This week, from July 13-16, US President Joe Biden is visiting the Middle East. The trip focuses on repairing relationships across the region in an effort to foster regional stability and advance normalization with Israel. Below, Atlantic Council experts react to the trip and what it means for the wider region.
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Biden’s visit, as much as anything, is about US competition with Russia and China
While in Israel, President Joe Biden sounded familiar notes on security cooperation, Iran, and the Palestinians. But, listen closely, and you can detect something new. Like all foreign policy these days, a visit to the Middle East is, as much as anything, about US competition with Russia and China.
In their joint declaration, Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid pledged their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Lapid specifically called out Russia’s invasion in his remarks. A virtual summit with Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and India, links the region to a key Indo-Pacific player. Launching a new bilateral technology initiative, the leaders agreed to coordinate on “research security, investment screening, and export controls, as well as on technology investment and protection strategies for critical and emerging technologies.” These fancy words add up to one thing: ensuring China doesn’t get undue access to the Israeli hi-tech sector.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden will pursue a similar goal: increased oil production to lower prices and toughen the bite of sanctions against Russia. Part of a broader US-Saudi reset, it will reaffirm US security assurances in exchange for expectations that the Kingdom will align itself with core US interests when they are threatened by its global rivals. Today, Ukraine; tomorrow, perhaps, Taiwan.
Get used to it. Relationships in every region are now shaped by this strategic competition, whether in security, trade, or technology. Biden’s support for regional integration is informed by the same calculus. A new coalition is emerging in the Middle East. As its lead partner, the United States will be best positioned to insist its members take account of US interests held at risk by China and Russia. Biden’s priorities since day one have been clear. And all friends of the United States now hear this tune.
Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
A missed opportunity for Iran
Among the top priorities of President Biden’s trip, according to US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is promoting “stability” in the region. But it remains to be seen whether the tighter embrace of Israel as a “strategic partner” and support for Arab-Israeli deterrence of Iran will lead to regional de-escalation or only further inflame conflict.
Iran, of course, has incentivized this budding US-Israeli-Arab alliance by exploiting the grievances of groups, such as the Houthis in Yemen, and continuing to promote violent non-state actors in Iraq and the Levant. Tehran is missing a chance to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and dampen proliferation concerns. But it is unlikely to docilely accept a new strategic order in the Middle East from which it is excluded. Expect Iran to double down on its ties with local Arab partners as well as with Russia and China.
The risk of a wider confrontation will grow if Iranian drones hit targets in Israel or US forces in Iraq or Syria. The focus for the Biden administration and others who care about stability in the Middle East should be on bringing the region together, perhaps under United Nations auspices, to discuss confidence-building measures, not reinforcing old fault lines.
Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
The Road to Jeddah should pass through Palestinian solar fields
As President Biden plans to make his way to Jeddah to ask Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman to pump more oil to help relieve US gasoline price pressures, following the Russian-made crisis in Ukraine, he can stay true to his administration’s goals regarding climate change by considering the Palestinian Territories.
The West Bank and, in particular, Area C offer vast potential for the generation of clean energy from renewable energy sources, principally from solar photovoltaics (PV). Unfortunately, historically, the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have posed a major stumbling block to serious cooperation between the Israelis and the Palestinians to unlock this great potential. Fortunately, however, with the focus of the Palestinian Authority on driving renewable energy projects throughout the West Bank and the constellation of the current Israeli Lapid-led Government—further coupled with a “true believer” American president—we have an opportunity to unlock this potential.
If the Israelis and Palestinians don’t work together now to fight climate change, they won’t have the luxury to fight over land in the future, as they will scramble to have sufficient water and energy sources to survive (and, yes, as these resources become scarcer, the regional conflicts will increase). America and its allies can help in this regard.
The US has shown leadership in supporting projects that are an essential part of the regional energy transition, such as the Gas for Gaza project. A US push on solar PV in the Palestinian Territories matters.
We need to couple our fight against climate change, driving forward the energy transition in the Middle East and North Africa hand-in-hand with the regional political vision.
Ariel Ezrahi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
A bedrock principle: ‘Neither side gets involved in choosing the other’s leaders’
For all the ink spilled physically and virtually over President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, including by the president himself, there is one essential point that has been almost universally overlooked: neither country should be involved in choosing the other’s leaders. This works both ways.
When Mohamed bin Salman, who had worked hard to build ties with the Donald Trump White House, persuaded his father in 2017 to name him as Crown Prince to replace his uncle Mohamed bin Nayef, who had worked closely with US counterterrorism officials to save US and Saudi lives threatened by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Washington made a conscious policy decision not to take sides.
