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Foreign Policy

Three Tasks for Biden

Jul 12, 2022
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Israel, the Palestinian West Bank and Saudi Arabia from July 13 to 16 — his first visit to the Middle East since he took office a year and a half ago. During this visit, Biden has three major tasks to accomplish:

• Repair and strengthen the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia to promote increased oil production there and in other Gulf countries.

• Form an anti-Russia coalition in the Middle East.  

• Consolidate U.S.-Israeli relations. 

Task 1: Repair and strengthen the strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia and promote increased oil production in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

President Biden wrote an article in The Washington Post on July 9 singling out this No 1 priority. Biden wrote that the purpose of his visit to Saudi Arabia is to strengthen “a strategic partnership” with the United States. He also noted that in light of sanctions imposed on Russia after its attack on Ukraine, the Middle East’s energy supply is “vital” and that the region is “essential to global trade and the supply chains we rely on.”

Indeed, after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, international oil prices soared. As a result, not only are the European allies of the U.S. suffering from a shortage of oil and gas and rising prices but also the United States itself is experiencing the most serious inflation in four decades and an unprecedented oil price shock. All this has directly led to Biden’s declining approval ratings and increased pressure on the Democratic Party’s midterm elections. Therefore, repairing and strengthening the partnership with Saudi Arabia and lobbying it and other oil-producing countries in the Gulf to increase production to stop the spike in international prices has become the main focus of Biden's trip.

But the key to improving and strengthening U.S.-Saudi relations is not entirely in Biden’s hands. The two major obstacles to the improvement of U.S.-Saudi relations — the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — are not easy to make vanish. During his campaign, Biden claimed that the killing of Khashoggi had made Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state. Immediately after taking office, Biden approved the release of a U.S. intelligence investigation that directly linked the murder to the Saudi crown prince himself and said he would sanction Saudi Arabia over human rights issues.

Similarly, the Biden administration removed the Houthis from the list of terrorist organizations in Yemen and stopped supporting Saudi Arabia’s war there — one of the reasons Saudi Arabia and the UAE refused to answer Biden’s calls after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Now, the anxiety caused by high oil prices and high inflation in the United States seems to have overwhelmed Biden’s determination to be a human rights defender. Although he claims that his visit to Saudi Arabia will hold true to “fundamental American values” and promises to focus on human rights in his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there is no doubt that the only way for Biden to bridge the gap between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is to lower the tone on human rights issues.

As for whether Saudi Arabia will agree to increase oil production to help the midterm prospects of Biden and the Democrats, it depends not only on how low the human rights tone goes but also on how high the Biden administration’s tone goes on the Iranian nuclear issue. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-enemy, do not want the U.S. to return to the Iran nuclear deal, and they cannot tolerate Iran going further and further in upgrading its uranium enrichment technology. So it’s up to Biden to get what the U.S. wants from the Saudis while not giving them what they want. 

Task 2: Form an anti-Russian coalition in the Middle East.

In his The Washington Post op-ed, Biden wrote: “As president, it is my job to keep our country strong and secure. We have to counter Russia’s aggression, put ourselves in the best possible position to outcompete China and work for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.” While Biden included countering Russia’s aggression and outcompeting China — big goals in the great power rivalry — as the purposes of his Middle East trip, the more pressing purpose is to expand the U.S. circle of friends in the Middle East to counter Russia.

With respect to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Middle Eastern countries are basically taking a neutral position. It is reported that during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden will also attend the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt, Iraq and Jordan (GCC+3) in Saudi Arabia and meet with the leaders of the Middle East. Obviously, the formation of an anti-Russia coalition in the Middle East is an impossible task, but Biden believes that this is at least an opportunity for the United States to hedge against Russian influence in the region. 

Task 3: Consolidate U.S.-Israeli relations.

This point is made absolutely clear by the fact Biden will start his trip to the Middle East by visiting Israel. The influence of Jewish Americans in the United States, especially powerful Israeli interest groups in Congress, will be critical for the Democrats to win the midterm elections. Biden’s trip to the Middle East will also aim to promote the process of normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East and to demonstrate the difference between the current U.S. administration and the Trump administration by visiting the West Bank and meeting with officials of the Palestinian Authority.

Ranking the three tasks, the first is the top priority and the probability of success is about 50 percent, depending on the performance of Biden during the trip. The completion probability for the second task is virtually zero. The third task is the most likely to accomplish and the least difficult.

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