What to make of Biden’s Middle East visit?
In the wake of the upcoming Congressional elections this November, record high inflation, and poor approval rating at home – in the 30s, on par with the ratings of his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump – US President Joe Biden made his four-day Middle East trip last week, hoping to go back home with some significant political and economic wins. Unfortunately, it seems he has gone back home with very little to show for gains, and a lot of bad headlines that will haunt his media team for months to come.
In terms of political win, Biden's expectations were to secure a stronger, more commanding presence in the region and create a block of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)+3 countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq) against Iran, and push them to have a softer approach towards Israel. As for economic gains, he was counting on a concrete declaration from Saudi Arabia – the world's largest exporter of crude oil and founder-member of the OPEC cartel that accounts for nearly 40 percent of the global oil supply chain – to increase its oil-pumping, which he had hoped would ease the four-decade high inflation at home. US citizens are unhappy having to bear the brunt of the 9.1 percent inflation (in June), the heat of which Biden is facing with his ever-growing unpopularity and falling approval ratings.
At the summit of Arab nations in Jeddah, as Biden laid out the US strategy for the region, perhaps the only statement that ironically stood out was, "We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran." And his attempts to soften Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbours were met by logical counter by the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who suggested, "One of the most important sources of instability will linger unless Israel stops its violation of international law reflected in the building of settlements and changing Jerusalem's character and in continuing to impose siege on Gaza... It is inappropriate for Arabs to keep making proposals while Israel's role is confined to rejecting them and increasing its intransigence."
While Saudi Arabia has opened up its airspace to all air carriers, including that of Israel, and, according to a White House fact sheet, "committed to support global oil market balancing for sustained economic growth," the Biden visit was not able to secure any more substantive gains from them, despite the controversial fist bump with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Apart from the trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden's visit to Israel was mostly about flaunting the "bromance" between himself and the Israeli leaders, with whom he had been interacting for decades – first as a senator, then as US vice-president, and now as president – and reinforcing the US' "bone-deep" connection with Israel, that he said would grow "generation after generation."
Interestingly, the centrepiece of this visit was the signing of the non-binding "Jerusalem Declaration" between the two countries that focuses on deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. To be noted, it is not a legally-binding agreement or a treaty that holds much water. However, in a recorded television interview, Biden went as far as saying that, if required, the US would use force against Iran to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power.
And for Palestine, Biden had only some handouts in the form of aid, nice words and the blunder of mispronouncing the name of the slain Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, who also happened to be Palestinian-American. Biden also sidestepped her family's request for a meeting.
Biden's Middle East visit has not only failed to procure the achievements he was hoping for, but has also exposed him to controversies. For instance, while he had tough words for Iran's nuclear ambitions, he remained tight-lipped regarding Israel's plans and actions. But then, this was expected. Perhaps what took everyone by surprise was Biden branding himself as a Zionist, and by doing so denting a blow to his neutrality and credibility among the other states and nations of the region.
Moreover, his visit to Saudi Arabia – despite its apparent strategic importance – has essentially compromised his moral high ground, as he had called it a "pariah" nation during his presidential election campaign. His failure to openly condemn the killings of journalists Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, while fist-bumping with and back-patting their killers, has gone on to show how little regard the current US administration holds for human rights, and how little priority it gets over domestic gains.
Also, the failure of Biden's visit to create a more positive outlook towards Israel among its Arab neighbours will not sit well with the Israeli lobbyist groups back home, and it certainly won't help his cause in the upcoming November elections. After all, in the US Congress, if there is one issue that can unite both the Democrats and the Republicans, it is the unyielding, unshakeable US support for Israel and for its establishment as a strong nation in the Middle East.
The only reality that can now salvage this lacklustre and disastrous visit is the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) pumping significantly more oil – apart from the previously announced 50 percent planned production increase that came in June for the months of July and August – to support the supply chain in the US, which could ease the inflationary pressure on the government. And so, only in the coming months would we be able to see if this visit yielded any meaningful results for the US.
Apart from the photo-ops and the occasional faux pas, the rest of the visit was just lip service.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb