Five takeaways from President Biden’s first trip to Middle East

Washington, DC – The United States “will not walk away” from the Middle East, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed to allies during his trip to the region last week.

The trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia came at a time of international and domestic crises for the US president, who had vowed to strengthen “promising trends” in a “less pressurized” Middle East.

“The United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East,” Biden told Arab leaders during a summit in the Saudi city of Jeddah on Saturday.

Throughout the four-day trip, Biden reaffirmed old commitments to allies and pushed for the acceleration of shifts already in motion, including Israeli-Arab normalisation.

Here are five key takeaways from Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as president.

Biden puts on pro-Israel display

From the moment he landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Biden made a series of pronouncements reaffirming Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security and his own affinity for the country.

Biden suggested that he identifies as a Zionist, echoing previous comments he has made over the years. “I did say and I say again, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he said.

He added that the US-Israeli connection is “bone deep”.

As he heaped praise on Israel, Biden did not openly press for concessions relating to Palestinians in engagements with Israeli officials. According to public statements, there were no criticisms of settlements, no calls for allowing Washington to open a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, and no pushes for accountability for the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

As he headed to occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, Biden struck a more balanced tone without explicitly criticising Israel. Last Friday, he appeared to liken the plight of Palestinians to that of Irish people who struggled under British colonialism.

“My background and the background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people with Great Britain,” he told a Palestinian audience in East Jerusalem.

During the visit, Biden pledged $100m in additional aid to hospitals that serve Palestinians in the holy city. And after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he also said Washington would continue to “insist on a full and transparent accounting” of the killing of Abu Akleh, who was fatally shot by Israeli forces in May.

But the US president did not commit to an independent probe or meet with the slain journalist’s family – as Abu Akleh’s relatives had requested – during his visit.

US, Israel present united front against Iran

While US officials say they are committed to reviving the Iran nuclear deal and Israel openly opposes the agreement, Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid displayed a united front against Tehran last week.

The two leaders signed a joint declaration pledging to never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, with Washington vowing to keep the US commitment to Israel’s security “bipartisan and sacrosanct”.

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome,” the joint statement, released on July 14, reads. Tehran denies seeking nuclear arms.

Asked days earlier by Israel’s Channel 12 news whether he would use force against Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Biden said, “If that was the last resort, yes.”

The US president also ruled out removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from the US list of “foreign terrorist organizations” even if it means killing the 2015 nuclear pact, which saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of sanctions against its economy.

Biden later said he continues to believe that “diplomacy is the best way” to ensure a nuclear weapons-free Iran.

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, said that while the US commitment on Iran is not entirely new, spelling it out in such a way at a time when the nuclear talks are stalling increases the chances of confrontation with Tehran.

“You won’t allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. But yet at the same time, you have not been able to reach an agreement with Iran on the nuclear file,” Harb said of Biden.

“So what does that mean? Are we, the United States, tip-toeing into a military confrontation with Iran based on Israeli perceptions of threat? Or is the United States truly actually threatening because it feels that Iran is arriving at the nuclear breakout or nuclear weapons?”

Push for normalisation turns incremental

Biden made it clear before leaving on his trip that pushing for normalisation between Israel and Arab countries – particularly Saudi Arabia – would be a top priority.

Saudi officials had previously said they would not normalise with Israel absent of a viable Palestinian state. And so during his visit, Biden pushed for incremental normalising gestures between the two countries that fall short of fully establishing diplomatic relations.

When he was in Israel, Biden announced that Saudi Arabia has agreed to open its airspace to all air carriers, including Israeli planes, hailing the move as “historic”.

Washington also helped secure an agreement to transfer two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, which required Israeli consent. Biden portrayed the pact as a major achievement, describing it as a “historic deal to transform a flashpoint at the heart of the Middle East wars into an area of peace”.

While Biden was not able to add new countries to the normalisation agreements, known as the “Abraham Accords” and brokered by his predecessor Donald Trump, he pushed on with US calls for regional economic and security integration that would include Israel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps U.S. President Joe Biden
Biden met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the first time as US president [Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court via Reuters]

MBS fist bump stirs criticism, debate

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was outside the royal palace in Jeddah when Biden’s presidential limousine arrived.

Biden took a few steps out of the vehicle, clutching both sides of his blazer – in an apparent effort to button it up – with one hand. As the crown prince approached, Biden extended an arm with a clenched fist towards him.

The two leaders bumped fists – not an uncommon greeting in the age of COVID-19 – and exchanged smiles as they walked into the building.

The moment ended the estrangement between the US president and de facto Saudi leader, whom the US intelligence community accuses of being behind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia has said that the killing of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018 was a rogue operation that took place without the approval or knowledge of top officials, including bin Salman (known by his initials, MBS). The kingdom also says it tried and convicted those responsible for the murder.

But Biden, who called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” as a candidate, initially refused to engage directly with MBS, with the White House saying that the US president would conduct relations with his counterpart, King Salman.

Now, the proverbial ice between Biden and MBS has been broken.

The US president said he brought up the killing of Khashoggi in a meeting with the crown prince and other Saudi officials, but rights groups were quick to criticise the president over the encounter.

Fred Ryan – the publisher of the Washington Post newspaper, where Khashoggi worked at the time of his death – called the fist bump “shameful”, and the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “appalled” by Biden’s “failure” to hold the crown prince accountable.

However, many mainstream commentators in Washington defended Biden, with some citing the important issues that the US and Saudi Arabia must tackle jointly – including oil and Iran.

“Critics of [Biden] trip to KSA get 2 things wrong. First, you have to deal with the leaders that exist, not ones you prefer. 2nd, what matters is not ‘deliverables’ but building a relationship w Saudi leaders that will allow the 2 countries to collaborate on Iran, Israel, oil, etc,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

Harb, of the Arab Center, said Biden may have wanted to avoid a handshake with the crown prince, but there was no way to escape the visuals of being with MBS on the visit.

“The issue is how would Mohammed bin Salman take it. It looks like he is taking it as an admission that the US president was wrong, as well as an American recognition of his leadership,” Harb told Al Jazeera.

Discussions for more oil, but nothing concrete

As much as Biden and his top aides stressed over the past weeks that the trip to the Middle East was not about oil, experts have argued that the energy crisis is driving the president’s trip.

The trip did not result in an explicit agreement to boost production from the kingdom to tame oil prices that skyrocketed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Biden appeared optimistic when addressing the issue.

“We had a good discussion on ensuring global energy security and adequate oil supplies to support global economic growth, and that will begin shortly,” Biden told reporters after talks with Saudi officials, adding that Riyadh shares “the urgency” about the need to tackle the energy crisis.

In a joint statement on Friday, Washington and Riyadh “reaffirmed their commitment to a stable global energy market”. The White House later said the two countries finalised several bilateral agreements, including on energy security, without providing details.

Oil prices had been gradually going down since before Biden’s trip. The US president said on Friday that it will be “another couple weeks” before the possible effects of his visit to Saudi Arabia are seen by US fuel consumers at the pump.

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