Recently two major journey meetings happened in the Middle East, and it was hardly missable that they were responding to each other. The first came by President Biden between 13 and 16 July, leading him first to Israel, and secondly, but even more important to the Jeddah Summit in Saudi Arabia. The second shortly after by President Putin was even briefer extending to only one long day, but leading him to Tehran to meet the whole Iranian and Turkish leadership, and also a Syrian delegation.
It is not a coincidence at all that these two journeys, both slightly disguised with regional summits came almost at the same time, as almost everything was symbolic about them. Symbolically while Washington and Moscow are in their deepest conflict practically since the Cuban missile crisis, while one’s President rounded up allies in one theater, the other’s had to do the same in the same region. Symbolic that both these trips happened in a middle of not just a conflict, but in the middle of a massive and still unfolding energy crisis, and targeted probably the most important region in this matter. And just as symbolically all this happened in two states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which until recently seemed to be mortal enemies inevitably going to war, but by now easing the tension considerably.
While Biden had to go to win over his nominal allies and secure support for stabile energy supplies and comfort his biggest ally about this policy, Putin simply had to make a gesture showing that he is just as well equipped with allies in the same region. In the end, coming back with considerable gains. In other words, while Biden had to go, and with the aim to minimize losses, Putin chose to go, and he did to gain.
While these meetings, especially the Tehran Summit attended by Presidents Putin, Erdoğan, and Ra’īsī gained relatively little in the news headlines quite probably these summits will be much remembered in history. Much like the agreement cementing the alliance between the U.K., France, and Russia on one hand and Germany the Astro-Hungarian Empire on the other well before the First World War. Like the infamous visits by German Emperor Wilhelm to Morocco probing the French-British alliance. These events had their fair share of fame at the time, but only much, later on, turned out to prove to be critical in the path that changed the course of history. And the world might just have passed a similar milestone.
Yet, because these two summits are full of interesting details and their results are still unfolding to this very day, we decided to break them into at least three pieces. And this week we concentrate on Biden’s Middle Eastern journey.
To go or not to go? That was the question
Right from the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, the dilemma was clear. Washington under Biden reached a painful contradiction with its policies in the last year or so. For many reasons – and some of them are still probably well hidden from the public – Washington tries to squeeze out all possible Russian influence from Europe, especially from the EU, and tie this group of countries closer to itself. This was very clear whether we talk about political, security, trade, or other cooperations with Moscow, and at the top of the list about energy.
Russian energy supplies so vital to the continent had to be cut. This is a policy in the air for some time, for which reason the pipeline was in the building all the way to Cyprus and eventually liking up the Middle East, and alternatives were sought for. In that regard, the U.S. has its own interests in finding markets for its own increased liquified gas production – which is still way too expensive to find markets under normal conditions -, but in any case, this was a project that can be done and was in developing for years. The EU has its own interests – with major differences between the member states – easing the energy dependency from Russia, which can in times of tension be used as a huge bargaining chip. That is what we see today.
In this regard, however, the war came way too early for the EU, at a point when a drastic sudden ship is still not possible and Russia still has way too much blackmail potential. Now theoretically this dilemma is easy to solve with well-executed pressure on the Gulf states to increase their output and cover all potential energy supply losses from Russia. The problem was, however, that Washington and Biden himself personally made commitments to make the Saudi leadership and specifically Saudi Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān a “pariah” in international politics.
In this path the Saudi Crown Prince by the CIA was named directly – and most probably correctly – responsible for the infamous Hāšuqğī murder in Istanbul in 2018, almost all major arms deals signed under Trump were blocked and support for the Saudi war efforts in Yemen – a vital matter for Riyadh – blocked. Since Biden took office, he made no secret of the matter that he is desiring a “regime change” in Saudi in order to prevent Muḥammad ibn Salmān from inheriting the throne. It was also made clear that while trying to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington will disregard all objections coming from the Gulf, especially from Riyadh. And to make this extremely obvious Washington practically turned a blind eye to any Saudi setbacks in Yemen, even when the oil infrastructure was targeted by the Yemenis in the kingdom. Which already had a negative impact on the oil markets.
Here we should point out once again that the other Gulf states had a very similar treatment since Trump left office, as most of these states heavily bargained on Trump staying in office. The Emirates was also disregarded as a key ally and left with empty promises after the Yemenis carried out precision strikes against Dubai, and the “normalization process”, which left the Emirates in a precarious political position in the region was practically abandoned. Qatar, the main gas supplier of the Gulf, just the same way was left unhappy. After four long years of total blockade by four other Arab states, to which Trump gave some level of support, Doha expected a revival of friendship under Biden and some informal apologies for the acts of the previous administration. Which never came, leaving Qatar understandably frustrated.
