President Joe Biden offered a preemptive defense of his broadly criticized decision to tour the Middle East this week in a recent op-ed touting what he characterized as several accomplishments as well as his new goals for the region.
Among the familiar talking points about cooperation with Israel as it wades through political turmoil and the need for peace in war zones like Yemen that he outlined in The Washington Post was a subtle detail in keeping with one of the most pressing domestic issues facing his administration: how he’ll help bring down oil prices that have caused skyrocketing costs at gas pumps in the U.S. and Europe.
Saudi Arabia – the kingdom he vowed to relegate to “pariah” status – “has helped to restore unity among the six countries of [the] Gulf Cooperation Council,” he wrote of the influential economic bloc, “and is now working with my experts to help stabilize oil markets with other OPEC producers.”
“That was really interesting that he would pose that,” Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said this week. “OPEC hasn’t really asked for an external consultant in the White House from the administration.”
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The quality of the welcome the president will receive during his three-day trip, beginning in Jerusalem on Wednesday and ending in Saudi Arabia on Friday – to include an unprecedented direct flight in between – will determine his ability to administer a shift in oil prices or any other substantive change in one of the most intractable world regions.
Biden and his top advisers say he seeks to restore stability to a region that saw dramatic shifts during the tenure of his predecessor, who boasted of historic, flashy new deals with America’s oldest allies there – namely between Israel and four predominantly Arab countries that previously refused to recognize the Jewish state – while also imposing an unprecedented, unflinching “maximum pressure” campaign on the gravest adversaries in the region, Iran.
But the questions now facing Biden – realistic or not – include whether he can orchestrate breakthroughs over contested territory in and around Israel, maintain American pressure on Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record while securing help from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence believes was complicit in the grisly killing of U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, all while working to contain the burgeoning threat from Tehran.
As national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday with regard to Biden’s apparent reversal on condemning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, “we are trying to do multiple things all at once.”
Many of the major players in the region, however, are increasingly cooperating among themselves under the so-called Abraham Accords that the Trump administration helped broker.
“Since Israel was established, almost all Arab states have refused to recognize its existence. But the deal is smashing that embargo and, in doing so, opening up new avenues for cooperation and heralding a dramatic reordering of the Middle East,” Michael Singh, a former Middle East adviser to George W. Bush’s National Security Council, wrote in Foreign Affairs.
And as for whether his trip will influence global gas prices – surging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the White House argues – several analysts are pessimistic of any pending changes while observing that Biden appears to have longer-term intentions.
“The trip is not going to result in a massive decrease in gas prices, though they are already starting to go down,” Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council, said in a call with reporters on Friday.
Saudi Arabia as of June was already nearly maxing out its production capacity at 10.5 million barrels per day, Panikoff adds, already a 60,000-barrel increase from the previous month. It maintains slight margins to increase production further, though that likely will have little influence on European or American markets.
The most significant potential breakthrough, he adds, is the unique role Riyadh could play in broader international problems facing the U.S. elsewhere.
“The biggest issue is going to be the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia,” Panikoff said. “What you’re going to see is them saying, ‘We want to open a new channel and really be the critical conduit to the Russians, because we’re one of the few that can play that role.’”
Saudi Arabia could play a role in recovering global oil markets but also – critically – the global food crisis that has stemmed from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and will accelerate going into the coming winter, Panikoff says, pointing to burgeoning crises already in influential countries like Egypt and other Saudi neighbors.
Perhaps the most unifying issue among Biden and his hosts this week is the deadly threat posed by Iran. The White House has so far failed to renegotiate the nuclear deal from which the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew (while seeking still to exploit some of its mechanisms), and Tehran has a notable history of using summits like the ones Biden will hold to advance its own goals for the region, notably undermining Israel.
“Iran is the ultimate arbiter of Gulf (and thus global) energy security; and providing Tehran with a much-needed win after its numerous recent setbacks in countering Israel’s humiliating and damaging covert campaign,” Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military & Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an analysis note published this week.
“Iran will likely see the GCC+3 summit as both a provocation on its doorstep and a tempting opportunity to scuttle a possible U.S.-Gulf reset,” he wrote. “An attack during the summit could hold several benefits for Tehran: humiliating U.S. officials and their Saudi hosts; demonstrating that Washington cannot protect its friends even while the president is visiting, thus undermining efforts to create a new regional security architecture.”
During Trump’s tour through the region in May 2017, his first foreign trip, Iran notably orchestrated a missile strike on Riyadh using its proxy militia group the Houthis in Yemen mere hours before his arrival. That incident first prompted Trump to propose killing influential Iranian Quds Force leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani – an action on which the U.S. would follow through three years later.
“Washington should quietly remind Tehran that its last attempt to disrupt a U.S.-GCC summit set in motion a series of events that ultimately did not end well for the Islamic Republic, and had long-term consequences that it still has not recovered from,” Eisenstadt offers.
Several other analysts note that Biden’s meetings are indeed positioned to focus on security issues and the Iran threat – despite the vast potential for longer term focus on potential investments in the region.
“It will be a security summit, and I think that’s too bad,” Young, the Middle East Institute’s founding director of the Program on Economics and Energy, said during a roundtable on Monday, “because it plays into a very established comfort zone of the U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Our wheelhouse is a security one. What we miss is an understanding of what the region has the capacity to do with its own economic resources and interests, that could be much more impactful and powerful for our global security and our own economic needs.”
She referred to the planned meetings as “a counter-Iran war council, heavily influenced by Israeli policy” that will accelerate arms races in the region with potentially devastating consequences, including for a U.S. domestic audience.
“The risk there is if we increasingly mount toward a confrontation stance with Iran,” she adds, “our energy problems today will pale in comparison to what could come.”