Lose some. Win some?

            It has recently caused a smaller sensation that American State Secretary Blinken planned to visit Saudi Arabia, but the meeting was called off by Riyadh. Since the war in Ukraine has started the American need for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are becoming more and more obvious, just like the failure of the Biden administration in most of its policies in the Gulf since it took office.

            We have dealt before with the surprising defiance by the Gulf states, especially by Saudi Arabia to bow to the American wishes to increase oil and gas supplies to Europe, thus mitigating the already catastrophic effects of the loss of Russian energy supplies. And though all expectations suggested that this is only a Saudi bluff, which will soon fall after some demands are met by Washington, the complication only grows in time.

            In order to compensate for this considerable fiasco, Secretary Blinken nonetheless took a Middle East tour, which first led him to Israel meeting a number of Arab foreign ministers as well, then to Morocco, and finally, in an also surprising twist, to Algeria.

            The aim was obvious. After the consecutive failed attempts to win the support of the traditional Arab allies for the policy of sanctions against Russia, Washington tried its best to improve its image, salvage some of its influence in the region, and find alternative partners to supply Europe with energy. This led Blinken in the end to Algeria, a state which is not only traditional well within the Russian sphere of influence, but with which Washington also has had troubled relations not only under Trump, and also since Biden took over. The idea obviously is that while some image-saving efforts have been done, Algeria and partially through it Libya was approached, so to win them over for the American sanctions policy.

            So the question is: After losing Saudi Arabia, can new partners be won in the region?


Welcomed or refused?

            We have covered recently that practically all Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia proved defiant to support the American stance against Russia. The case of Saudi Arabia was especially embarrassing for Washington, as it was calculated that regardless of all difficulties Riyadh would easily support the American policy in an attempt to finally win favors in Washington. Which was not totally unimaginable, as Biden had a particularly tough relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān. As nothing came of it and Riyadh showed growing signs of effective support for Moscow by announcing a neutral position on Ukraine and refusing to increase the oil production, it was thought that a quick visit by Secretary Blinken would finally do the trick.

            Almost a month ago on 18 March, it was widely reported that Riyadh is happy to receive Secretary Blinken, only two days after British Prime Minister Johnson failed in his regional tour with the same goal. Yet it was immediately denied the following day by Riyadh, claiming that no such visit is likely to happen anytime in the near future. And here we should not forget that soon after the Ukrainian crisis erupted the Saudi Crown Prince – just like his Emirati counterpart – allegedly refused to talk with Biden on the phone.

            That was the point that a second regional tour was hastily put together, this time relying on more receptive partners, like Israel and Morocco, and including a new initiative to win the support of Algeria and Libya.

            How bad are the situation and big the American frustration with Saudi Arabia – but with the Gulf in general – shows in the press. After this second setback prominent opinion crafters, like the Foreign Policy not demanded Biden punish Saudi Arabia, but also acted amazed that Riyadh “has chosen fellow authoritarians ranger than the United States”. This shows that the elite behind the Biden administration still cannot reevaluate what has happened and change the tone.


The grand Arab-Israeli summit. Another fiasco

            The so-called Negev Summit or Arab-Israeli Summit with American oversight was held on 27 March. For that Blinken traveled to Israel as the first stop on his short Middle Eastern tour. His three missions were to meet with the Palestinian government and give some reassurance that the policies of Trump with unconditional support for the Israeli side are stopped; to meet with the Israeli government and give reassurances about Washington’s Iran policy; and to meet with foreign ministers of the Arab states, which already established diplomatic relations with Israel. In other words, he had to meet the normalizing camp. Thus giving some indication that this is still a supported policy.

            The meeting with President Maḥmūd ‘Abbās went uneventful enough, as Blinken could only express some wage promises, while the Palestinian government expressed its dissatisfaction and demands for a more balanced American policy. It is quite ironic that since then violence burst to long-unseen levels within the occupied territories and Jerusalem itself.