While under normal circumstances, or even a decade earlier it probably would have been enough for Washington to make some phone calls and arrange for a massive increase in energy supplies from the Gulf to Europe, thus putting the oil markets at ease, after such treatment it was anything but easy. Of course, the old reflexes that worked at this approach were tried, but the Gulf states proved to be defiant. Pulling closer to Moscow at this time of crisis, refusing the phone calls from Biden, and even humiliating Secretary Blinken when he wanted to visit the region to put pressure on the Saudi leadership. And this defiance, which first seemed to be a major bluff, but by now is very serious, even continued and escalated.
Looking at the matter from the perspective of the Gulf states, it was very clear and even understandable that after such mistreatment and humiliation, they want retribution. A serious apology from Washington and a serious incentive on how to continue.
The plan of a Middle East journey
And that exactly caused the dilemma. By July, as the global energy markets were in serious trouble and the European states were in a panic about how to brace themselves for the next winter, Biden had to make his own Road to Canossa in one way or another. The question was, how to package such a humiliating trip? How to meet with the formerly “pariah” Saudi leadership and specifically the “murderous” Crown Prince and not lose total credibility?
The trick was obviously not easy, especially knowing that this is exactly what Crown Prince Muḥammad ibn Salmān is waiting for, as a gesture of formal “absolution” by Washington for his former “sins” and start a new chapter, under much more favorable conditions.
The solution was to make a regional tour somewhat obscuring the real agenda. The White House offered a trip to Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Yet to the latter not for a direct engagement, but in for more a participation in the rapidly pulled together Jeddah Security and Development Summit, where the leaders of the GCC member states, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia would attend. This second part was not that difficult to achieve, as not long ago Jordanian King ‘Abd Allah II. raised the idea of an “Arab NATO” to be discussed, even including Israel. The bigger question was, whether Riyadh would accept such a lightly covered evasion of a formal direct engagement. Surprisingly, or just understanding the realities, the Saudi leadership accepted the offer with all its less than favorable details. Which retrospectively worked for their benefit, letting Biden commit mistakes.
With only four days and two stops, it was a very modest plan, far from the previously usual grand tours, yet nonetheless, it concentrated well on the priorities with two major steps tied to one. The first part of the trip was also important to mend the gap, which formed between Washington and Tel Aviv since Biden took office. While most former American presidents of the last decades, and even Biden himself as Vice President under Obama usually has a visit to Israel within their first year, so far Biden refrained from doing that. One of the many causes for this was the growing criticism by the Israeli leadership for Biden trying to revive the nuclear deal with Iran – which so far was successfully sabotaged -, but also for the growing pressure the Israeli exercised in Washington on the matter. Clearly, it was understood in the White House that it will be very difficult to defend this policy of the Iran deal and the gradual withdrawal from the Middle East in a visit to Israel, the most essential American ally in the region. Setting the record straight with the Israelis was already a major task.
The second phase of the trip, however, was even more difficult and even more essential. The Americans had to sit down with the Gulf states, and other key Arab allies to convince them about continued American cooperation – and prevent a pro-Russia, or pro-China orientation -, and achieve a shift in their policies to massively increase their energy supplies for Europe and the global markets and even before this autumn.
It is noticeable, however, that in the end, while most Arab states represented themselves at the highest levels – except Oman, and technically Saudi Arabia – there were no bilateral negotiations, only general conference sessions. It gave a well-intentioned message that the Saudis represent the Gulf in the matter, but also gave the Saudis the favor, allowing them to enjoy Biden’s humiliation. And it should also be pointed out that however necessary this trip was, the contradictions were very visible in the U.S. as well, and Biden had to counter huge criticism at home as well.
Forging advantages from liabilities
While almost to the last second Biden kept postponing the final decision on whether he would visit Saudi Arabia, or not – or at least giving this image -, in the end, the White House made its best to give an overall positive impression about the trip. And here we once again return to the realm of symbols.
From the very beginning, the impression was given and heavily boosted by the Israeli media that eventually Biden with his visit will try to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel closer, paving the way for rapprochement between the two states and finally giving a new impetus to the “normalization process”. That is why it was announced that Biden will make a “historic” gesture of directly flying over to Saudi Arabia from Israel – somewhat easing tensions between them -, and that he will endorse the idea of a sort of Middle East NATO with Israel’s involvement in the Jeddah Summit. These gestures might look well on paper or towards Israel, but they eventually proved to be his undoing, as we shall see.
Nonetheless, while there was a long way behind him to finally visit Saudi Arabia and while the journey was a very limited one, it at least served to give a grandiose image of the former presidents, as if the influence of America in the Middle East was still absolute.
The trip to Israel
President Biden on the first stop of this Middle East tour arrived to Tel Aviv on 13 July. And indeed, he got the glorious reception he needed.
