U.S. President Joe Biden left Jeddah, Saudi Arabia aboard Air Force 1 on Saturday, ending his first Middle East visit since taking office after four days in the region without major announcements.
The lukewarm reception and lack of enthusiasm were evident when the governor of the Mecca Region, Khalid Al-Faisal, was sent to the airport to receive Biden upon his arrival in the city of Jeddah, in striking contrast to the extravagant reception that was given to then-President Donald Trump when he visited Riyadh in 2017.
The way Biden greeted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with a fist bump rather than a handshake, and the serious expressions they maintained as they barely moved their lips, left no doubt about how they felt toward each other.
Three major topics topped the agenda of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia: security, energy, and technology.
The Jeddah summit brought together the heads of government of the states producing about 50% of the world’s oil and was a chance for many of the United States’ Middle Eastern allies, who strongly believe the U.S. has shifted its focus from their region to Asia, to reset relations with Washington.
“The United States is invested in building a positive future of the region, in partnership with all of you − and the United States is not going anywhere,” the president told Arab leaders in a speech during the summit, attended by the six Gulf Cooperation Council states − Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates − as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.
In the end, the summit communiqué didn’t live up to the hype that preceded the highly anticipated event, as it failed to produce a strong public front on Iran or establish a security pact or announce any steps on normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, told reporters after the U.S.-Arab summit that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to all air carriers had nothing to do with establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and was not a prelude to further steps.
Retired Iraqi Maj. Gen. Majid al-Qubaisi claimed that the U.S. president was greeted by “a different Middle East that Biden did not read correctly.”
The Iraqi position was clear through a statement by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who refused to let Baghdad be part of any military or security axis directed at Iran.
“Iraq’s policy is to be at an equal distance from all parties. Iraq’s political and security situation does not allow it to play a role in this region by entering into alliances against anyone,” the statement reads.
Qubaisi says Baghdad plays a positive role in the convergence of views between Tehran and Riyadh, and “won’t jeopardize its efforts.”
Although there is a strong American and Israeli attempt to unite the region against Iran and create a military alliance, Qubaisi confirms that Biden has failed in his efforts.
“No alliance or security or military action against Iran has been announced due to the absence of any coordination or homogeneity between the countries participating in the summit, and there are many political differences, as some of them have political and economic relations with Iran,” says Qubaisi.
Fahad al-Shelaimi, president of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Kuwait, said the main catalyst for the visit was that there are global geopolitical variables forcing President Biden to change his position on Saudi Arabia.
Shelaimi says the U.S. withdrawal from the region encouraged China and Russia to fill the vacuum, economic and strategic, by building partnerships with the Gulf states.
The Gulf-Arab-Russian-Chinese rapprochement forced the Americans to rethink their approach in the region, he says.
“There is a need to build new bridges of trust or to restore old bridges of trust and political partnerships,” says Shelaimi.
Another factor, he says, that influenced the Biden Administration to reconnect with its Middle East allies is the Russo-Ukrainian War’s impact on the international energy market, as well as on regional and international political and military alliances and food security.
American domestic concerns also contributed to Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Shelaimi explains, “in an attempt to persuade the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries to increase their production until the price of oil drops.”
There is also Washington’s desire to help European allies, who rely heavily on energy from Russia, face the crippling sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow, as they look for alternative sources of energy.
The Iranian nuclear file was also on the agenda, “a priority of the Gulf and regional countries in the region,” says Shelaimi.
“Biden’s visit to the region and his meeting with the GCC is considered as sending a message to Iran, as these countries consider Iran’s nuclear program and ballistic missile program a threat to their national security,” he says.
Prof. Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran, said the Islamic Republic doesn’t see President Biden’s trip’s main intention as targeting them.
“I think the view here is predominantly that Biden is looking for Saudi oil to offset the current energy crisis and he didn’t get what he wanted.”
The feeling in Tehran is that the trip failed to achieve its objectives, Marandi says.
Talk of Israel forging some sort of military alliance with Arab states has intensified ahead of President Biden’s trip to the region, as caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid reiterated his country’s position on Iran, threatening the use of military force and insisting that “words” and “diplomacy” were not enough to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table,” Lapid told reporters standing next to the American president in Jerusalem on Thursday.
“Threats against Iran from Israel are nothing new. We’ve seen this often, during the Trump years we’ve heard the same language, also during the Obama years ‘all options were always on the table,’ the same was true with Bush,” says Marandi, adding that “the Israelis know if they carry out a strike on Iran,” Tehran will respond swiftly.
He says the chances of a security pact forming against Iran are slim because “regional countries, especially in the Persian Gulf, simply don’t trust each other.”
“Iran’s allies in Iraq are very powerful and therefore there’s no possibility for such a pact,” says Marandi.
The story is written by Mohammad Al-Kassim and reprinted with permission from The Media Line.