sitting mere feet away from MBS during his meeting with King Salman. Some administration officials fear the crown prince, the de facto ruler of his country, will seek a public handshake to show his pariah status has officially ended. Such an image would receive intense criticism back in Washington, D.C. and damage the president’s case that democracies must thwart the aims of autocracies.
It’s also not clear Biden will get what he seeks in exchange for those images, should he choose to give them. The administration has admitted that a substantial increase in oil production is a longshot. Riyadh prefers to boost or lower gas exports in tandem with members of the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries and its affiliates, including Russia. If the consortium doesn’t agree to dramatically fill the energy gap left by Moscow, then gas prices in the U.S. (and around the world) may not drop enough to line Americans’ pocketbooks and lift Democrats’ chances in November’s midterm elections.
Western Europe is also staring down a cold winter with few guaranteed fonts of energy. Biden will try to secure energy for them, too, to ensure the alliance against Russia can withstand the harsh conditions and beyond.
Progressives also won’t like seeing Biden glad-handing with Netanyahu, Israel’s opposition leader and, before that, the country’s longest-serving prime minister. Netanyahu sided strongly with Republicans in the U.S. — and especially the Trump administration — while minimizing the plight of Palestinians. That made the former premier persona non grata among the Democratic Party’s left wing, a flank Biden desperately needs to shore up following his administration’s slow-walking of actions to protect abortions rights.
The administration will say it’s tradition for the president to meet the opposition leader along with the sitting government during an Israeli visit. Not meeting with both sides might indicate the U.S. favors one faction over another.
That might be the easier of the hurdles Biden has to clear there. It’s still unclear what he will do or say about the killing of prominent Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. On July 4, the State Department announced that she was likely killed by Israeli Defense Forces during a May raid, though damage to the lethal bullet made a definitive determination impossible. The Israeli government denies having intentionally killed the reporter, but Akleh’s family has since asked Biden for a meeting while he’s in the region in hopes he can hear their “demands for justice.”
By criticizing Israel for Akleh’s death, Biden would embarrass and weaken an already reeling government headed by caretaker Prime Minister Lapid. But by not saying anything, the president will subjugate human rights for broader strategic interests and harm relations with the American press.
When Kirby, the NSC spokesperson, told reporters that what happens in the Middle East “affects us here at home,” he was clearly referring to the American people. But he easily could’ve been talking about the administration: any failures, real or perceived, in the Middle East could negatively affect a president who desperately needs a win.