Regardless of who leads Saudi Arabia, it is an important country in many ways due to regional and energy security and its unique role as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia is intended to build relations with its government and is rightly not intended to endorse any particular Saudi leader.
Saudi Arabia must be equally careful in its relationship with the United States, especially now. Saudi stewards of the US-Saudi relationship—going back to the famous 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud—have tried, generally with success, to keep the US-Saudi relationship focused on security and energy, not on Saudi preferences for Republicans or Democrats.
The present situation is perilous because oil prices have become a partisan issue in the United States, and the Saudis have the ability to move oil prices by policy statements as well as production levels. For the Saudis to be seen as playing favorites in the US election would have dangerous repercussions both in the US and for Saudi Arabia. A bedrock principle of US-Saudi relations needs to stay the way it has remained for decades: neither side gets involved in choosing the other’s leaders.
Thomas Warrick, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Is the (other) status quo sustainable?
President Biden launched his “hearts and minds” tour of Israel on July 13.
On the symbolism side of the ledger, Biden headed straight from the welcome reception at Ben Gurion Airport to review a display of Israeli military hardware, before paying his respects at Yad Vashem, Israel’s iconic Holocaust remembrance center. The president’s message was clear: the United States remains committed to Israel’s security and eradicating the scourge of antisemitism. His July 14 evening appearance at the opening of the twenty-first Maccabiah Games—aka the Jewish Olympics—will acknowledge Israel’s identity as an independent Jewish state.
The brass tacks of actionable policy were served up during Biden’s discussions with Israeli principals. The signing of the Jerusalem Declaration—which echoes the primary themes of these conversations—came to enshrine US pledges to “never…allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” in order to support an extension of the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding on security assistance to Israel, and to “expand the circle of peace to include ever more Arab and Muslim States.” The US and Israel also inaugurated a new High-Level Strategic Dialogue on Technology.
Israelis have been impressed by the authenticity of Biden’s friendship with their country and the Jewish People. However, at the same time, they can’t help wondering—together with others in the world—about the durability of their famed relationship with Washington.
Notwithstanding his prediction that “there’s no possibility of the Democratic Party or even a significant portion of the Republican Party walking away from Israel,” the president represents a generation with lived memories of the Holocaust and the subsequent founding of Israel. That institutional memory is fading rapidly.
Biden insists that the United States won’t walk away from the Middle East, but experiences like the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan suggest an alternate future. Great regional stock now being put in the promise of innovative frameworks such as the Abraham Accords, the emerging Middle East Air Defense alliance, and the I2U2 Group—India, Israel, the UAE, and the US—comes partly to offset the prospect of such a retreat.
It’s deeply ironic that the hedge against an annulment of America’s Catholic marriage with its Middle Eastern allies should be a robust coalition between the Jewish state and its Muslim neighbors.
Shalom Lipner, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Biden and Israel must convince future Democrats the relationship ‘remains a worthy cause’
What is most striking from Biden’s first trip to Israel as president isn’t just the substance of the trip, but also the immense warmth of his visit. It has been clear from the outset that, among other objectives in visiting, Biden wanted to ensure that the Israelis felt his deep fondness for the country, which they very much have.
From his speech at Ben Gurion Airport to his emotional visit to Yad Vashem, Biden has brought his signature, personable touch to Israel. Biden’s personal affection for Israel and support for Zionism stand in contrast to his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, whom Israelis may best remember for his chilliness towards them, or even Donald Trump, whose support for Israel often seemed overtly political and opportunistic.
Biden’s strong support for Israel—like the president himself—can seem like a relic of a Democratic party of the past. At a time when Biden’s polling within his party is at a historic low and progressive criticisms of Israel are at a historic high, his support for Israel could come at a cost. Progressives—including members of Congress—have criticized the trip at length, further highlighting the rift in the party over Israel. But Biden, to his credit, is undeterred: his visit has reaffirmed that moderate Democrats still support a strong US-Israel relationship, are committed to advancing normalization, and will help the region counter a nuclear Iran.
Yet much work is to be done. If Israelis hope to enjoy the same embrace from future Democratic presidents, Biden and Israelis must convince the next generation of Democrats that the partnership between historic allies remains a worthy cause.
Carmiel Arbit, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Biden’s Middle East trip has implications for the Iranian people
Criticism has been abundant and expectations have been set low for President Biden’s trip to the Middle East. Yet, in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has created a new world order with implications yet to evolve, the US president’s visit to the region is highly significant.
After Eastern Europe, the Middle East is in closest proximity to Russia. Besides energy, critical trade routes pass through the region. As we experienced last year with the ship in the Suez Canal, any blockage would be an immense bottleneck for the world economy. While uniting the region against Iran is said to be one of the stated objectives of this trip, any such infrastructure would be in place against Russia should it be needed.