            Blinken’s bilateral meeting with the Israeli government was equally unimportant beyond the formalities. The two main topics in all current American-Israeli relations are the matters of the Iranian nuclear deal and the case of Ukraine. About Ukraine Tel Aviv and Washington are on the same page, which needs no further convincing. As for the nuclear negotiations, the positions couldn’t be farther apart, souring relations badly. And for that, the Israeli government left the main convincing for the major event, the Negev Summit.

            The main ideas for the summit held on 27 and 28 March were totally different for practically all parties. The truly enthusiastic supporters of the normalization, like Bahrain or Morocco, but to some extent, Egypt as well wanted to push their cooperation with Israel and America further, in the case of Bahrein, especially with an angle against Iran. Some, like the Emirates, rather wanted to keep all options open and see what happens. As for Israel, just like so far, the government wanted to put pressure on Biden not to renew the nuclear deal. And for that rallied some Arab states to give the impression that this is not a sole Israeli demand, but a region concern. However, Blinken’s duty was to “sell” their policy to these states and explain why this policy is being carried out. And that contradiction led to one of the most bizarre reasoning of the whole event. Blinken in a press conference explained that the American and the Israeli government are committed to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons, and therefore the administration of Joe Biden believes that the full implementation of the nuclear deal is the best way to do that. In other words, while Washington says it agrees with Tel Aviv, it refused its biggest wish.

            Of course, the side quest of this meeting was to convince the Arab states of the sanctions policy on Russia. States like Egypt and the Emirates. That, however, was not even mentioned in the later reports, suggesting that it was either not discussed, or is met with a complete refusal.

            But just how significant and successful was this summit meeting, to which the Israeli government and press gave huge importance? It was not promising from the start. The Emirati and the Egyptian leadership have been openly avoiding direct contact with high-ranking American officials since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, so to avoid pressure. Though the event was supposed to gather all Arab states with diplomatic relations with Israel and hold a high-level meeting between these governments and the American State Secretary, Jordan and Sudan did not even attend. This already shows that the normalization process broke down significantly. Those Arab states which attended, Egypt, Bahrain, the Emirates, and Morocco, were all represented by their Foreign ministers. So there was no chance to meet real leaders of these states.

            There were some theatrical elements, like the Emirates apologizing for wasting 43 years not establishing relations with Israel, the Israeli statements that the Arab-Israeli relations develop as a joint front against Iran, or the collective photos at the end of the summit. But overall the meeting had no result, little value, and soon broke down to a series of bilateral meetings with mostly formalities.

The Foreign Ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, USA, Morocco, and the Emirates. (Source: BBC)

            That is, however, not to say that the meeting was not significant. First of all the absence of some states, especially Jordan is a warning sign that these warming Arab-Israeli relations are not welcomed unconditionally, even amongst those, who had already joined the normalization camp. Probably not a coincidence that since then both in Iraq and Tunisia new laws are proposed to criminalize normalization – or even its propagation – with Israel. Previously both states were suggested as possible next states to join the process.

            Also, the event went down as a major push for the Israeli government to convince Washington not to return to the nuclear deal, and by Blinken to rally support against Russia. None of that happened. That might push some Arab states to establish stronger relations with Israel, while others to weaken the normalization camp, but all are turned into a bilateral form. There is no united front anymore, as Morocco is not interested in Iran, while the others are indifferent about Western Sahara and Algeria. The only common point is Israel, which has just failed to pressure Washington.


The visit to Morocco

            At first, it was quite curious why right after such a major summit Blinken traveled to Morocco, only to meet the same Foreign Minister Nāṣir Būrīṭa he met in Tel Aviv. It soon turned out that there were two main objectives behind this visit. First is the Moroccan side, a set of formal meetings and mediation in the Moroccan-Algerian dispute about Western Sahara. But secondly to finally have a meeting with Emirati leader Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, who met with Blinken in one of his summer palaces in Morocco.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Nāṣir Būrīṭa with State Secretary Blinken in Rabat, 28 March, (Source: AFP)

            The second was probably the real aim, to try to sort out main matters with the Gulf and gain support for the sanctions policy. Since we have heard nothing about the meeting and since the UAE did not change its stance about Russia, it is safe to assume that these negotiations did not go well. On the contrary, on the very day of this meeting, the Emirati Energy Minister reconfirmed the need for Russia in global trade.

