Connecting strategic dots: Biden's visit to the Middle East
During his upcoming visit to the Middle East, Joe Biden has two messages. The first: the United States has no intention of leaving the Middle East. The second message is intended for Iran: if a nuclear agreement will not be reached, the price will be the cultivation and consolidation of a regional defence alliance against it.
What is this about?
In July 2022, Joe Biden will travel to the Middle East for the first time as president of the United States.
What are Biden’s goals?
One of the main objectives of this trip is to strengthen strategic alliances to contain adversaries and brace partners. He plans to form a regional defence alliance at a regional conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Why is the stop in Saudi Arabia remarkable?
President Biden completely reversed his policy towards Saudi Arabia.
With his visit to the Middle East, president Joe Biden follows a similar pattern as his two predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump: after the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States can no longer function as the world’s sole policeman and seeks a more isolationist foreign policy. Hence, Biden is rejuvenating the strategy of alliances of the type the United States established to contain the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War: NATO in the Atlantic sphere, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in the Southeast Asian region and the Baghdad Pact in the Middle East.
All three American presidents have defined China as the main adversary of the US for control and influence in the international arena. However, China is also an important player in the global economy and can therefore be defined as a ‘frenemy’ of the Americans. In brief, China is a partner in the economic sphere and a rival on security issues. Where Trump chose to confront China economically through trade wars and high tariffs, Biden has chosen a different strategy.
Biden continues Trump's policy of the Abraham Accords
In September 2021, Biden initiated and established two related and important defence alliances in Asia: AUKUS (the English-speaking alliance with Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States)1 and the Quad (with the United States Australia, Japan and India)2 . These alliances were designed to contain China and closely cooperate in diverse military and security areas. China claims that these alliances are directed against it and strongly criticises them.
Continuing Trump's policy
During Biden’s upcoming visit, he plans to form a regional defence alliance at a conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The coalition will include the United States, Israel, and a host of Arab countries, including Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In this sense, Biden continues Trump's policy of the Abraham Accords, the American sponsored normalisation agreements Israel signed in August 2020 with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrein, Morocco and Sudan.3
The new alliance is intended to contain immediate and existing Iranian conventional threats and therefore will be based – in the first stage – on an air defence system against Iranian missiles, attack drones and cyber security attacks. The more fundamental strategic goal is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Biden may also succeed in upgrading the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example by allowing Israeli passenger planes to fly over Saudi air space to destinations other than the UAE and Bahrein, by signing economic agreements or even by opening offices of interest in both states.
Biden’s visit intends to send two messages. The first is that despite the failed withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has no intention of leaving the Middle East and aims to continue being involved in critical developments. The second message is intended for Iran: there is yet another last chance to reach a nuclear agreement. If not, the price will be the cultivation and consolidation of the regional defence alliance against it.
Policy reversal towards Saudi Arabia
The leading player in the planned alliance is Saudi Arabia; it is no coincidence that Biden will visit the state and that the founding conference will be held there. The American president completely reversed his policy towards Saudi Arabia.
Previously, Biden and his colleagues in the Democratic Party – especially those who call themselves progressives – lashed out against Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for his involvement in the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi and human rights violations. The criticism severely strained the relationship between the two countries. With this trip Biden aims to reconciliate with Prince Mohammed.
Biden seems to have decided that the economy and the elections are more important than moral considerations
The main reason for the policy reversal towards Saudi Arabia is the war in Ukraine and its economic consequences. The sanctions against Russia caused a steep rise in fuel prices, reaching an all-time high of over five US dollars per gallon. Inflation reached 8.6 per cent, the highest in forty years. Interest rates and the cost of living are sharply rising. This bleak economic situation enhances the chances of a Republican victory in the mid-term elections in November this year.
Biden seems to have decided that the economy and the elections are more important than moral considerations and the criticism he received from the progressive Democratic wing. He has asked Prince Mohammed to increase the oil production to reduce the shortages caused by the sanctions against Russia. The Saudi leader refused this and demanded a change in Biden’s policy, including a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
China also appears in the background of the American alliance building. In March 2021, the foreign ministers of Iran and China signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement in Tehran.4 China has pledged to invest 400 billion US dollars in Iran’s energy industry in exchange for sizeable oil and gas purchases at discounted prices.
The Chinese investments intend to discover and develop oil and gas fields and purchase petrochemical products. In recent years, China has circumvented the sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and bought large quantities of oil. To defend its involvement and investments, the agreement allows China to deploy about 5,000 security personnel in Iran and also calls for enhancing military cooperation, including joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, and intelligence-sharing.
Tectonic strategic changes are taking place in the Middle East, in which Israel has a central place
This seems to indicate a Chinese attempt to create a direct military foothold in the region. From the American perspective the emerging Middle East Air Defence Alliance (MEAD) could also help to block China’s further penetration of the Middle East.
During Biden’s visit to the region, a summit on leadership level will be held via Zoom, connecting the earlier mentioned Asian alliances to the Middle East’s new regional alliance, which is called I2U2.5 The timing of this summit is symbolic, but the connection is telling due to the membership of the US and Israel in MEAD as well as in I2U2.
Visiting Israel at a critical juncture
Tectonic strategic changes are taking place in the Middle East, in which Israel has a central place. The Sunni Arab states collaborate with Israel due to its military might, superior intelligence, technological edge, energy resources and close ties with the US.
The White House announced that the visit to Israel would take place even if the coalition of Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid falls. In normal times, Biden would have avoided a visit to Israel at such a time of political instability because it could have been interpreted as interference in Israeli politics.
The effects of the war in Ukraine and the upcoming congressional elections in the United States cannot wait for the Israeli domestic political situation to settle
On 30 June 2022, the government fell and due to the coalition formation agreement, Lapid automatically replaced Bennett as prime minister. As promised, Biden will meet Lapid and his visit in Israel could help the election campaign of the new prime minister against Netanyahu.
But Biden arrives in Israel at a critical juncture with the deadlock in the nuclear talks with Iran and the production of enriched uranium close to a military-grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency condemned Iran for violating agreements. In response, the Iranians shut down surveillance cameras at its nuclear sites, creating increased anxiety among US allies about Biden’s Iran policy.
The effects of the war in Ukraine and the upcoming congressional elections in the United States cannot wait for the Israeli domestic political situation to settle.
An earlier shorter version of this article was published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
- 1The White House, ‘Remarks by President Biden, Prime Minister Morrison of Australia, and Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom Announced the Creation of AUKUS’, 15 September 2021.
- 2Sheila A. Smith, ‘The Quad Is Getting More Ambitious in the Indo-Pacific’, Council on Foreign Relations, 27 May 2022.
- 3Dennis Ross, ‘The Abraham Accords and The Changing Shape of The Middle East’, The Caravan, Hoover Institution, Issue 2232, 21 June 2022.
- 4Farnaz Fassihi and Steven Lee Myers, ‘China, with $400 Billion Iran Deal, Could Deepen Influence in Mideast’, The New York Times, 29 March 2021.
- 5I2U2 refers to the first letters of the allies’ names: Israel and India, and the United States and United Arab Emirates.