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MENASource July 13, 2022

US interests and capacity for Middle East stability exist, but President Biden must convey will 

By R. Clarke Cooper

If US President Joe Biden wants to foster regional stability, bolster US relationships in the Middle East, and advance normalization with Israel—in addition to the anticipated Jerusalem Declaration to re-affirm US-Israeli security cooperation and commit to denying nuclear capability to Iran—the president has two significant tools provided to him when he took office in 2021.

The Donald Trump administration led the Abraham Accords in 2020 and the January 2021 decision to include Israel in the US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR). This compelled all Arab capitals to reassess their relationship with Israel. The Abraham Accords were the first official reciprocal agreement any Arab country had signed with Israel in twenty-six years. Furthermore, expansion of the CENTCOM AOR brought regional militaries into the US-led security cooperation space, where Arab military personnel are now able to conduct exercises and training with Israeli counterparts.

Until September 2020, accord signing countries Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) didn’t have any official economic or personal relationships with Israel. Moreover, until Israel transferred into the CENTCOM AOR, Bahrain, the UAE, and non-signatory states, like Saudi Arabia, wouldn’t have considered coordinating with Israel on air or maritime defense, or any sort of security cooperation. Factor in the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, threats from Iranian state-sponsored terrorist groups, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and increasing missile and drone attacks from the Iran-sponsored Houthis in Yemen, and Israel and Gulf states justifiably sought to fulfill sovereign defense requirements while also taking into consideration the viability of regional integrated air and missile defense. When in the region this week, President Biden will hear what the US needs to do to remain fully involved in the momentum of the Abraham Accords and enable stability in the Middle East.

First, as Israel is cautious about pulling the region into a conflict with Iran, President Biden needs to acknowledge the legitimate regional imperative to address the shared threats emanating from Tehran beyond securing the Jerusalem Declaration. The Middle East, however, won’t wait ad infinitum for the US to show tangible security commitments to the region. If the US is unable or perceived as unwilling to fulfill sovereign defense requirements for Middle East partners, US allies and adversaries will further seek to fill defense gaps in the sale or transfer of arms and technology. A worse-case scenario would be for US ambivalence and absence to inadvertently enable China and Russia to disrupt long-term US relationships in the Middle East.

In the past year, there has been growing evidence of China trying to create a wedge between the US and the Gulf, creating friction for US investment and relationships in the region. President Biden will hear from allies that the US needs to play an active leadership and coordinating role for there to be an effective integrated defense in the region. Leaders in the region will likely recommend that states be able to opt into an Integrated Air Missile Defense (IAMD) coalition, assuming there is an all-or-nothing approach for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.  

Additionally, Middle East leaders will affirm that they want an improved relationship with the US. This includes solidifying official lines of communication with senior US counterparts. Moreover, they will also share concerns about the lack of a declared US national security strategy and confusion over incongruous strategic planning for the globally impactful Middle East. Leaders of GCC states have reason to highlight their respective state’s global impact. The region, especially Qatar and the (UAE), stepped up to assist during and after the problematic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Biden will see an open door for the US to work with major Arab oil producers to counter Russia’s coercive energy diplomacy. He will likely be reminded how Israel and Egypt are contributing to the global response to the Ukraine war by assisting Europe to wean itself off of Russian gas.

Finally, being in the center of gravity for global energy markets and ground zero for climate impacts, President Biden will receive some practical counsel about climate adaption and energy diversification in relation to the broader stability issues of food insecurity, water scarcity, and mass migration. Israel and the GCC+3 neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq—will make clear they are already managing climate issues. Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, has pragmatically noted (since Sharm El-Sheikh was announced to host the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference) that “COP27 will focus on adaption vice mitigation.” He has also consistently stated that private sector engagement is required to reduce climate risks effectively. In some cases, economically viable opportunities have arisen to address conditions of instability. Beyond the seeming intangibility of carbon renewal targets, Israel and GCC+3 regional water re-use and desalinization efforts yield agriculture and consumption results. Such efforts will likely be noted for their relevance to the ever-increasing water needs in the US.  

Stability and prosperity are shared interests for Israel and the states participating in the GCC+3 this week. President Biden need not be ambivalent about America’s Middle East strategic partners seeking to defend themselves against immediate state-sponsored kinetic threats, while they seek solutions toward global existential risks of water scarcity and food insecurity. 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.

R. Clarke Cooper is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, former assistant secretary at the US Department of State, a former senior intelligence officer for the US Joint Special Operations Command, and a combat veteran.

Further reading

Image: U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and U.S. Defence Attache in Israel, Brigadier General Shawn A. Harris stand in front of Israel's Iron Dome defence system, during a tour at Ben Gurion Airport, in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel, July 13, 2022. Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via REUTERS