During his presidential campaign, Biden made several promises that were in line with Obama’s doctrine of withdrawing from the Middle East and focusing instead on China. He promised to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, to end the war in Yemen, and to treat Saudi Arabia as the “pariah” he considered it to be. During his first year in office, Biden largely abided by these promises: he downgraded the U.S. military presence in Iraq, pulled some advanced military installations out of the Gulf region, released an intelligence report that accused Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) of complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, disclosed a report on 9/11 that potentially implicated Saudi Arabia, refrained from providing Saudi Arabia with precision missiles for its war in Yemen, engaged in negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, and refused to communicate with MBS.
However, the failure to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has forced the Biden administration to change its priorities. In particular, sanctions on Russia have made the Gulf States more significant than ever to the world’s economy. These sanctions—especially those on the Russian energy sector—have led to an unprecedented increase in oil and gas prices, which in turn have contributed to soaring inflation rates in the U.S. and Europe. This has been translated to low rates of popularity for President Biden in the polls, and may even lead to the loss of the current Democratic majority in Congress after the midterm elections in November.
Against this backdrop, Biden prioritized finding alternatives to Russian energy sources. He approached Venezuela, considered allowing more oil to flow from Iran, and contacted MBS and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the president of the UAE, in an attempt to convince them to increase oil production. The first two strategies did not prove fruitful, and reports indicate that MBS and MBZ refused to take his calls.
Unable to stabilize the energy market without the cooperation of the Gulf states, Biden then decided to visit Saudi Arabia. However, he initially portrayed the goal of his visit as the further integration of Israel in the Arab region. He framed the visit in this way because he did not want to be seen as negating his campaign promises. Additionally, in exchange for his visit, he wanted to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia related to the Abraham Accords that would boost his domestic popularity.
Declared Versus Achieved Goals
There is no doubt that Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia was motivated by two main goals: convincing Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production and creating a NATO-like Arab-Israeli air defense alliance. Rumors about a potential Arab-Israeli NATO were reinforced when news broke of a secret meeting of Arab and Israeli officials in Egypt. King Abdullah of Jordan expressed a degree of optimism about the plan, and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz also announced that Israel had joined a U.S.-led regional air defense network. It seems that the U.S. insistence on achieving this goal led to the White House delaying Biden’s visit to the region until mid-July.
However, failing to achieve this goal before his trip, Biden declared other modest goals for his visit in an op-ed in the Washington Post. According to this piece, the visit aimed to counter Russian aggression, position the U.S. well to compete with China, and promote regional stability. Pre-empting criticism, he claimed that such goals could only be achieved through engaging directly with “countries that can impact those outcomes.” He also highlighted his goal of achieving Saudi-Israeli normalization, noting that he would be the first president to fly from Israel to Jeddah.
In fact, Saudi Arabia did agree to open its air space for Israeli civilian planes in exchange for the recognition of complete Saudi control over the islands of Tiran and Sinafir, which had been hindered by Israel since Egypt returned them to Saudi Arabia in 2017. However, further steps on normalization were not adopted. Despite his failure to ensure the normalization of Israel-Saudi relations, Biden received, according to the U.S. energy envoy Amos Hochstei, promises that major oil producers in the Gulf States with spare capacity are likely to raise output in the coming weeks. He also signed an agreement to cooperate in building next-generation 5G and 6G telecommunications networks in Saudi Arabia, with the hope that Saudi Arabia will abandon working with Huawei, a Chinese company which has made significant inroads in the Gulf.
During his trip, Biden also aimed to assure the Gulf states that the U.S. is not withdrawing from the region. In his speech in Jeddah, he declared that the U.S. “will not walk away from the region and leave a vacuum that will be filled by China, Russia, or Iran.” It is hard to assess whether this statement was sufficient to convince Gulf leaders that the U.S. will keep its promises; after all, Biden did visit Saudi Arabia because he was desperate for a decrease in oil prices. Furthermore, the Gulf states’ connections to China are vital to their economic development, meaning that American security commitments cannot be a substitute for their economic relations with China.
Saudi Arabia’s Achievements
Although the Biden administration received promises from Saudi Arabia to increase oil production during the summer months, extend the truce in Yemen, and support the new American Partnership for Infrastructure and Global Investment, Saudi Arabia emerged as the big winner of this visit for several reasons. First, and most obviously, President Biden had to walk back his promise to limit relations with Saudi Arabia. Second, Saudi Arabia did not succumb to the Biden administration’s pressure to normalize relations with Israel, instead reminding Biden that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a necessary condition to stabilize the region. Third, MBS sent clear signals to the Biden administration that he would reciprocate their treatment: he refused to receive President Biden at the airport, sending instead the governor of Mecca to receive him. Furthermore, in response to Biden’s speech about the importance of respecting human rights and dissidents, MBS reminded him of American double standards on human rights, citing the Israeli killing of Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and the American abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq while also mentioning that efforts to impose certain values on other countries may lead to opposite results. Finally, Saudi Arabia signed several important agreements with the U.S. on topics ranging from clean energy, cyber security, space exploration, public health, maritime security, and strengthening the Saudi air defense.
As measured against his declared goals, it is fair to say that President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia was neither a big success nor a big failure. Saudi Arabia signaled appreciation for his visit by promising to increase oil production for the summer, signing several economic and security agreements, and permitting the use of its airspace for flights to all countries. However, Saudi Arabia refused to normalize relations with Israel, did not promise to maintain any potential increase in oil production, refrained from taking sides against China and Russia, and directly challenged Biden’s comments on human rights. It would be difficult to say that Biden’s visit succeeded in restoring historic U.S.-Saudi strategic relations. Overall, his visit was a response to the world’s energy crisis instead of a recognition of the need for a frank strategic conversation between the two countries.
Dr. Hesham Alghannam is a Saudi political scientist and former Fulbright scholar. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Centre (GRC), Cambridge, as well as a geopolitical expert and strategy adviser to senior executives operating globally.
Dr. Mohammad Yaghi is a research fellow and programme manager for the Regional Program Gulf States at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS). His research focuses on the growing role of the GCC in MENA region, the Gulf states’ security, and social transformation within the Gulf states.