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Biden’s Brief Middle East Pivot Won’t Last

The U.S. president’s trip was an immediate and time-limited response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, domestic economic woes, and Iran.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and , a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
Mohammed bin Salman gestures in front of himself as he walks with Biden.
Mohammed bin Salman gestures in front of himself as he walks with Biden.
U.S. President Joe Biden (center-left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (center) arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds. And any good gardener knows you have to clear the weeds out right away. Diplomacy is kind of like that.”

“If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds. And any good gardener knows you have to clear the weeds out right away. Diplomacy is kind of like that.”

Those are the words of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, for whom we both worked. Shultz’s view of U.S. diplomacy involved both striving for dramatic breakthroughs and focusing on the routine, protean, incremental, and sustained efforts required to make them possible.

Let’s give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt. Having deprioritized the Middle East for 16 months, the weeds grew. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only highlighted the key role Gulf oil producers would play, but it also reflected the risks of allowing Russia and China to gain influence with traditional partners the United States had either taken for granted or, in the case of Saudi Arabia, ostracized. So, in an effort to tend the garden and eliminate the weeds, the diplomatic gardeners launched the president on a jam-packed, whirlwind foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.

Forget immediate deliverables. Plants take time to grow, and they need plenty of watering. But from our perspective, although the trip’s headlines may look comforting—“Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli flights,” “The Middle East Air Defense alliance takes shape”—the trends appear less so. From hydrocarbons to Iran to Israel-Palestine to checking Chinese and Russian influence to human rights, the administration faces long odds of success in a region marred by seemingly insurmountable challenges and which still has real doubts about U.S. resolve and staying power.

Given U.S. President Joe Biden’s fraught relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it’s highly unlikely that Biden would have visited Saudi Arabia had Russia not invaded Ukraine, disrupting global oil supplies and causing gas prices in the United States to soar. The administration didn’t want to make oil the fulcrum of the visit lest it appear that the president was trading hydrocarbons for giving the crown prince a pass on his and his country’s atrocious human rights record. It’s just as well because any increase in Saudi oil production is expected to be modest.

The next date that could see significant changes (or not) on production will be Aug. 3 at an OPEC+ meeting where prices will be set for September and beyond. Amos Hochstein, Biden’s coordinator for international energy affairs, seems relatively confident that the Saudis and some other producers in the Gulf Cooperation Council will increase production gradually in the period ahead, as does Helima Croft, the head of global commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, who says she expects to see countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and possibly Kuwait to start “incrementally” increasing supply.

Driven by the need for market discipline and the advantage of keeping prices high, according to Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudis have no intention of breaking their OPEC+ arrangement with Russia, in which the parties agreed to slowly restore their monthly collective production at the rate of only 400,000 more barrels a day.

Riyadh is likely to husband its spare capacity in light of an oil market that may only get tighter by year’s end. And on lowering gas prices, which for the time being are declining because of China’s slowing economy, it’s unclear what kind of impact a modest Saudi increase would have. So, when it comes to expecting any dramatic Saudi effort to ramp up production as a nod to Biden, color us very, very skeptical.

Oil may have been the catalyst for Biden’s Middle East visit, but the administration’s desire to cast it in terms of great-power competition and the need to counter Russia’s and China’s growing influence in the region wasn’t far behind.

“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran [and] will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership,” Biden said during a meeting with Middle Eastern leaders in Saudi Arabia.

Given the president’s strong view that the 21st century will be a struggle between democracies and autocracies, it would only seem natural that Washington would want to shore up relations with important countries that might matter in what may well turn out to be a long-running Cold War 2.0.

But trying to turn the contest into a zero-sum game just won’t work with many U.S. allies and partners in the region. Not only are Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to name only two, ruled by authoritarians themselves (more on this below), but they have also proved to be hedgers—unwilling to choose the United States over Russia. It’s not just their unhappiness with U.S. retrenchment from the region; they also want to balance their ties among Washington and Beijing and Moscow because it makes sense for their long-term interests.

Saudi Arabia sees real benefit in maintaining its oil relationship with Russia in OPEC+. Indeed, through the second quarter of this year, Riyadh doubled its imports of Russian crude for domestic use and then exported its own oil at higher prices, effectively helping to bankroll Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war effort. The Saudis see the United States as a competitor, not a collaborator, in the global oil market. Nor are they alone in wanting to maintain ties with Russia and China. A Saudi company recently signed an agreement with a Chinese state-owned defense company to build military drones in Saudi Arabia, and the UAE is purchasing drones and perhaps even fixed-wing aircraft missiles from Beijing as well.

Even Israel is hedging its bets a bit, including by distancing itself from robust criticism of Russia’s activities in Ukraine and bringing Chinese investment into Haifa Port. The latter is a national security issue for both Israel and the United States: China could pose a significant counterintelligence threat to Israel if given access to a commercial port next to an Israeli naval base, and China’s presence in Haifa could lead the United States to cease port calls there, including for maintenance of the 6th Fleet.

The United States will remain the Gulf states’ primary security partner—but not at the expense of abandoning cooperation with Russia and China. It’s instructive that none of the joint statements during Biden’s trip singled out China for criticism or Russia for its brutal invasion of Ukraine. On getting the Gulf states to play the cold war game and choose the U.S. side, consider us unconvinced.

Biden raised the issue of human rights both publicly and in private meetings with Saudi leaders, where he brought up Khashoggi’s assassination. But in essence, Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the fist bump that went viral around the world represented Washington’s closing of the Khashoggi file.

Almost four years after the Washington Post columnist was lured by the Saudi government on orders from Mohammed bin Salman into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where he was killed and dismembered, there is still no accounting or accountability for the crown prince’s personal role. In short, Mohammed bin Salman got away with murder, and his leadership has now been legitimized by a U.S. president who genuinely does believe in asserting U.S. values.

