A much-needed Middle East reboot
Why Biden's trip to the region is the right strategic call
In two weeks, President Biden will swing through the Middle East for a quick, three-day tour of the region that will include stops in Israel and the West Bank. There, he’ll meet with caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and superannuated Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Though the administration sought to put together some constructive policy moves toward the Palestinians ahead of Biden’s visit, it settled for asking the Israelis not to undertake any provocative actions like evicting Palestinians from their homes or building new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
But the most important and controversial portion of Biden’s trip comes with his visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council nationsplus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. He’s received a good deal of criticism for his sojourn to Saudi Arabia, with senior Democratic lawmakers like Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) and activist groups blasting the decision after it was announced.
To a certain extent, Biden invited these harsh critiques with Democratic primary campaign pledges to treat Riyadh like a “pariah.” Early on, moreover, the Biden administration followed through on this rhetoric with splashy moves intended to distance the United States from Saudi Arabia and impose a measure of accountability for the grisly 2018 murder of expatriate Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Many Democratic-leaning foreign policy analysts also believed that, thanks to increased domestic oil production and the inevitable transition away from fossil fuels necessitated by climate change, the United States no longer needed to maintain its decades-old partnership with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, in this view, had become irrelevant at best to America’s wider strategic calculations – if not an albatross around America’s neck that needed to be cut loose as quickly as possible.
It's become apparent over the past year or so that this basic assumption was badly mistaken. That makes Biden’s visit to Jeddah a much-needed course correction, one that serves the interests of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. But the trip is more than just that – it’s an opportunity for a more fundamental reset of a partnership that’s grown increasingly disjointed and dysfunctional over the past two decades. The need for a new foundation has been apparent for some time, but few in Washington or Riyadh saw it as a priority and pursued it with any sense of urgency.
But President Biden heads to Jeddah in a better position to do what should have been done years if not decades ago and put the partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia on a new, more solid footing.
To do that, he’ll need to focus on three main priorities:
First, energy and economics. Over the past six months, we’ve all experienced the consequences of high energy prices – some of them the result of Russia’s war against Ukraine, some due to lingering aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, some attributable to deals between oil producing governments to limit supply. But no matter how much we may want to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, it’s unrealistic to expect this transition to happen overnight in the United States much less globally. With some 15 percent of the world’s proved oil reserves and the world’s largest oil production capacity, Saudi Arabia remains an outsized player in global energy markets and therefore a potent geopolitical partner for the United States.
It's about more than prices at the pump for the United States, however – though Saudi Arabia putting more oil on global energy markets certainly can’t hurt on that front. Like it or not, oil will remain crucial to the global economy for the foreseeable future. Even if the United States and other countries eventually meet ambitious goals to bring our net carbon emissions to zero, we’ll still require oil and gas during this transition phase. Ignoring this reality doesn’t advance our climate ambitions or reduce our emissions, and in fact may well undermine them by sapping what domestic political support they now possess. Ensuring there’s a steady and secure supply of oil from the Middle East remains a vital interest of the United States and, importantly, its allies in Europe and Asia.
But America’s economic relationship with Saudi Arabia can’t rest solely on energy. For years now, the Saudi government has had an official plan called Vision 2030 to move their own economy off its dependence on oil revenues. This plan includes both fantastical schemes like NEOM, a futuristic city run by robots in the country’s northwest, as well as more practical ones like boosting tourism. There’s potential for broader economic cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and reports are that Biden’s visit will produce a roadmap for “a broader partnership that involves agreements on infrastructure, clean energy, space, economic investment and cyber — with ambitious projects, such as excavating water from the moon to mapping space to developing a 6G network.”
Next, security. Counterterrorism cooperation and containment of Iran obviously remain important interests for both the United States and Saudi Arabia moving forward. The former stays largely in the shadows, the province of intelligence agencies and special operations forces. But the Iranian threat has taken on new and more public dimensions in recent years, with the Tehran and its militant allies launching repeated drone and ballistic missile attacks on Saudi territory – most notably the September 2019 attack on the Saudi Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais.
Ahead of Biden’s trip to the region, there’s already been some intriguing movement toward greater security cooperation among America’s partners in the Middle East. The U.S. military’s Central Command convened a meeting of top regional military officials – including those from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – in March to discuss better coordination against Iranian drone and missile attacks. Israel’s defense minister may have jumped the gun when he claimed that these meetings laid the practical groundwork for a “Middle East Air Defense Alliance,” but these preliminary reports are still promising.
It's a goal that’s been long sought by multiple American presidential administrations but has never come this close to being realized; talks on regional military cooperation, however preliminary and tentative they may be, have never quite been this serious. That’s also an indication of how far the whole process has yet to go, however. Still, it’s the sort of thing that’s necessary for the United States to reduce its own military commitments in the Middle East and hand over greater responsibility over time to its regional partners.
Finally, human rights and values. All too often, discussions about how the United States can best advance human rights and liberal values in Saudi Arabia devolve into debates over whether or not to cut off arms supplies or enact some other punitive measures that will ultimately do little to improve human rights or promote liberal values. As Hussein Ibish argues, President Biden can and should bring up specific ongoing cases like those of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and blogger Raif al-Badawi – both of whom have been released from prison but are not allowed to travel – during his meetings with Saudi political leaders in Jeddah. It'll also help that the United States will soon have an ambassador in Riyadh who can follow up on these particular cases after the president’s visit.
Equally important, the United States should seek commitments from the Saudi government to refrain from harassing Saudi dissidents and activists living overseas – or attempting to lure them back to Saudi Arabia itself to be imprisoned and tortured. These commitments should apply to Saudi nationals living not only in the United States but those residing in formal American treaty allies like Australia or NATO member states. While the United States should expect Riyadh to abide by any commitments, formal or otherwise, it makes on this front, it should be prepared for the likely event that the Saudi government will violate them at some point. That doesn’t make such assurances worthless; indeed, it gives American diplomats grounds to lodge protests and may make the Saudi government think twice before exporting repression to free societies.
All in all, President Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East has the potential to deliver the reset the long-standing U.S.-Saudi relationship desperately needs. It’s the right strategic call for the United States.
Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.