Joe Biden heads to Middle East amid faltering US sway

Worker prepares Israeli and US flags in Israel (11/07/22)EPA

Joe Biden might prefer not to have visited the Middle East this week, or any other week for that matter. His agenda is full.

The president’s Democratic Party colleagues in the US Congress look to be heading for a bruising result in November’s mid-term elections. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has touched off the most serious confrontation between the world’s biggest nuclear-armed powers since the height of the Cold War. China is looking keenly for signs of American decline, as its own inexorable rise to global power moves forward.

To make matters worse, President Biden’s own previous visits to the Middle East have shown the limits of American power. When he visited Jerusalem as Barack Obama’s vice-president, he was humiliated by the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he called for a freeze on Israel’s settlement projects for Jews in the occupied territories, which are illegal under international law.

He’s visiting Israel and spending a few hours in the occupied Palestinian territories, before heading to Saudi Arabia where he will join a summit of leaders of the Gulf, along with those of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

President Biden is travelling because of the depth and complexity of the crises he is trying to grip.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has banished the last hopes of a peaceful future that followed the end of the Cold War more than 30 years ago. Its economic fallout might cost him when Americans vote. And the faultline between friends of America and friends of Iran in the Middle East is heating up again – if it moves from threats and covert confrontation to another hot war it will be every bit as dangerous and destabilising as Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Loss of trust

Politically, President Biden’s trip might turn into another reminder of America’s decline as an influencer in the Middle East. Mr Biden will call, once again, for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel – the so-called two state solution. He knows it will still be as far away as ever when he leaves. Mr Biden has, however, restored cuts in American funding to Palestinians.

More awkwardly, he is going to ask the Saudis for a very big favour – to produce more oil and sell it at a lower price. The economic dislocation that followed the invasion of Ukraine left the US, just like the rest of the world, with high energy prices, even though they are no longer dependent on oil imports from the Gulf. The blunt political truth for Mr Biden is that every cent on a gallon of petrol in the United States loses more votes for his Democrats at the mid-term elections.

Joe Biden arrives in Riyadh, Oct 2011


An American request to the Saudis is an awkward moment, for all the billions the Saudis spend on weapons. The Saudis stopped trusting Washington when President Obama unceremoniously dumped Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after a couple of weeks of street protests. If they can do that to a faithful friend, they reasoned, they can do it to anyone.

Saudi suspicion of America deepened when President Biden, in one of his first actions on taking office, published a US intelligence report that concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was responsible for the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered when he went to pick up some official papers at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The Saudis denied the accusations.

When Mr Biden was running for president, he said Saudi Arabia was a pariah state, murdering its critics and imprisoning many other prominent dissidents. The Saudis do not believe they owe the US president any favours. To the embarrassment of some of his supporters, Mr Biden is preparing to swallow his words. Presidents of the United States do not usually visit states they condemn as pariahs.

The Americans have an ambitious and still vague set of ideas aimed at forcing Russia into selling its oil at a lower price. Oil and gas revenues have flowed into Moscow’s treasury despite Western sanctions imposed after the invasion. US plans to dry up that cash will not work without Saudi support.

Iran factor

For much of this century, the face-off between Iran’s camp and America’s has been a major driver of conflict in the Middle East. The division is dangerous, and it is showing signs of going critical again. It is a reason as important as oil prices for Mr Biden’s trip.

Since President Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA – the agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear potential – in 2018, the crisis has been brewing. Iran had been respecting the agreed limits on its nuclear plans, which it has always insisted do not include weapons.

But after Mr Trump made his move and imposed renewed US sanctions, Iran responded by accelerating its nuclear programme. Now it has enriched enough uranium to be very close to being able to produce a nuclear device.

Natanz uranium enrichment plant after it was reportedly damaged by a fire (02/07/20)


Shared opposition to Iran is one of the factors driving the Abraham Accords, the rapprochement between Israel and some of the Gulf Arab monarchies, which was the main foreign policy achievement of President Trump’s administration. There has been talk of a version of Nato in the Middle East, including Israel and Arab states that are friendly with the US. A formal military alliance between Arab states and Israel is still highly unlikely.

Mr Biden may urge restraint on the Israelis, who have stepped up their covert war with Iran. It features assassinations, mysterious fires and explosions at nuclear facilities and cyber warfare. The last thing Mr Biden wants is to be dragged into a hot war with Iran by Israel.

President Biden, assailed at home, confronted with a world crisis in Ukraine and the makings of another one in Iran, has the odds stacked against him on this trip. Allies the US has nurtured for decades, especially the Israelis and the Saudis, do not have an elastic sense of obligation.

From the presidential suite on Air Force One, the chances are that Mr Biden will be confronted, once again, by the limits of American power.

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