Zurab Batiashvili, Researcher at Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS)
On July 13-16, the President of the United States of America, Joe Biden, met with the leaders of the pro-American and allied countries of the Middle East within the framework of his first official tour in the region.
The tour took place against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war due to which security risks and the prices of food and energy have increased drastically. Consequently, world leaders are looking for alternative ways to replace Russian energy dependence. As far as energy resources are concerned, the Middle East is vastly prosperous.
What issues did the leaders discuss at the meetings and why was this Middle East tour significant?
Visit to Israel
The first stop of Biden’s Middle East tour was in Israel and this was expected – Washington is the closest ally of this country in the region and, simultaneously, the position of the Jewish lobby is an important factor in the background of the upcoming elections in the United States.
In Israel, Biden met with both the current Prime Minister Yair Lapid (who will serve as the Prime Minister until the snap elections; that is, until November 1, 2022) and the former Prime Minister and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu who, if he wins the election on November 1, will once again have a chance to become the leader of Israel.
The main topic of both of these meetings was, of course, Israel’s security (and, therefore, issues related to Iran and Palestine and the Arab world in general).
Joe Biden’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid
It is true that Biden is not as much of an extreme supporter of Israel as Donald Trump was during his presidency but he convinced the Israeli leadership that Israel will not be left alone in the face of the Iranian threat (Tehran is accused of funding and arming Palestinian organizations operating against Israel), especially in circumstances where negotiations related to Iran’s nuclear program have effectively reached a stalemate and where Tehran claims that the country is able to develop nuclear weapons. And this, of course, is a direct existential threat to Israel.
The joint declaration published after the meeting of the leaders of the two countries states that Washington will continue to support Israel – as its main ally in the region, especially in the field of security.
While in Israel, Biden’s statement regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions is noteworthy: the US “will not allow Iran to acquire/obtain nuclear weapons.”
During the visit to Israel, a four-sided I2U2 summit was also held via Zoom with the participation of the US, Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates where the parties discussed the food and the water resource crisis, climate change and energy related issues.
Visit to Palestine
After Israel, Biden also visited Palestine where he promised to provide 300 million USD in aid (of which 100 million USD will be used for hospitals operating in East Jerusalem that serve Palestinians and 200 million USD will be spent on other necessities for the Palestinians) and spoke about a “two-state” solution for the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
However, everyone is aware that the Israeli-Palestinian problem will not be solved in the near future and that this is rather a long-term desire of the US.
Visit to Saudi Arabia
The biggest criticism in the United States was caused by Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia in terms of the Middle East tour. In the past, Biden strongly criticized Saudi authorities for the murder of the famous Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, however, he visited Saudi Arabia and met with the heir to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman.
The meeting between Biden and Mohammed bin Salman took place without a handshake
Instead of the planned hour and a half meeting, the parties talked for three hours after which they signed 18 cooperation agreements in various fields.
At the bilateral meeting, the parties discussed human rights, Khashoggi’s murder and oil production matters among other issues.
No detailed statement was issued on the subject of oil production. However, the US hopes that Saudi Arabia will increase its oil production which would reduce both the price of oil on the world market and the dependence on Russian energy resources.
In this regard, it is interesting to see what the position of Saudi Arabia as an oil-producing giant will be at the meeting of the OPEC+ group scheduled for August 3, 2022. The Saudi position at this meeting will determine whether the US and Saudi leaders have reached any kind of agreement regarding a possible increase in oil production.
The parties also discussed issues of regional security and cooperation. It should be noted that Saudi Arabia has opened its airspace for Israeli civilian aircraft. However, other problems still remain in Israel-Saudi Arabia relations and they still do not have diplomatic relations with each other, something which significantly hinders the prospects of bilateral cooperation between these countries.
After the bilateral meeting between the leaders of the US and Saudi Arabia, Biden held a meeting with the leaders from six countries of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (this council includes Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman) and three countries of the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan and Iraq). Meetings with the leaders were held individually as well as in a collective format.
Biden’s meeting with the leaders of Arab countries
During these meetings, the parties discussed bilateral relations and regional issues (US financial aid, the Israeli-Arab conflict, the influence of Iran, Russia and China in the Middle East; radicalization, terrorism, ISIS, the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars, the issue of Iraqi Kurdistan and the food crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war).
In his speech at the joint meeting, Biden emphasized the actions of China, Russia and Iran on a global scale. It should be noted that the main message of Biden’s speech was that “the United States is not going to go anywhere (from the region).”
– Biden’s tour in the Middle East means that this region is important for Washington and its interests are long-term;
– The interest of the US grows even further in parallel to Russia’s war against Ukraine which creates new challenges and threats all over the world, including in the Middle East;
– The US is not going to leave the Middle East and will not accept the increasing influence of other actors (primarily Russia, China and Iran) in the region. It will work closely with the countries of the region to prevent the growth of the influence of aforementioned three countries;
– In Washington, they understand that the problems in the Middle East (for example, the Israeli-Arab conflict) are long-term and cannot be solved in a short period of time. However, the US intends to continue working to resolve them in order to create the conditions for a (perhaps indirect) Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran in the long term;
– In the US, they understand very well that the existing difficulties between America and Saudi Arabia will not be eliminated in the near future. However, the relationship of both countries and their leaders is dictated by their national interests (the Iranian threat to the Saudis and the US demand for oil) to align their positions on various issues as much as possible;
– The interest and active involvement of the US in the issues of the Middle East is important for the regions bordering it, including the South Caucasus. The situation in the Middle East’s neighborhood cannot be of non-importance for the United States. This situation, along with many other matters, increases the degree of Washington’s interest in Georgia.