What the Arab world needs from Biden this week

One of the US President's aims for his Middle East tour is more oil, but the region's wish list is much larger

US President Joe Biden has begun a tour of the Middle East, with stops in Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. AFP
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US President Joe Biden has begun a landmark tour of the Middle East, with stops in Israel, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. His visit comes as the region witnesses important political and economic developments.

A major focus of Mr Biden's visit, according to his National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, will be making the case for greater oil production from Arab members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). Washington’s alarm about energy supplies is understandable, given pent-up demand from the Covid-19 pandemic and the immense strain on the sector as a result of the war in Ukraine. High petrol prices and the possibility of a recession across western countries have contributed to a slide in his approval ratings at home, and complicated relations with allies in Europe. Opec members, however, have made it clear that there are technical considerations to bear in mind, in addition to the need for stability in the oil markets.

For America’s allies in the Middle East, Mr Biden’s visit will be about so much more. Washington’s deep partnerships with Arab states have weathered many storms over the decades. But in recent years the atmosphere has been cloudier than it might have been, had those partnerships been used to their fullest extent.

Monumental progress has been achieved on many issues in the region. Relations between a number of Arab states and Israel, as well as Turkey, have improved. A three-month truce in the war in Yemen has showed promising results. Terrorism is on the decline. And the stage is being set for comprehensive regional dialogue on longer-term issues such as climate change, environmental sustainability and food security. In some of these developments, Washington played a significant role, which only underscores the constructive impact that active American engagement can continue to have in the region.

Washington’s deep partnerships with Arab states have weathered many storms over the decades

But many loose ends remain. Resolving them and ensuring they do not jeopardise hard-won gains requires, in part, an ironclad commitment from the US to understand and appreciate the interests of its Arab partners on several fronts. Security and economic development are key elements of that.

One issue, for instance, is the need to give further impetus to peace efforts in Yemen, and turn the current truce into a lasting peace.

As discussions between western powers and Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme continue, another is the need for a clear commitment that the consequence of any deal between them does not include ignoring Tehran’s persistent interference in the sovereign affairs of Arab states – whether in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen.

Similarly, strong efforts must be made to ensure a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war, as well as progress towards a two-state solution in Palestine and Israel. In both of these areas, American diplomacy arising from attentiveness towards Arab perspectives can prove to be a game changer.

Mr Biden has said that avoiding “new burdens on US military forces” in the Middle East “is of paramount importance” to him. It is surely of equal or greater importance to the Arab world. Such comfort, however, can only be assured when America’s long-standing allies are empowered, and when mutual trust is at a maximum. If the region’s diplomats can come away from Mr Biden’s visit feeling that clear skies are on the horizon, his efforts will have been a success.

Published: July 12, 2022, 2:41 PM