The US’s reduced involvement in the Middle East and its plans to redistribute US forces based in the region has been seen as part of the Biden administration’s strategy to focus instead on the Indo-Pacific and curb China’s expansion. The White House announced on 14 June that the president would make his first visit the Middle East since taking office. The visit will last four days (from 13 to 16 July) and Biden will visit Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He will also attend a summit with the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and of Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.
A Shifting Approach
Biden’s upcoming trip indicates a shift in his administration’s policy in dealing with its allies in the Middle East. This occurred following tensions between Washington and several of its regional allies as well as signs from the Biden administration that the US would scale back its political and security commitments in the region. Some US policies were taken to indicate that the Biden administration was stepping away from defending its regional allies, including Washington’s decision to remove the Iranian-backed Houthi militia from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Despite various points of contention between Washington and its allies in the region, there are several key factors that have played an important role in changing the Biden administration’s passive stance towards its Middle Eastern allies. The most important of these are the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, which made clear that Washington was unable to persuade its allies to fully adopt its policy towards Russia. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the Middle East in maintaining the stability of the global energy market during the current crisis. The growing talk of Washington’s declining interest in the Middle East has also had negative ramifications for US policy in the region. Washington’s rivals, and particularly China, could try to exploit the reduced US involvement to bolster their presence in the region.
The Biden Agenda
It is likely that the US president’s agenda for his first visit to the Middle East will include several key issues spanning various US interests. We might take a closer look at the following issues in particular:
1. Rethinking US-Saudi relations: US-Saudi relations reached a low point when President Biden took office, given the negative rhetoric that the US president adopted towards Riyadh. However, when war broke out in Ukraine and oil prices spiked to levels not seen in 14 years, six Democratic lawmakers wrote a letter to Biden on 7 June, urging him to recalibrate his policy towards Saudi Arabia. They strongly encouraged Biden to take steps to ensure that US-Saudi relations were in alignment with the US’s best interests.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia will include meetings with Saudi officials including the Saudi Crown Prince and will shed light on shifts in US foreign policy towards Riyadh. It is expected that this will include assurances to the Saudis that the US will honor its strategic commitments in the Middle East towards its regional partners, despite its growing focus on the Indo-Pacific region and deterring China. The US will bolster Saudi military capabilities so that it is able to defend itself against threats from the Iranian regime and its agents, especially the Houthi militias that have launched missiles against Saudi civilian targets.
2. Increasing oil production to drive down global prices: The Russia-Ukraine war has resulted in global oil prices rising to record levels. The price of oil has soared above 120 USD per barrel, which has meant that the price of gas in the US has risen to around five dollars per gallon. Meanwhile, inflation has risen to levels not seen in four decades, which has further eroded Biden’s popularity and threatened Democratic chances in the midterm elections in November, including their slender majority in the House.
One of the goals of Biden’s visit will be to push oil-producing countries to increase their production to rates higher than those previously agreed upon by the Saudi-led OPEC+. After the European Union announced a major embargo on Russian oil, OPEC+ said it would increase production by 650,000 barrels per day in July and August, rather than by 432,000 barrels per day as previously planned. OPEC+ also considered excluding Russia from future quotas. The US president welcomed these moves because this meant that there would be more oil pumped into global markets, which would drive down fuel prices, including the price of gas in the US prior to the November elections.
However, some US analysts have suggested that the increased oil production from the region will not lower global oil prices to the extent that Biden is expecting. This is because the announced increase in production will not have an impact on prices while the world consumes almost 1000 million barrels of oil per day. We must also consider the resurgence of Chinese demand as it emerges from COVID-19 shutdowns and the continued reduction of Russian oil supply. Oil prices are therefore likely to continue to rise despite the purported increase in production from OPEC+ countries. Others have suggested that pumping more oil could reduce prices to some extent, but not quickly enough to help the US this summer or to aid Democrats in the midterm elections.
3. Supporting Israeli integration in the region: Washington has played an important role in recent years in achieving greater openness in relations between Israel and other countries in the region. Washington has claimed this as a major achievement in the Middle East. President Biden might therefore try to strengthen ties between Israel and other countries in the region during his trip, and use this to demonstrate the success of US foreign policy in the region and bolster his shaky position on the domestic front.
4. US support for countering Iranian threats: There have been indirect talks with Iran in Vienna to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, from which former US President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018. These talks did not take into account Gulf concerns about the Iranian missile program, Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region, and its support for Shi‘ite militias that threaten the security of Arab Gulf states. The failure of these talks in light of Iranian intransigence and the conditions imposed by the US have dimmed the Biden administration’s hopes of bringing back the nuclear deal. It is expected that Biden will continue to affirm the US’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons during his meetings with regional leaders, and will stand against Iran’s regional involvement, which threatens the stability and security of the Middle East. Biden will also discuss a plan B in the scenario that the indirect talks in Vienna should completely fail.
5. Forming a regional air defense alliance against Iran: As part of the US administration’s efforts to counter the Iranian threat, an air defense alliance will be established which will include Israel and other countries in the region. This alliance has already been announced by Israel, which stated that it had become part of a regional military partnership to combat Iranian threats. The new alliance will be known as the Middle East Air Defense Alliance and its members will work with the US to counter Iranian missiles and drones. The Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, said that he would announce further details about the alliance during President Biden’s visit to the region in July.
This new security coordination will support the US strategy to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, reduce the US military presence in the Middle East, and replace its regional forces with a new security alliance that will include Israel’s extensive military and intelligence capabilities.
6. Limiting China’s ties in the Middle East: China is also a key part of the agenda for Biden’s trip to the Middle East. Biden will try to prevent Beijing from exploiting the reduced US presence in the region during recent years or from vying to become the new “partner of choice” for countries in the region. The US is therefore becoming more involved in the Middle East again. It is expected that Biden will directly or indirectly raise the issue of Chinese companies’ expansion in the region, particularly in the field of technology, and how this has affected the US presence and interests. Biden might also discuss Chinese investments in infrastructure and the industrial sector with regional allies, as well as his concerns about China establishing military bases or anchor points for its forces in the region.
7. Shifting away from Russia: The Ukraine war will also shape the US president’s visit to the region, especially since Washington has struggled to convince most countries in the Middle East to take a stance against Russia or to criticize the war. These countries have been hesitant to vote against the Russia military operations in Ukraine in international organizations and have tried to adopt a more neutral stance during the crisis since some countries in the region are more closely aligned with Russia. Biden will try to reach out to these countries to adopt a more critical stance towards the Russian military intervention and to stand with Western countries against Moscow. It is expected that Biden will not succeed in this regard, since most countries in the region are aware that their national interests are better served by staying out of a crisis that more directly concerns the US and Europe, since taking one side could have huge costs.
Problems with Credibility
The US is dealing with many challenges in its uneasy relations with its traditional allies in the Middle East. It will be difficult to solve all of these bilateral issues in a single visit. Even if the notion of fixing everything in one big deal is appealing, repairing relations is likely to be a gradual process.
There are also concerns that this shift in the Biden’s foreign policy towards the US’s traditional regional allies and partners is only the product of recent developments, including the fallout from the Ukrainian crisis and rising global energy prices, which have implications for Biden’s political future and the Democrats’ chances in the midterm elections. Countries in the region are afraid that once these crises are over, the US will go back to ignoring the region and its issues and return to the status quo that existed prior to 24 February 2022.