July 18, 2022

IntelBrief: Presidential Mideast Trip Seeks to Reassure Historic Allies

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Bottom Line up Front

  • President Biden’s July 13-16 visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia sought to reassure key regional allies wary of the U.S. commitment to secure them against Iran and other threats.
  • The President did not articulate any overarching strategic vision for the region, but the meetings did address potential solutions to some regional concerns and conflicts.
  • Israeli leaders appeared to move the United States closer to their position on the use of force to ensure that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
  • The summit meetings in Saudi Arabia yielded vague pledges to increase the production of crude oil as well as some potentially significant bilateral and multilateral agreements.

During July 13-16, President Joseph Biden visited longstanding U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia on a controversial trip that included meetings with Palestinian leaders on the West Bank and a summit with the six Gulf states and three other Arab leaders. The trip sought to reassure the U.S. allies that have become wary that the United States seeks to wind down its involvement in the region and leave them to deal with a list of growing threats: Iran and its regional allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the diminished but still potent threat posed by regional terrorist groups, food insecurity, and the effects of ongoing civil conflict in Syria and Yemen. Framing the key U.S. message, President Biden stated at his July 16 summit meeting with the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman) and Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq: "Let me state clearly that the United States is going to remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East.” The visit was also intended, at least in part, to persuade U.S. allies to clearly align with the United States on the Russian invasion of Ukraine by downgrading their economic, security, and political engagement with Russia. U.S. officials also announced new pledges of aid to help ensure regional food security, which has been jeopardized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

President Biden did not articulate any new overarching U.S. strategic vision, which some experts have called for as an organizing principle around which U.S. allies and other regional states can align. In advance of the trip, some Arab states discussed the potential for the United States to organize a “Middle Eastern NATO” or similar strategic arrangement to counter the growing threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Although U.S. officials advanced no broad regional alignment beyond furthering the process of normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors, President Biden did echo past U.S. doctrines for the region by stating at the July 16 summit that: “We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran," and “the United States will not allow — will not allow foreign or regional powers to jeopardize the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab. Nor will we tolerate efforts by any country to dominate another in the region through military buildups, incursions, and/or threats.”

No broad “anti-Iran” alliance was announced during the trip, in part because Saudi Arabia and the UAE are engaged in dialogue with Iran with the objective of lowering regional tensions. Yet, in Israel, the threat posed by Iran - and differences over the U.S. effort to revive the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal - dominated official readouts of the discussions. In official communiques and press interviews, President Biden appeared to seek to paper over U.S.-Israel differences about how to address Iran’s expanding nuclear program, including issuing a joint U.S.-Israel “Jerusalem Declaration” in which “The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” U.S. officials did not indicate any intent to terminate the ongoing if stalled, negotiations with Iran to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, but neither did U.S. leaders criticize the likelihood that unilateral Israeli action against Iran would neither permanently cripple Iran’s nuclear program nor advance regional stability.

U.S. officials used the Israel stop to try to rebuild relations with Palestinian Authority leaders who were shunned during the Trump administration. He met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and included, in the Jerusalem Declaration, that: “President Biden reaffirms his longstanding and consistent support of a two-state solution and for advancing toward a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians alike can enjoy equal measures of security, freedom, and prosperity.” He announced over $300 million in new U.S. aid to the Palestinians and to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) - a contrast with Trump administration policy that largely stopped aid to the Palestinians. President Biden did not, however, announce any new U.S. initiatives to revive Israeli-Palestinian final status talks or fulfill Palestinian hopes that he would announce a reopening of the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, a key U.S. diplomatic channel to the Palestinians.

The visit to Saudi Arabia was unquestionably the most controversial stop on the trip, in light of President Biden’s prior attempts to isolate Saudi de-facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), for his role in the October 2018 killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. President Biden asserted that he brought up the killing in the July 15 meeting with MBS as part of an effort to stress the U.S. insistence on regional adherence to international standards of human rights practices. Still, a key objective of the trip, if downplayed by U.S. officials, was to persuade the Kingdom and other Gulf exporters, such as the UAE, to put more crude oil on the global markets. The United States received vague promises from Saudi leaders to help ensure the stability of the global oil market, raising expectations that, in meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the coming months, production increases might be announced. Yet, Saudi statements at the end of President Biden’s trip appeared to confirm that Saudi spare production capacity is, for at least the near term, far lower than what is required to lower oil prices significantly.

Though the trip focused on short-term political aims over strategic interests, there were some agreements reached in the course of the meetings there that seek to reassure not only U.S. regional allies but also rebut domestic U.S. critics of engagement with MBS. In an effort to assuage Saudi and Gulf concerns about the U.S. commitment to deter Iran, the official communique stated: “The United States affirmed it would accelerate our cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other partners in the region to counter unmanned aerial systems and missiles that threaten the peace and security of the region...In particular, the United States is committed to advancing a more integrated and regionally-networked air and missile defense architecture and countering the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems and missiles to non-state actors that threaten the peace and security of the region.”

U.S. officials obtained agreement for the Kingdom to open Saudi Airspace to civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel, and President Biden’s flight from Israel to Jeddah inaugurated that airspace pathway. Saudi leaders also pledged to U.S. officials to “do everything possible to extend and strengthen the U.N.-mediated truce [in Yemen], which has led to fifteen weeks of peace, the quietest period in Yemen in years, and translate it into a durable ceasefire and political process.” The two countries also signed a “Partnership Framework for Advancing Clean Energy” providing for new Saudi investments to accelerate the energy transition and combat the effects of climate change, as well as bilateral agreements on joint cybersecurity efforts and investments in infrastructure. President Biden also hailed the achievement of a longstanding effort to wean Iraq from its dependence on Iranian electricity supplies - and Iran more broadly - through an agreement to link Iraq to the GCC’s grid. Although the trip might not have fully achieved all U.S. objectives, the travel might have laid the groundwork for further dialogues and bilateral agreements that could unfold in the coming months or years.