US President Joe Biden is visiting the Middle East for the first time in his presidency. Thanks to the war in Ukraine, relations with the resource-rich region have become of even greater importance for both Europe and the United States. Biden’s agenda includes a stop in Israel and a controversial meeting with the leader of Saudi Arabia. What does the president hope to achieve with this trip?
First of all, it is astonishing how long it took Biden to travel to the Middle East. Former President Trump was the first to leave for Saudi Arabia and Israel four months after his election, while Biden, as president, cemented ties with European and Asian allies with visits to Europe and Asia.
Israel is a staunch ally of the United States and may be a necessary stop for Biden. He is speaking here with current Prime Minister Lapid and former Prime Minister Netanyahu. He also visits the West Bank and meets the Palestinian authorities. While Biden supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, he is not expected to say much about it.
In Jerusalem, Biden will especially want to hear how the relationship between Israel and the Arab states is evolving. Since he was last in the region in 2016, thanks in part to Trump and the “Abraham Accords” he outlined, Israel has strengthened diplomatic ties with Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.
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By signing these agreements, the Arab countries indicated that they consider Iran a bigger and more important problem than the Palestinian issue. This is a development before Biden, too. In response to questions about his trip, he said that “one of the goals of the trip to the Middle East is to deepen Israel’s integration into the region.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in June that the US government would even work behind the scenes with Saudi Arabia and Israel on treaties to strengthen economic ties. A starting point for a normal diplomatic relationship between the two countries, which officially does not exist now.
Kingdom Saudi Arabia
Which brings us to the second part of Biden’s flight on Friday directly from Israel to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Flight is currently impossible for citizens due to diplomatic relations between the two countries. Biden has come under domestic criticism for this trip. He gently states that he said during the election campaign that he would ensure that Saudi Arabia becomes a pariah state, due to the human rights situation and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In Jeddah, Biden met Crown Prince bin Salman, the man responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, according to US intelligence services. In a Washington Post article this weekend, Biden defended his meeting by noting that Saudi Arabia is a critical player in the broader battle against China and Russia.
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Biden will also attend the Gulf Cooperation Council, the consultative forum for the Gulf states, which this time also includes Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. While Biden is not expected to formally announce the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia here, new steps are expected.
The war in Ukraine plays a role here as well. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will be the only two oil-producing countries capable of increasing their energy production further. Biden will ask these countries to produce more oil to help the West become less dependent on Russia.
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From Biden’s foreign policy thus far, it is clear to him that China is the biggest concern, then Russia and stability in Europe. The Middle East comes in third place. US media reports that the president primarily wants to ensure that things in the region remain calm and that Iran’s influence does not increase. Biden: “I am the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without American soldiers on a combat mission there. My goal is to keep it that way.”
One example is a Reuters news agency report that Biden is considering allowing Saudi Arabia to resume purchasing US offensive weapons if progress is made to end the war in Yemen. There has been a ceasefire in Yemen since April. With that promise, Biden can make the temporary peace permanent.
Biden’s journey begins today. He will spend two days in Israel and two days in Saudi Arabia.