President Joe Biden will make his first trip to the Middle East since taking office when he visits Israel and the West Bank on July 13 to July 15 and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia from July 15 until July 16. During the first part of his visit, Biden will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, while the second part of his trip will consist of a meeting with the ‘GCC+’, or the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. White House officials have articulated a set of issues they seek to cover in bilateral and multilateral meetings, but have struggled to define a clear message around the trip. This is especially the case for the Saudi portion of Biden’s visit which risks adding to, rather than resolving, points of tension for Biden, for his political base, and for the bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship.
In Search of Reliable Partners
Since entering office in January 2021, the Biden administration has sought to devote less time and resources to the Middle East, a region that officials in the new White House felt had attracted too much attention and controversy during Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency. Domestic issues took priority, as the White House focused on economic and public health measures to guide the United States out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Policy priorities related to the Middle East were pared back to attempts to end the war in Yemen and identify a pathway to re-engage with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran after Trump withdrew the United States in May 2018. Results on these objectives have been mixed; a ceasefire in Yemen, negotiated as a Ramadan truce in April 2022 and since extended, has caused a sharp fall in violence across the country, but progress on reviving the Iran deal has stalled and encountered repeated setbacks.
The fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the mounting political and economic challenges caused by rising fuel prices, inflation, supply chain disruption, and broader increases in the cost of living, form the inescapable backdrop to Biden’s mid-summer trip. These domestic factors go a long way toward explaining why Biden ultimately decided to travel to Saudi Arabia, a country that he vowed to make “the pariah that they are” during a 2019 campaign debate—adding that he saw “very little redeeming value in the present government” in Riyadh. At the very least, Biden’s stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia provide an opportunity for the White House to reset its relationships with both host governments after a period of considerable strain. In Israel’s case, it took Biden nearly a month to speak to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after his inauguration in 2021, while he has continued to refuse to engage directly with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
White House officials, including Biden himself, have played down any notion that the president is traveling to Saudi Arabia to ask the Saudis to produce more oil. There was only one mention of oil in President Biden’s 1,300-word op-ed for the Washington Post on July 9, which sought to justify why he had decided to take the trip. Rather than discussing oil, Biden sought to cast his visit in terms of a broader agenda to advance regional peace and has placed greater emphasis on the prospects of a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In declaring that “the Israelis believe it’s really important that I make the trip” to Saudi Arabia but adding tepidly that “I guess I will see the king and the crown prince,” Biden has tried to amplify the regional component of his trip yet downplay the Saudi-specific aspect—in reality an attempt to have it both ways that is unlikely to work in practice.
With Biden clearly on the defensive about his visit, it is hardly surprising that the White House has struggled to produce a clear narrative around the trip. The emphasis on regional cooperation bridges the Israeli-West Bank and Saudi-GCC+3 components and suggests an attempt to move the focus onto terrain more friendly to the White House than the optics of Biden asking the Saudis for help on oil. There is some irony in the fact that Biden’s disdain for Donald Trump is such that he could not bring himself to refer to ‘my predecessor’ by name in his Washington Post article, yet is casting his visit as an opportunity to build upon one of the Trump administration’s most enduring legacies, the Abraham Accords. On June 22, Barbara Leaf, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the visit was about cementing ties between Israel and Arab states; Leaf predicted “interesting things” during the trip without going into specific detail.
What Meetings Can’t Fix
Multiple challenges await the Biden administration as the visit unfolds. One is that U.S. regional partners have already started to unveil their own information management strategies, creating expectations that may be hard to reach in practice or may not align with White House messages. These risks overshadow both ends of the president’s trip, especially if it does not result in any diplomatic breakthrough in normalization and if media focus in Saudi Arabia fixates on whether Biden meets Mohammed bin Salman. If outcomes do not match expectations, Biden will be vulnerable to being seen (at least in the media and among skeptics opposed to closer U.S.-Saudi relations) of returning ‘empty-handed’ if, for example, Saudi Arabia does not normalize with Israel or oil prices do not significantly move downward.
Saudi and Emirati leaders will not sacrifice their working relationships with Russia (within and beyond the OPEC+ framework). If the Gulf States, plus Egypt and Jordan, could not agree on a common security and defense agenda in 2019, it is hard to imagine them doing so when Israel and Iraq are added into the mix. There may be scope for closer regional security cooperation on technocratic issues falling short of a formal alliance, and which builds on Israel’s inclusion in CENTCOM, but these are not necessarily outcomes that Biden could publicly celebrate to the same extent as lower oil prices. A perceived negative outcome to the trip would reinforce the belief that has grown in numerous regional capitals, including Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, that the U.S. is less of a reliable long-term partner, and complicate the administration’s attempt to signal that it is ‘back’ on the world stage after the turbulence of the Trump era and Biden’s own chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in 2021.
Therein lies a related challenge for Biden. Polling conducted by Shibley Telhami for the University of Maryland has suggested that his visit is not popular, and that Republican- and Democrat-registered voters alike disapprove of the trip, albeit for different reasons. The administration’s difficulty in justifying the Saudi trip raises the prospect that the perception of Biden meeting Mohammed bin Salman and getting very little in return may do more harm than good among Democratic voters—many of whom are already disillusioned with aspects of his domestic and foreign policy as the midterm elections loom. It will not be lost on regional leaders that Biden’s favorability numbers are lower than Trump’s were four years ago and that his net disapproval rating has continued to rise, even as other issues like the Supreme Court ruling on abortion on June 24 might otherwise have mobilized his base of support. If leaders in the Middle East believe Biden to be a one-term president, they may be even less inclined to take his side on big geopolitical issues as they look to diversify longer-term economic and political relationships.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.