After a stopover in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and a few days after the G7 and NATO summits, Vice President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia can be described as historic even if its immediate results seem modest. This is a complete reversal of recent US policy in the region.
His Gulf interlocutors regarded Obama’s caution and procrastination as signs of weakness and with some condescension and suspicion. The brutal force of Trump and his simplistic and binary language focused on Iran appealed to the leaders of the region even if he sometimes felt annoyed by his insistence on including Israel in the regional concert, which he largely was successful in doing.
Joe Biden’s presidency got off to a bad start. During the election campaign, he pledged, following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, to make the Saudi Kingdom a pariah state. What he has done so far by ostracizing Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Salman (MBS) whom he held responsible for this crime. This situation could have persisted if international and regional events had not precipitated matters.
The effects of the unending Covid-19 pandemic and its severe economic consequences combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have demonstrated that the world has entered a new dimension. For the Western powers, it was time to review their strategies and count themselves. The war in Ukraine revealed that except for the United States and Europe and a few countries in Asia and Australia, the world did not condemn Russia or watch spectator events. Moscow, taking advantage of this wait-and-see situation, even sympathy in some cases, even seized the opportunity to move a few pawns toward the Gulf countries. Taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Americans, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister made two close visits,
It is in this context that the United States has made a major reversal of its policy in the region, even if it means putting the question of human rights in the background. The reality principle obliges.
A Quincy agreement between Ibn Saud and Roosevelt in 1945 formalized the United States’ ties with the region and the Saudi Kingdom. This alliance is based on a very simple principle: oil for security. This pair worked very well for decades. The Americans and more generally the Westerners ensured the docility of the countries of the region by contributing to their development and their security. The desire to impose rules of governance modeled on Western models and the insistence on human rights have increased the differences between these countries and the United States. The American failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and the subsequent American disengagement from the region have largely contributed to increasing the level of mistrust as well as the impatience of these countries.
Joe Biden’s visit to Jeddah without enthusiasm on one side or the other (just observe the embarrassment of the American President in the presence of MBS) in terms of the reception at the airport. When he stepped off the plane, the American President was greeted by Princess Reema Bint Bandar Al-Saud, Ambassador of the Kingdom in Washington, along with Prince Khaled Al-Fayçal, Governor of Mecca, while the King had welcomed his predecessor personally in 2017; a protocol nuance that speaks volumes about the new era in which we live. The Covid-19 excuse allowed the US President not to shake hands with MBS. All the photos show an obvious lack of warmth between the two men.
The final declaration that closes this visit recalls the commitment to strengthen the strategic alliance, but on issues such as Ukraine, it is content to recall the general principles of the rules of international law. The only positives are the call to end the war in Yemen and Joe Biden’s reminder of his commitment to the two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian question too often forgotten in recent years. The withdrawal of the international presence from the island of Tiran is also a sign of detente.
On the sidelines of his visit to Jeddah, Joe Biden attended a meeting with the leaders of the member countries of the Arab-Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), as well as Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. The American President spoke bilaterally with President Sisi, Iraqi Prime Minister Qazemi, and Mohamed Bin Zayed, the Emirati ruler. The day before this meeting, the influential Emirati diplomatic adviser, Anwar Guergash, had made a remarked declaration by announcing that his country would not join an anti-Iranian front and that Abu Dhabi would soon send an ambassador to Tehran.
The Crown Prince stressed the relationship with Iran in his speech, but his message also included respect for the sovereignty of countries and non-interference with their internal affairs. He also announced that Saudi Arabia would increase its oil production to 13 million barrels per day (the maximum Saudi production capacity), which will help relieve tensions on supplies.
But more than grand speeches, it is the souvenir photo of the summit that is eloquent. President Biden is careful to keep a respectable distance from the Crown Prince as if to mark the gap between them.
In his address to the Heads of State of the GCC, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, the US President said, “We will not leave a vacuum in the region that would be filled by Russia, China, or Iran”. This sentence sums up in itself the new American situation.