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Foreign Policy

Biden's Middle East Trip: Mediocre, Embarrassing

Jul 25, 2022
  • Li Shaoxian

    President, China Institute for The Study of Arabian Countries, Ningxia University

Joe Biden's recently concluded trip to the Middle East was his first as U.S. president. It's worth noticing that, against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, this trip was "improvised," leading the U.S. to attempt to stretch beyond its present influences and capabilities. It was thus destined to be unsuccessful. 

According to U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and the U.S. president's own article published in the Washington Post, the trip had five goals:  

First was to urge for oil. The U.S. and allies have imposed unprecedentedly harsh sanctions against Russia since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, resulting in imbalance between supply and demand in world energy market. Combined with the risk and expectation of a global oil shortage, petroleum and natural gas prices surged worldwide; refined oil prices set historical records, inflation escalated, and Biden's approval ratings continued to slide, seriously dampening the Democratic Party's prospect in the upcoming midterm elections. Biden's Middle East trip was thus believed to be targeted at oil. 

Second was to improve ties with Saudi Arabia. Different from Trump, Biden's Democratic administration holds high the human rights banner everywhere. Biden lambasted Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail for Jamal Khashoggi's murder, even vowing to make the oil-rich country a "pariah state." Biden had refused to contact Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wields actual power in the country, since coming into office, neither meeting him nor talking to him on the phone. So when the Russia-Ukraine crisis broke out and the U.S. wanted Saudi Arabia to cooperate and increase oil output, Biden made a call to the crown prince, but the latter refused to answer.  

Third was to pressure Iran via U.S. allies in the Middle East. Biden had been pushing for negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue over his past year and half in office, striving to restore the nuclear agreement. Since negotiations were restarted in Vienna in April 2021, related parties have had eight rounds of talks, and basically reached consensuses on related issues, except that Biden couldn't take a step back on Iran's bottom line - lifting sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards - owing to domestic political resistance. So he attempted to mount new pressures on Iran. 

Fourth was to urge Israel to integrate into the so-called "regional security alliance" in the Middle East, so that the U.S. can preserve its dominance in the region with such a "Middle East-edition of NATO" when it is unable or unwilling to invest more. 

Fifth was to contain the expansion of Chinese and Russian influences in the Middle East. Biden dragged China in with his Washington Post article, even claimed at the summit with six Gulf countries and Egypt, Jordan and Iraq that the U.S. won't leave the region and leave a vacuum for China and Russia to fill.   

Biden's first trip to the Middle East as U.S. president, which ended on July 16, can be summed up as mediocre and embarrassing. 

First let's look at the priority goal - urging major OPEC members led by Saudi Arabia to increase oil output. Though Biden highlighted an output increase in his meeting with the king and talks with the crown prince, he had not received any clear Saudi promise to do so until his departure. In fact, Saudi Arabia demonstrated little interest in doing so. Objectively, world petroleum prices have long undergone stagnation since 2014, as a result, exploration and development of new oil fields have lagged far behind worldwide, and the potential productive capacities of major oil-producing nations, including Saudi Arabia, are limited. Subjectively, against the backdrop of longstanding low prices, OPEC members represented by Saudi Arabia and non-OPEC oil producing nations like Russia have built a set of effective price-stabilizing mechanisms for cooperation to preserve their interests. Therefore it is difficult to persuade Saudi Arabia to stray from its own interests. Prior to Biden's visit, there were reports that Saudi Arabia would greatly increase imports of cheap fuel oil for power plants, while it sells its own products at high prices in the market. 

Second, despite the apparent improvement in U.S.-Saudi ties, there still are obvious obstacles between them. Though Biden had a "fist bump" with the crown prince and had bilateral talks, Biden had to repeatedly mention the Khashoggi murder and human rights during the talks and the news conference afterward, which invited refutation from the crown prince. The crown prince mentioned the U.S.' performance in Iraq, and explicitly told Biden there won't be good outcomes when one side imposes its own ideology on the other. 

Third, there are two structural obstacles to forming the so-called "regional security alliance": one is, except Israel and the U.S., Middle East countries including Saudi Arabia don't want to openly take Iran as an enemy, not least to target Russia and China; the other is the impasse between Israel and Palestine greatly constrains U.S. efforts to make Israel integrate deeper into the Middle East. Biden's trip not only greatly disappointed those who had anticipated Saudi Arabia and Israel would establish diplomatic relations, but Saudi Arabia openly stated the summit didn't discuss establishing any defense alliance with Israel, nor would there be a so-called "Arabian NATO". 

Fourth, Biden's trip also triggered high alert in Iran and Russia, causing them to take some countermoves. Iran debuted its newly formed "drone division" and conducted a corresponding exercise, announced sanctions against multiple U.S. personnel, and held an "Astana Process" summit with Russia and Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran on July 19, participated in the Russia-Iran-Turkey summit, and held bilateral talks with Turkey President Recep Erdoğan. That Putin visited the region on Biden's heels certainly had a taste of rivalry, which to some extent offset the influences of Biden's trip. 

Fifth, Biden's attempt to prevent greater Chinese influences in the Middle East will be an impossible mission. In the Middle East, not a single country, including Israel, is willing to find fault with China, not a single country accepts the U.S. rhetoric about China filling in a "vacuum" there. China has been proceeding with the Belt and Road projects in the region for years, which has benefited Arabian and Middle East countries tremendously. How can they dance to the U.S.' tune? The Saudi government has made it clear Saudi Arabia's relations with the U.S. would in no way affect its relations with China. 

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