The welcoming was warm and negotiations with caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid went on smoothly, carefully avoiding contradictions that Biden made no attempt to meet any Palestinian representatives, nor the delicate matter that so far Biden refrained to endorse Trump’s policies regarding the Golan Heights or recognizing Jerusalem as the sole capital of Israel.
To sweeten the stay the two sides on 14 July, just before Biden left for Saudi Arabia, signed the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Declaration, which can be considered as practically the only tangible achievement of Biden’s whole journey. In this document, both states reiterated their commitment to a deep and strategic partnership for full cooperation in military and security matters. Washington promised to grant more modern missile capabilities with direct references to the last Palestinian-Israeli war, also granting $1 billion in additional missile supplies to Israel above the already agreed deal of $38 billion in the former Memorandum of Understanding, and vowing to keep Israel’s security as a pivotal matter not only to defend Israel from direct attacks, but also from criticism and boycott movements. In exchange Israel took a firm stance about Ukraine with a direct message to Moscow, promising all efforts to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The most crucial part of the deal, however, was a direct promise by Washington to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear armaments, and also to combat its activities in the region. By this carefully worded statement, the image was given, and allegedly that was agreed between Biden and Lapid, while Washington continues to try to hammer out a deal with Iran, the main objective is for the benefit of Israel trying to limit Iran’s capabilities. Thus gaining an Israeli “blessing” to this nuclear-deal-revival policy, which so far was out of the question, and which played a part in why Biden so far avoided direct engagement with the Israeli leadership.
To cover the real intention of this trip, the impression was given that eventually, Biden came to the region to revive the struggle against Iran, hinting that this agenda will be present in Jeddah as well.
And as a final symbolic layer, the document held the name “Jerusalem” in it, finally giving the hint that Biden as well is ready to fully recognize Jerusalem’s status by the Israeli desires. Again a very unfortunate step for his later plans.
While this may seem grandiose and decisive enough, there are several weak spots in this gesture. Some of them are linked to the very bad message sent to the Arab states right before the Jeddah Summit, and some are linked to Israel. As for the latter, it might seem to be a big step, as the Israeli media hyped the event, and surely Tel Aviv can be happy with the increased donations, but the agreement has a major shortcoming. Biden made this deal with a caretaker government in Israel, which practically collapsed anyways with only months left in office. And with all likelihood, sometime in late 2022, the very same Netanyahu will return power, who was a very enthusiastic supporter of Trump and with whom Biden has a less than ideal relationship. But more important than that, anything that was agreed upon in Tel Aviv now – publicly or secretly – will be held against Washington, but will most probably not bind the Israeli leadership, as this was made with only a caretaker government. Meaning that even if after heavy concessions Biden now indeed got a “blessing” to continue striving for a nuclear deal, eventually this might mean nothing.
And just to make things even more embarrassing, Biden once again managed to cause uneasy moments in his stay in Israel.
How to shoot yourself on the foot?
While the trip to Israel was full of symbolic gestures to appease the Israeli leadership, which is understandable given the close collaboration between the two sides, these gestures practically doomed the second phase of the trip. Which could serve as a manual on how not to organize such a major breakthrough event.
First of all, probably to minimize the impact of criticism for traveling eventually traveling to Saudi Arabia, Biden made two gestures to give the image that one of the key elements of his journey is to bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia specifically, and the other Arab allies in general. The first was to notion of directly flying from Israel to Saudi Arabia, in a way forcing the Saudi leadership to recognize Israel indirectly, as such trips were always refused by Riyadh deeming it unacceptable. But not this time, as the stakes for the Saudis were much higher this time. The second step was a gesture by the Saudi authorities opening airspace to all passenger flights by any country, thus even to Israelis. This step, which obviously was a gesture towards Israel, was boosted as an achievement by the Biden administration. This is unlikely, as in recent years informal ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv were warming rapidly. However, it made the Saudi leadership uneasy, and completely unnecessarily, thus somewhat blocking this alleged trajectory. And no surprise, no later mention ever happened about Israel in Jeddah, not even in later unofficial accounts.
However, with a grand stance claiming a renewed vigor to confront Iran all around the region, Biden gave a very bad impression about the Jeddah Summit, which was about security cooperation and the future role of the U.S. in it, as if that was to pave the way for a future military alliance with Israel. Or in a way to foreshadow that the “Arab NATO” idea is being endorsed. However, Egypt, possibly the most important part of this alleged alliance had already refuted the idea officially at the end of June. And while some states, like Egypt or Jordan, would probably welcome a regional policy against Iran now, even with open doors to Israel for it, others are not at all in the same position. Particularly Iraq. Not only for being very close to Iran in a huge array of matters, and also hosting vital negotiations for rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also recently Iraq adopted a law criminalizing any attempt for normalization with Israel. Baghdad is facing a deep political division, as no government is formed almost a year after the last elections. And with this unwise gesture, the ground was just utterly shaken under Prime Minister Muṣṭafā al-Kāẓimī, who already has a hard time keeping the country together amidst Turkish incursion on its north, tensions with the Kurdistan regional government, and carefully balancing between Iran and Saudi Arabia. So no wonder Prime Minister al-Kāẓimī rushed to deny any notions about possible normalization talks between the U.S. and the Arabs partners in Jeddah. In effect undermining Biden’s rhetorics.
