By Md. Muddassir Quamar
President Biden’s first visit to the Middle East is fraught with challenges emanating from multiple and complex domestic, regional and international problems. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy crisis it has ensued is one of the key issues in Biden’s agenda. There are, however, other challenges as well including a trust deficit among partners, China’s growing penetrations in the region, the regional security deficit and the continued stalemate in the Iranian nuclear talks. From the US point of view, the visit is focused on reorienting USforeign policy in the region towards greater cooperation with regional partners in fighting the challenges facing the Middle East and the world. For any chance of success, however, Biden will have to compartmentalize different issues, focus on immediate deliverables, and avoid contentious issues.
President Biden is slated to visit Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia during 13-16 July 2022. In Saudi Arabia, he is expected to meet King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He will also have a summit meeting with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in addition to Egyptian and Jordanian leaders. A key agenda during the Saudi leg of the visit is to discuss ways to ease the crisis in the international energy market, and the pressure being faced by the European energy consumers because of the US-EU embargo on importing oil and gas from Russia in response to the invasion on Ukraine. The Saudis and Russians are two of the leading actors in the international energy market, with a strategic understanding on regulating the international energy market through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) plus arrangement. The US has been since March this year trying to get the Saudis and Emiratis to increase their oil production and exports to ease the pressure, but has yet to receive a favorable response. This is likely to be on top of Biden’s agenda.
But there are other problems and challenges that have, in a way, contributed towards the drift currently witnessed in US-Saudi relations.First and foremost, there is a crisis of trust in the regional countries so far as the US commitment to their security is concerned. Washington’s ability to work with partners, encourage regional cooperation and ensure regional security remain in doubt. The erosion of trust has not happened over days and cannot be built overnight. For Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan to regain trust in American leadership they would need demonstrable assurance of their security, and actions that reduce their threat perceptions. For Saudi Arabia and UAE, this means not only containing Iran but also providing the security from missiles from Yemen targeting key domestic infrastructures and causing any serious damage to internal security and stability. In Egypt and Jordan, the threats from militancy and terrorism persist, and they would require assurances on assistance in fighting them.
A much larger issue is the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missiles program and its regional military expansionism through proxies. This is a shared concern of the Arab Gulf countries and Israel, and was the primary reason for them to come closer under the Abraham Accords. The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran remains real among the Arabsand Israel, and they would continue to oppose any agreement that does not adequately address their concerns. And the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is likely to heighten their insecurity rather than reduce it. Biden also faces a problem because America’s transatlantic partners in Europe have a divergent view from its partners in the Middle East favoring a deal with Iran to bring the Iranian oil back to the market. They also believe that revival of the JCPOA will reduce regional tensions, and create incentives for Iran to limit its regional military activities and encourage it to respect national boundaries. However, this does not cut much ice in Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi who fear that revival of JCPOA will embolden Tehran to further expand its regional footprints, enable this by bringing financial resources due to sanctions relief, and create an Iranian sphere of influence from the Gulf to Eastern Mediterranean.
There are also challenges with regard to regional and global geopolitics. The rapprochement between Arab Gulf countries and Israel and signing of Abraham Accords has created newer dynamics vis-à-vis problems between Arabs and Israel, but the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a problems demanding attention. On the other hand, there is the fissures between Turkey-Qatar and Arab Gulf countries and Egypt over political Islam. The signing of Al-Ula Declaration and parallel regional diplomatic processes of reconciliation between Turkey and Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia have raised some hopes for lessening of tensions.Geo-economic factors seem to be the driving the diplomatic reconciliations, but geopolitical tensions and rivalries have not been resolved, and can derail the process.
The emergence of China and Russia as a challenger to US-led liberal international order. Both,Moscow and Beijing, have made inroads in the region. Russia is a de facto regional military power and a primary actor in the international energy market. It has developed issue-based strategic partnerships with regional countries, including Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAEin recent years.China, on the other hand, has through bilateral strategic partnerships and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) developed a significant presence in the region. Although it remains cautious in not making any security commitments or getting involved in regional geopolitics, this has not prevented it from enhancing security relations with regional countries, especially in the maritime domain. China’strade, commercial and energy relations with the region are substantive creating economic incentives for the parties to continue stronger relations.
The Middle East remains oblivious to geopolitical developments around Indo-Pacific and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) to contain China. And, efforts in this direction, by bringing India to join the economic component of Abraham Accords, which led to the first hybrid summit meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel, India, US and UAE in October 2021, have just started. The Middle East Quad, now formally named as I2U2 (India, Israel, US, UAE) remains fraught with differences because of its geopolitical component with regard to China as well as Iran. India is wary of joining any forum targeting Iran given the strategic significance of Iran for New Delhi, while Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia are skeptical of any China containment strategy given their bilateral relations. The factor that currently galvanizes I2U2 is its geo-economic potentials, but its deliverables are yet to be identified.
Simultaneously, Russia and China are trying to expand partnerships through multilateral and minilateral forums such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS by expanding its scope for Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to join these forums. Besides geopolitics, this is also aimed at developing greater political understating and economic interdependencies among these countries creating incentives for collaboration and cooperation in different fields. While it would be naive to argue that the three can catalyze a larger anti-US bloc in the Middle East, there is no doubt that together they pose a challenge to US interests and leadership roles.
President Biden faces some serious dilemmas on his first trip to the Middle East. Despite the shifts in US foreign policy with pivot to Asia and Indo-Pacific, and the complexities and inscrutable challenges in the Middle East, the region remains important for US foreign policy. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, growing Chinese economic expansionism and challenges facing the international energy market have augmented the need for Washington to reconnect with its Middle East partners. However, for the visit to be successful and for Biden to achieve some of his stated goals, it would be important to avoid contentious issues, and focus on smaller deliverables that are a win-win for both the US and its regional partners.
(Author is Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal and do not reflect the views of MP-IDSA or Government of India. And do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).