Joe Biden’s maiden trip to West Asia as president of the United States fell short of the hype. Instead, as critics both inside and outside of the Democratic Party had feared, it ended in a controversy that would probably continue to rage in the months leading up to the key US midterm parliamentary elections in November. The President’s team touted Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow all Israeli flights access to its airspace as a significant advance in its foreign policy, with Biden dubbing it a “historic move.” But in the upcoming months, his choice to swallow his pride and re-engage with Saudi Arabia—a nation he once threatened to become a “pariah” state—is likely to come back to haunt him politically.
In addition to aiding in MBS’s Western reintegration, the US President’s interactions with him will cast doubt on Washington’s commitment to principles like the rule of law and human rights.
During his discussion with the Crown Prince, the American President is reported to have brought up the topic of Khashoggi’s murder, for which he held the Crown Prince solely accountable. MBS made clear that he would not submit to Biden’s lecture on human rights by not only denying any role in the unfortunate event and characterising it as a mistake, but also by comparing it to the US’s error in Iraq.
Motives behind the U-turn
Biden’s position has changed as a result of two significant causes. One is China’s investment in infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative and the gradual expansion of its economic ties with other West Asian nations. Two, Russia’s reputation as a trustworthy partner after it was successful in stopping Syria’s collapse. After the Syrian War, most leaders in West Asia preferred to travel to Moscow since they were all eager to establish an alliance with it.
However, China’s focus on recovering its economy following the COVID-19 outbreak and Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine have given the US the chance to re-engage with West Asia. But if Biden’s first trip anywhere is any indication, Washington should be ready for a difficult challenge when re-engaging West Asia.
Days after the I2U2 virtual summit between India, Israel, the US, and the UAE to promote and increase trade and investment among the four nations and to develop public health and crucial and green technology, the American president paid a visit to the region. The UAE’s pledge to invest $2 billion on food parks across India to satisfy the rising demand in South and West Asia was one result of the meeting.
Although Biden’s first trip to West Asia as president was hailed as Washington’s reengagement with the area, at the end of his trip, he had little to show for his efforts.
His interaction with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, was largely motivated by his desire to obtain a guarantee of increased oil output to help Europe and the US weather the current energy crisis. But Riyadh didn’t offer any definite assurances. US officials are optimistic that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in early August would result in a favourable outcome.
The revival of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which the Biden Administration claims will not only stop Teheran from developing a nuclear bomb but also lead to a more stable West Asia, has likewise not won the American president many supporters.
Prior to travelling to Saudi Arabia to take part in a summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and other regional leaders, Biden spent the first two days of his four-day tour to the area in Israel, where he met with the leadership and exchanged views.
Because of the history of US leaders in the region, scepticism rather than enthusiasm greeted Biden’s assurances to the GCC and other leaders that America was “here to stay” and would not turn over control of West Asia to China or Russia.
Nearly a year after America’s bungled pullout from Afghanistan, Biden decided to travel there despite having avoided the area after being elected US president. As he reopened negotiations with Iran, experts suggested the US President was willing to “prioritise order” in West Asia over other objectives including the defence of human rights and the advancement of democracy. However, he was apprehensive about dealing with the Saudi Crown Prince.
Biden was outspoken in his criticism of MBS for his part in the horrible murder of Khashoggi from the beginning of his campaign. Even though the Saudi Crown Prince is recognised as the 86-year-old Saudi monarch’s heir apparent, he had branded Saudi Arabia a “pariah” country and for months refused to speak with him.
The US has long served as Saudi Arabia’s primary security provider, and the nation’s substantial oil reserves and robust arms market have supported American involvement in Saudi Arabia for many years. However, relations weakened after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, when it was discovered that most of the attackers were Saudi citizens. The old chemistry the two sides had shared seemed to have been lost forever, despite the fact that things improved in the years that followed.
The gulf between the two sides grew due to Biden’s choice to disregard MBS and the US’s criticism of Saudi participation in Yemen as well as the Democratic President’s desire to resurrect the nuclear deal with Iran. In fact, there might not have been a fist bump if it weren’t for the intense pressure on the US economy.