As for the trip’s implications for Iran, life will be more difficult for the average Iranian. The failure to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) would result in more sanctions and impediments to the Iranian economy. While the regime will be weakened, it is unlikely that the West would want regime change, since it would insert instability and uncertainty into an already volatile region. To exert control, the regime will likely resort to more suppression and violence vis-à-vis its citizens.
Nadereh Chamlou, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Biden’s threats against Iran are par for the course
President Biden’s trip to Israel seemed like business as usual: commitment to the security of Israel, declaring that both countries will use any means to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and the US emphasis on the two-state solution. In this regard, Biden’s trip to Israel isn’t significant and is in line with his predecessors. Also noteworthy in regard to Iran’s nuclear program, is that US presidents have never ruled out the possibility of using military force. Biden only stated the policy more explicitly when he said that the US would use “all elements of its national power.”
However, Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia will be of greater importance. A potential air-defense pact to counter Iranian threats will most likely increase Iran’s insecurities. In the absence of a credible air force, the country relies heavily on ballistic missiles to deter its adversaries. This, in turn, will increase regional tensions. President Biden can and should declare that it supports regional dialogue between the powerhouses in the region, especially between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are the pillars of stability in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.
Sina Azodi, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Putin is still the winner in the region
Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia is being followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Iran next week, where he will meet both Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for another Astana Summit regarding Syria. Biden’s relations with Israel and the Arab Gulf states have been tense as of late, while Putin’s relations with Iran and Turkey have been relatively good.
America’s ally Israel doesn’t want to hear Biden talk about the need for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, while its Arab Gulf allies don’t want to hear him talk about human rights or how they are contributing to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Neither wants to hear Biden ask them to do anything to help Ukraine or sanction Russia, but they do want him to reassure them about Iran instead.
By contrast, while there are some tensions between Putin on the one hand and Erdogan and Raisi on the other, none of them are going to criticize the other about human rights violations or the lack of political freedom in their countries. In addition, Putin’s Iranian and Turkish interlocutors are doing much to help Russia in its war with Ukraine—through Iranian drone sales to Russia and Turkish refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia—while Biden’s Israeli and Gulf Arab interlocutors are unwilling to do much at all to help Ukraine.
Indeed, Israel and the Gulf Arabs aren’t sanctioning Russia either, and Saudi and Emirati unwillingness to ramp up oil production to lower the price of oil is arguably helping Russia. When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Putin is getting more cooperation than Biden is not just from Iran and Turkey, but also from Israel and the Gulf Arabs.
Mark N. Katz, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
It’s unclear how robust the new security alignment in the Middle East will be
It is a year and a half into the Biden administration and the president has finally acceded to recognizing the value of the traditional American partnership with Saudi Arabia.
A measure of understanding might be useful for these often sympathetic friends. These fundamentally fragile Gulf Arab states adjacent to a much larger hostile expansionist neighbor, Iran, have lost total confidence in their American security guarantee. This didn’t start with Biden, however, but the president took that unease, added a calamity in Afghanistan, and then seemingly took pains to publicly insult his most important Arab ally.
Still, this trip is a comedown, and Biden won’t go home empty-handed. The Saudis are already rewarding the president’s late trip with a step towards normalization with Israel, which will be heralded as a foreign policy feather in his cap. The irony is that this very sense of American neglect, if not abandonment, is leading Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies to seek their security elsewhere. And elsewhere means rebuilding bridges with Turkey and détentes with Russia and Syria, but, especially, a close new relationship with Israel. Any steps towards normalization achieved during Biden’s trip are actually achieved despite the American visit, in a broader sense, not because of it.
Whether it will be enough is still uncertain. This is a new security alignment in the Middle East and the Arabs and Israelis don’t yet know how robust it will be. The alignment will be put to the test when the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel pursue regional-political objectives in the teeth of Iranian opposition. In the best case, they will be united with the US, ideally in the wake of a collapsed JCPOA. In the worst case, they will be left to fend for themselves.
Andrew L. Peek, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Tue, Jul 12, 2022
New Atlanticist By Jonathan Panikoff
The United States cannot ensure its economic and national security as successfully without Saudi Arabia as a key ally.
Tue, Jul 12, 2022
New Atlanticist By Daniel B. Shapiro
A regional coalition is emerging of US partners who face common security threats and share similar social, economic, energy, and climate-related challenges.
Wed, Jul 13, 2022
MENASource By R. Clarke Cooper
The US has the tools to be fully engaged in the region and, during his trip, the US president needs to strongly declare it to the entire region.