But it was not just Iraq. The Abū Zabī also rushed to distance itself, claiming that the Emirates will never be part of any alliance against Iran. And since this statement came from Anwār Qarqāš, the most senior architect of the Emirates’ foreign policy right after the Jerusalem Statement, this was a very clear sign of frustration by the Gulf states.
Realistically, negotiations between the U.S. and a number of Arab states, Gulf states in particular, about a regional alliance against Iran, with Israel, or even both is not something unimaginable. They might even take a plane to Jeddah. But to announce it unilaterally before meeting them, and especially from Israel at a time when tensions between Palestinians and the Israeli authorities are at long unseen lights is just such a mockery that cannot be accepted. These steps probably had a huge role in undermining negotiations with these states at a time, when meeting with them was imperative to gain favor and convince them to increase their energy output and crack down on energy prices.
To make matters worse, during the Jeddah Summit Biden claimed that future strong military cooperation was discussed, though not giving such promises as to Israel, and that while gradually withdrawing from the region, no vacuum will be given in the Middle East to Russia, or China to be filled. Which again was almost immediately contradicted by Riyadh (Magyar), saying that Saudi Arabia has no preference for the United States over China. This surprising statement came from State Minister for Foreign Affairs ‘Ādil al-Ğubayr, who is indeed by now a fallen former Foreign Minster, but still technically over-ranks the Saudi Foreign Ministry.
The Jeddah Summit
With all this groundwork it is not surprising that the two days long Jeddah Summit, the main reason for Biden’s visit resulted in long discussions, but achieved only “hopefullys” and “Inshallahs”. In the end, there was no mention of a common stance against Iran, nothing about Israel, and most importantly, nothing tangible about increased oil or gas deliveries.
That would make us assume that the Jeddah Summit and its whole journey of Biden was a spectacular failure. This is true compared to the expectations and the criticism Biden had to face for it. But not for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership got exactly what it wanted.
While Biden previously vowed not to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince directly, and not to engage with the Saudi leadership, only to attend a regional meeting Muḥammad ibn Salmān used all possible occasions to greet Biden, talk to him, and appear in every photo with him. In all possible forums, it was made clear that it is the Crown Prince, who represents the Saudi Kingdom, not his father. So if Biden wants concessions, he has to talk to this “pariah”.
With this, the Saudi leadership finally got out of the diplomatic deadlock and Biden had to formally, though indirectly retract from his former policy. This was indeed payback time and Riyadh used it well, as a bitter reminder that once it was U.S. media, which mocked the aging Saudi rulers “begging favor”, while now it was the other way around with a seemingly senile American President and a young and energetic Saudi leader.
Overall, Biden’s journey was a major failure. It made a grandiose gesture in Israel with a government, which is not about to last long in office. It made serious offers while failing to gain an official statement even hinting that Tel Aviv would trust Washington in any way about a possible Iran nuclear deal. Which has been a crucial matter so far.
With all steps managed to undermine the grand summit with those very Arab states that had to be convinced to turn away from Russia and China, turn against Iran once again, and finally increase energy supplies.
He humiliated himself about his stance on the Saudi Crown Prince gaining noting tangible in return. And just how successful this trip was, shows that right after Putin got back from Tehran, Muḥammad ibn Salmān held direct conversations with President Putin about the global oil market. And while Ibn Salmān made no specific promises to Biden, he did to Putin, once again guaranteeing that Saudi Arabia will follow its OPEC+ commitments. Meaning not to increase oil output significantly.
This might seems like a minor setback that can still be countered. And surely Washington can and will try to better its position in the region. Even compared to the Tehran Summit soon after, which was way more significant and successful this is not unprecedented. Such setbacks have happened before and so far Washington always got the better out of it.
What was significant, however, is how little enthusiasm Washington could attract from its most key Arab allies. Which while formally expressing continued cooperation kept contradicting at every major issue. That is the very image of the United States that was tarnished, while Russia on the other hand made an impressive comeback to the region almost at the same time. Therefore a shift of paradigm seems to be the most obvious next step, which would need a clear vision by a talented American leadership. Which Biden does not seem to be fit for.