            As for the discussions with the Moroccan side, the results are probably not much better. Rabat tries to achieve that the USA –  just like the Emirates and Bahrain have done already – open a consulate in Western Sahara, thus formally and very visible recognizing the Moroccan sovereignty there. Trump has recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the region, but since then Biden somewhat backpedaled endorsing a U.N. plan.

            Given the level of difference in opinion here as well, most likely the main objective for the Moroccan journey was to meet with Muḥammad ibn Zāyid, but also to reassure Rabat ahead of a visit to Algeria that Washington will not go too far in its negotiations with Algeria.


The new solution: Algeria and Libya?

            The most significant part of the rather short and thus far unsuccessful – that much was expected beforehand – the regional journey was Algeria. Algeria is a state with significant gas reserves and relations to Europe. This can make it an ideal partner for Washington. It is also a state with significant economic problems, political instability, and foreign policy challenges all around its neighborhood, from Libya, and also crisis-stricken Tunisia, Mali, and finally Morocco and Western Sahara. Therefore it is a vulnerable state. And while it is not a traditional ally, like Morocco, on the contrary, Algeria was always close to Moscow, in such a vulnerable state it might be persuaded. Not necessarily to joint sanctions against Russia – that would have little impact anyways – but to increase energy supplies to Europe and thus break down the soaring energy prices. However, some of the existing pipelines cross over Moroccan territories, which were recently stopped, or indicated to be stopped operating soon.

            Arriving in Algiers on 30 March Blinken met with Algerian Foreign Minister La‘amāmara and later President Tabbūn. The Algerian press was naturally happy to portray the Algerian leadership as important and show the President lecturing Blinken, while most Moroccan sources pointed out that in the most important matter – at least for Algeria and Morocco – of Western Sahara the Biden administration is not changing policy. It is very telling that apart from some pictures and short news footages the only substantial product of this visit was Blinken’s short speech in the American embassy without any Algerian partners. There was no joint press conference on the results, and unlike in Morocco, no interview with the press.

            It is not surprising, considering the overall relations between Algiers and Washington. For 22 years there was no high-level visit by the Americans to Algeria, it is a state traditionally close to Russia and recently started to pull even closer, and is frustrated with Washington about Western Sahara and building bridges between Rabat and Tel Aviv.

            This is not the first attempt to win Algerian support, at least about for increased energy supplies for Europe, as on 10 March Deputy State Secretary Wendy Sherman was also in Algiers, also without results. It should also be pointed out that Blinken is the suitable person for this uneasy task, as back in 2016 still as Deputy State Secretary it was Blinken, who broke the ice between the two states, ironically with the same La‘amāra, who since has been replaced and reinstated again.

            What can be made out of the statements is that Washington tries to entice Algiers for bigger energy supplies for Europe, once the Gulf is unwilling to help out, and in exchange offers financial support. Washington also endorses a bigger role for Algeria in Libya, which could also increase production. This all is really flattering and no doubt had an impact on the Algerian leadership, but there is no realistic basis for Algeria taking any steps that might be seen unfavorably in Moscow. Washington has nothing to offer, but its mixed behavior only emboldens Algiers.

“The Algerian President lecturing the American State Secretary” (Source: Middle East Online)

The contagious example

            Another recent, but very telling sign of how severely the West in general, and the US in particular is losing its charm in the region came from Tunisia. It was announced that Tunisian President Qays Sa‘īd wishes to pay a visit to Moscow as soon as possible.

            That might seem a little thing, but it should be taken into account that Tunisia is also a staunch supporter of the West and always had been, just like the Gulf states and Morocco. Though it had diplomatic contact with the Soviet Union since 1956, the first-ever high-ranking visit only came in 2001, and ever since then, there are limited relations between Tunis and Moscow.

            However, Tunisia is also in a deep economic and political crisis, where the otherwise popular president tries his best to undo the result of the American policymaking after the so-called “Arab Spring”. So far the pressure is massive on Tunis to change its course, and it must have good reasons why at such a sensitive time the Tunisian President wants to have more intensive relations with Russia.


