The visit last week to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President Xi Jinping was another moment of truth for the United States. Xi was received with considerable fanfare by the Saudis, in contrast, to the more sedate Joe Biden visit to the kingdom last July.* This was partly a result of the fact that the U.S. president did not want too high-profile a reception in the shadow of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
The United States has not been particularly pleased with the widespread impression in the Middle East that it is disengaging from the region. At a summit with Arab leaders last July, Biden hastened to assure his counterparts that Washington would “not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” His point, which has been echoed by countless American officials and foreign policy specialists, is that the effort to contain Chinese power cannot be limited to places such as East Asia, but has to be global.
Perhaps, but Middle Eastern governments are unwilling to be mobilized in anti-Chinese and anti-Russian crusades. Meanwhile, Biden’s political adversaries on the right have seen a contradiction in the administration’s approach to the region, and they may not be wrong. When Biden served in the Obama administration, there was a different rationale, one focused not so much on containing China in the Middle East, but on creating a regional balance of power. In that way, the Obama administration believed, the countries of the region would regulate their own affairs, allowing the United States to reduce its military footprint.
An essential element of this equation for Washington was to recognize that Iran was entitled to a greater stake in regional affairs. While the administration did not specifically outline what this meant, for the Obama administration’s critics it entailed three things: engaging with Iran on the nuclear front to improve relations; allowing the nuclear deal to lead to a lifting of sanctions on the Iranian economy, bringing about economic prosperity; and implicitly recognizing Tehran’s influence in several Arab countries, including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon.
A window into Obama’s mind came in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic in April 2016. After justifying the U.S. pivot away from the Middle East to Asia, Obama told Goldberg: “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
Biden’s critics are now asking how he can square Obama’s thinking with his own comments on the need to contain Iran, China, and Russia. Wasn’t it true, for instance, that the Obama administration, aside from seeking to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, also gave considerable leeway to Russia in Syria in 2013, suggesting that it did not have a problem with “sharing” the Middle East with others? There is a clear contradiction between Biden’s public position today and Obama’s. But for Biden’s detractors, that contradiction is an illusion, an effort to show a difference when none really exists. To them, Biden is simply Obama 2.0.
That’s doubtful, but partisan politics encourages cursory conclusions. The critics have less to say about Donald Trump. Yet when he came to office, Trump did little to dispel confusion about U.S. attitudes toward the region. Trump’s supporters applauded his withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran, and his concessions to Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsing Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. Here was Trump showing that America could still defend its allies.
The problem was that all Trump really showed was a propensity to overlook his allies’ abuses, while doing nothing when they were actually threatened. Exhibit A for this bizarre approach came in September 2019, when two key oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia were attacked. While the Houthis claimed responsibility, the United States soon concluded that Iran had actually carried out the strikes. Trump even repeated that charge, but added that he “would like to avoid” a military conflict, allegedly because the Iranians wanted “to make a deal.”
If any event explains why Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to trust Washington, it’s very likely that one. The Saudis had no love for Obama, but they were sensible enough to recognize once their oil facilities were hit that Trump was little better, even if he bragged about protecting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the Khashoggi killing. Previously, the United States had regarded the security of Saudi oil supplies as a strategic red line, but the kingdom could see this was no longer true when the brazen attack failed to provoke any response, especially at a time when America was about to become a net exporter of oil. Since then, the Saudis have understood that they are on their own, and have adapted accordingly.
The Biden administration has done little to reassure them. It took a year and a half for the U.S. president to visit the kingdom, and only then because he sought Saudi assistance in boosting oil production. The Khashoggi affair was the principal reason for this estrangement, leading Biden to refer to the Saudi regime as a “pariah.” However, when the Saudis decided to cut oil production at the OPEC + meeting in October, relations with the United States deteriorated further, showing that Riyadh would define its interests as it saw fit, regardless of Washington.
Biden has an opportunity in the two years remaining of his term to develop a Middle East strategy that persuades his regional partners that the United States can satisfy their needs. But while the administration’s National Security Strategy is a buffet of good ideas, many of them will make Washington’s allies scratch their heads. The United States promises to rely less on “military-centric policies,” but then sets objectives that call into question that commitment—including helping countries defend themselves against foreign threats, or expressing a willingness to “use other means” if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. What the Arab states and Israel will see in the document, and in Biden’s approach in general, is imprecision and elusiveness, with promises so broad or incompatible that it’s difficult to discern what kinds of U.S. policies they will bring.
In light of this, expect the countries of the region to continue to pursue their own paths independently of Washington. Turkey, Qatar, and Oman started doing so some time ago, the Saudis, Emiratis, and Egyptians followed closely behind, while Israel has long had an agenda of its own, regardless of its close cooperation with the Americans. It’s no longer a question of whether the United States is disengaging from the Middle East; if anything, it’s increasingly evident that it is the Middle East that is disengaging from the United States.
* The month of the Biden visit was incorrect in the original, and has been changed.