But it’s not just Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of Khashoggi. The Saudi regime brooks no opposition and engages in a widespread campaign to criminalize any dissent and detain, imprison, and torture anyone who speaks out against the regime. According to Freedom House, the government has also pursued a campaign of transnational repression to harass and intimidate dissidents in at least 14 countries.

As far as we know, none of these issues was raised in Biden’s meetings, nor was there any expectation or pressure put on the Saudis to change. Indeed, Jubeir went to great lengths in a recent interview to downplay Biden’s holding the crown prince responsible for the Khashoggi killing and pushed back against criticism of the Saudi government’s human rights record, declaring, “What you may call a dissident, we may call a terrorist.”

The contrast between the Biden administration’s defense of human rights, democracy, and freedom against Russian aggression in Ukraine on the one hand and then meeting with Arab authoritarian leaders on the other without any serious discussion of the need for political reform and respect for basic rights was all too clear. We judge that the Biden administration not only failed on this issue but also left the region with the president’s status and credibility diminished.

In fairness to the Biden administration, making significant progress on the Iranian nuclear issue would have been a heavy lift under any circumstances. Simply put, the answer to the Iranian nuclear issue isn’t in Jerusalem or Jeddah but in Tehran—and right now Iran isn’t interested in cutting a deal that Washington can accept. Thus, the emphasis of the trip was on shaping an environment that might pressure Tehran to make a decision and to shore up alliances if it doesn’t.

In the Jerusalem Declaration (formally the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration), which Biden signed during his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the United States and Israel committed “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Pressed later on whether the United States would use force if necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear program, Biden affirmed that force would be a “last resort.”

While the toughness and determination on Iran played well in Israel and in some Arab quarters, they also likely raised the temperature and thus the concerns among many Gulf Arabs that military action against Iran actually could occur—and if it did, they would be the most exposed. Many of these Gulf states have important relations with Iran—especially Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman—and even the Saudis have been in discussion with Tehran on issues of mutual concern.

None of these countries wants to be the tip of the U.S.—let alone Israeli—spear in a war with Iran. This was reflected in the statement following the summit involving the United States and nine Arab countries: There was determination to provide security in the region but also a focus on diplomacy to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.

The unspoken but sad reality, however, is that U.S. policy on Iran is caught between reentering the Iran nuclear deal and a conflict Washington truly wants to avoid. Biden’s trip did little to resolve this conundrum.

Biden’s visit left the Israelis joyous and the Palestinians morose, an outcome scripted in advance by a U.S. administration that has hung a “closed for the duration” sign on its peace process policy. In the meaty, 15-paragraph Jerusalem Declaration, the United States and Israel reaffirmed a long list of strategic cooperation agreements already on the books; added some unusual new language (for example, the shared value of “tikkun olam,” or repairing the world); promised to expand relations between Israel and Arab states; announced the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli commercial aircraft; and devoted considerable attention to the possibility of a new regional security alignment.

Curiously, though perhaps inevitably, the Israel-Palestine issue received short shrift, focused mainly on the economy and institution-building. Significantly, only Biden committed to support a two-state solution and to work with Israel and others toward that goal. Clearly, the drafters of the Jerusalem Declaration could not reach agreement on this long-standing core objective of peace negotiations.

Biden’s interactions with Palestinians were largely determined by what he did not accomplish with the Israelis. Despite his commitment to reopen the independent U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem—which, before then-President Donald Trump closed it in 2018, functioned as a de facto U.S. embassy to the Palestinians—it is unclear whether Biden addressed it at all.

Israeli settlement activity, paused during the visit, also did not figure in Biden’s public remarks. Indeed, there is a pending settlement decision—whether Israel will be allowed to build in E-1, an area between Jerusalem and the settlement of Maale Adumim, which would almost cut the West Bank in half—that the Israeli authorities conveniently postponed until September, long after Biden’s departure.

Palestinians were also deeply disappointed that Biden failed to discuss publicly any responsibility or accountability on the part of Israel for the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

The Palestinians did receive new pledges of U.S. funding—$100 million for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem—and Biden declined repeated Israeli government requests to accompany him when he visited the East Jerusalem sites. But there was no joint U.S.-Palestinian statement, and nothing could mask the disappointment—indeed, anger—of the Palestinian leadership.

In sum, the peace process does not interest Biden or the Israeli government, and the Palestinians have no strategy to deal with a new regional alignment of Israel and Gulf Arab states that leaves them out in the cold. As was clear last May during the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, Washington will get involved only when it must.

As admirers of Shultz and longtime veterans of U.S. diplomacy, we agree that the Middle East garden needed tending. Engagement makes sense if it is creative, consistent, realistic, and based on reciprocity. The United States can give to its allies and partners, but it must get something in return. On this trip, there was a lot of Biden giving but not getting much back. And the tough issues—Israel-Palestine, human rights, Russia in Ukraine—were downplayed or essentially ignored.

Israel and the Gulf Arab states may sense that the Biden administration may be short-termers in the White House and that the Democratic Party’s majority in Congress could end as a result of the U.S. midterm elections in November. Was this trip a strategic reset that presages more intense U.S. involvement or an immediate and time-limited response to the exigencies created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, domestic U.S. economic challenges, and an uncertain path forward with Iran?

With all due respect to the gardeners, our view is the latter. Preoccupied with domestic challenges that elude consensus even within his own party, Biden pivoted for a few days to focus on Russia and China in this troubled region. Biden maintains that he’s not walking away from the Middle East and that the United States is back. The question after this trip is: for how long?

Correction, July 20, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated Adel al-Jubeir’s title. He is the minister of state for foreign affairs.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Daniel C. Kurtzer is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

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