A hydrocarbon-fueled political crisis at home is mainly driving the US president’s upcoming visit to the region.
US President Joe Biden is set for a busy week of confronting a multitude of crises all at once.
Biden will be in Israel on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by Saudi Arabia over the weekend. The president’s brief trip comes at a time when his administration is fraught with domestic strife and foreign policy challenges dominated by Russia and China.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Sunday, Biden said he plans to “start a new and promising chapter of America’s engagement” in the Middle East, writing: “This trip comes at a vital time for the region, and it will advance important American interests.”
However, international affairs experts Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon are skeptical of the US president’s ability to make much of a difference.
“Israel and the Arabs will take what the U.S. president has to give, but they are acutely aware of his diminishing political currency and have begun to look past him toward the return of former U.S. President Donald Trump or his avatar,” Miller and Simon wrote in Foreign Policy.
Here are six issues to watch during Biden’s trip:
Biden will become the first US president to travel directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel, his first destination, a reflection of the tectonic shift between Israel and its Arab neighbours that is reshaping politics in the region.
Under former US President Donald Trump, Israel normalised relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) through the Abraham Accords. While Saudi Arabia and Israel will not announce any formal diplomatic ties during Biden’s trip, other incremental steps could be taken.
There is already a surge in security cooperation under the auspices of the US military’s Central Command vis a vis the threat of Iran. John Kirby, a national security spokesman for the White House, said the nascent military partnership in West Asia is intended to integrate regional air defence systems to protect against Iranian ballistic missiles and drones.
Iran nuclear deal
An issue that will likely be a top focus for Biden is finding a way to deal with the threat of Iran for Israel, which considers Tehran as its greatest threat, and Sunni Arab countries, which view Shiite Iran as a dangerous regional competitor.
A key question will be how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, which it is allegedly closer than ever to achieving. Biden is hoping to rejuvenate the nuclear deal that was reached by President Barack Obama in 2015 but then abandoned by Trump in 2018.
Negotiations however appear to have stalled, and the Saudis will want security guarantees and the Israelis will need assurances from Washington that it will help stop Iran from going nuclear.
The now-former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet-led government – which Biden had bet on, and hence his avoidance of pressuring Tel Aviv on illegal settlements – has now collapsed.
With Yair Lapid as caretaker prime minister, Biden’s presidential visit will potentially give Lapid a boost against longstanding former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the Israeli opposition, in the lead-up to the November elections.
Biden will also visit Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Bethlehem, but is unlikely to push Abbas nor Lapid to reopen talks on a two-state solution. Last September, he grimly told the UN that a two-state solution is a “long way away.”
While Biden has maintained that oil is not the primary reason for his visit to Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely that he’d be making the trip were it not for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on the global oil market.
Having previously called the oil-rich kingdom under Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) a pariah nation, US-Saudi ties following the departure of Trump have not been as smooth sailing as they usually have been.
But with his approval ratings being dragged down amid rising gas prices at home before the midterms, Biden will likely face pressure to temper his criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to persuade the kingdom to pump more oil.
But that might not be so easy. The Saudis are already producing near full capacity of 11 million barrels per day, not to mention high oil prices are good business for Riyadh, the de facto leader of OPEC+.
Another multilateral partnership is taking root when Biden makes his regional visit.
While in Israel, Biden will be convening the first I2U2 leadership summit – a moniker made up of Israel, India, the US and the UAE. The Russia-Ukraine conflict, Iran nuclear deal, rising inflation and food prices will be discussed between the heads of state on July 14.
The grouping is set to focus on economic cooperation and infrastructure projects. Navdeep Suri, a former Indian ambassador to the UAE, said the initiative is intended to bring together Israeli technology, UAE capital and Indian skills.
Meanwhile, Tehran will perceive the grouping to be hostile to its interests, something that New Delhi will want to balance carefully.
Talmeez Ahmed, India’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is skeptical of the grouping and noted Israel has “said it is against Iran. There is no way India will join an alliance against Iran.”