Biden's score in the Middle East

America's overtures mark a departure from an earlier approach but more needs to be done

US President Joe Biden at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, on July 16. AFP
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The four-day tour by US President Joe Biden to the Middle East last week was a step in the right direction towards stabilising the region and solidifying regional ties.

America's overtures mark a departure from an earlier approach that Mr Biden had spoken of in no uncertain terms during his presidential campaign, and subsequently, in the foreign policy decisions taken at the beginning of his presidency, regarding the Middle East.

But for an America that is concerned about, among other factors, its place in the region, this past week enabled the strengthening of diplomatic goodwill with its traditional allies.

Mr Biden's visit to Riyadh to meet Saudi Arabia's leadership was important in terms of the US providing assurances of collective security in the region. The significance of this is manifold, considering the stalled status of the Iran nuclear talks, which involve the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, amid Tehran's continued development of weapons-grade uranium enrichment that is essential for it to produce bombs.

To this end, while in Israel, Mr Biden signed a pledge with Prime Minister Yair Lapid to use all national resources to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. But despite growing relations with Israel, and building on the Abraham Accords, the emphasis on the part of the US and its Arab allies to resolve the Palestine issue remains a two-state solution. Mr Biden’s meetings with Palestinian leaders indicated an improvement of ties but did not further peace efforts.

Before concluding his tour, Mr Biden met key regional leaders, including UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

At the beginning of Mr Biden's presidential term, the US veered towards the gradual withdrawal of its presence in the Middle East – an approach that began under former US president Barack Obama and was continued under Donald Trump. But the Ukraine crisis changed the situation.

Today, Washington needs its allies to ensure energy security and supply. And equally, for allies of the US, collective security is key. Washington's assurances carry significant weight. Even as the US makes security guarantees, Saudi Arabia has said it will help “stabilise” the international energy market, following discussions between Mr Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For the US, hit by irregular inflation of a 40-year high, there is a strategic interest in lowering oil prices. This is also personally important for Mr Biden, whose approval ratings are currently in their low 30s just four months before the mid-term election.

Given America's domestic situation, Mr Biden's visit to the region has come at an opportune time. And despite the absence of immediate measurable results, the optics have improved. These are welcome steps but more needs to be done.

From an American president who at a different time in office spoke publicly of keeping a major regional ally at arm's length, the diplomatic outreach with several Arab allies of the US imparts a degree of confidence and, at the very least, strengthens mutual trust. Seen in entirety, these are not small gains.

Published: July 18, 2022, 2:30 AM