The reason for failure

            Looking at this surprising series of diplomatic failures, which is only lightly covered by diplomatic courtesies, there is a very logical question: Why has this happened?

            The main reason for Washington’s relations in the Middle East being in chaos is twofold. Almost all of the initiatives of the Trump administration in the region were abandoned, causing one set of problems, while they attempt to revive the policies of the Obama administration largely failed and caused yet another cluster of contradictions.

            There have been too many policies at the same time, which Blinken tried to implement, which led to a hard juggling with conflicting interests, which is proving to be even more difficult to handle, while the pressure is growing.

            On the one hand, the new American administration was keen to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, even more than Tehran, but failed to gain an easy victory. If Washington could push the agreement through now could mean in theory an increased Iranian presence in the global energy market and thus reducing prices, but Tehran knows that. Yet with the same policy, Washington caused worries for its allies in the Gulf and Israel. The result was that these Gulf states started to look for alternative solutions. These included improving ties with Russia and China, and finally launching a hard dialogue with Iran for a regional settlement. But also not abandoning the rapidly improving – thought lately somewhat halted – relations with Israel, as an alternative, in case the dialogue with Tehran broke down. However, what is noticeable is that while ten years ago both these Gulf states and Israel needed American mediation for such policies, after the normalization process and the Abraham Accords that is not needed anymore. And since the Biden administration largely abandoned this track, by now it is very questionable how could American once again fit into this equation. It is not needed, and not trusted.

            On the other hand, the Biden administration’s return to the rhetoric of “guardian of democracy” and its open animosity with the de facto Saudi leadership now shows how much it backfired. Washington could not achieve the regime change in Riyadh it hoped for, but by now burning the bridges, it has no links to influence the Saudi Crown Prince. Also, the renewed nuclear talks with Iran, the withdrawn – or much rather largely decreased – support for the war in Yemen, and the failure to endorse the Saudi initiative for Yemeni peace talks deeply severed these relations. By now the Saudis found other ways to handle these problems, therefore there is no need to compromise their most vital economic interest at a time when energy prices are skyrocketing, after years of record low incomes and economic losses.

            While the idea to win over Algeria, Africa’s biggest energy supplier for Europe looks good on paper, there is a similar contradiction. The Trump administration disregarded all relations with Algeria, as these seemed unimportant, and in an attempt to enlarge the normalization camp favored Morocco. Trump officially recognized Western Sahara, a vital matter for Algeria, as part of Morocco, and as result, a number of Arab states opened consulates in Western Sahara, thus also recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over this disputed territory.

            This path totally antagonized Algeria, but also pushed the Moroccan-Algeria relations to an all-time low. Which led to the break of diplomatic relations between the two, Algeria not renewing its gas contract with Spain over Moroccan territories, and finally accepting Russian partnership in regional security matters, as is the case in Mali. Now Washington has very little to offer to Algeria, despite some diplomatic gestures and endorsing the Algerian role in Libya. But the equation is clear. Libya cannot increase its oil supplies to Europe without Algerian support, which will be a hard deal to achieve without something in return. This is very hard to achieve, especially since lately Spain also supported the Moroccan claim for Western Sahara.

            However, even if Washington would choose to reverse this policy and return to a neutral position about Western Sahara that would not affect the realities at large. It is too late for a reverse. The growing Moroccan-Israeli economic and security cooperation and the recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara by a number of influential states, like the Emirates and Egypt already mean sufficient backing for Rabat. Was Washington to leave this position would not change a thing, only damage relations with Rabat, while not giving enough to Algiers. Yet the Moroccan support had little weight for Washington now, as Morocco is not a major energy supplier.

            The result of Trump’s abandoned policies and the failure to implement a viable new regional policy in the last year left a web of totally contradicting and halfheartedly endorsed interests. And at this stage, Washington simply has way too little room to maneuver, as its capabilities are tied down against Russia and China.

            The more Washington is juggling these interests without decisive decisions the more it alienates the region. And in time more fiascos are to be expected.