The U.S.’s search for a new role in West Asia

Realpolitik may have trumped the Biden administration’s rather vocal positions on principles in the region

Updated - July 27, 2022 01:48 pm IST

Published - July 27, 2022 12:15 am IST

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) greets U.S. President Joe Biden with a fist bump in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (right) greets U.S. President Joe Biden with a fist bump in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. | Photo Credit: AP

Two contrasting pictures emerged out of U.S. President Joe Biden’s four-day visit to West Asia. The first was from his visit to Israel, where Mr. Biden was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honour. The second was from his visit to Saudi Arabia where a cold fist bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman foretold the chronicles of an increasingly awkward bilateral relationship.

Compulsions driving Biden

The compulsions driving Mr. Biden’s trip to West Asia have been evident. First, he faces the same challenges that several of his predecessors faced in navigating the U.S.’s West Asia policy, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict and Washington’s strenuous relations with Iran.

Second, Mr. Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia signalled a re-prioritisation of his administration’s interests, compelled by the Russia-Ukraine war and its ramifications on the global food and energy situation. In principle, his meeting with the Crown Prince was a walk back from his earlier promise in 2019 of keeping away from the Kingdom, after U.S. intelligence concluded in its assessment that the Saudi leader was directly involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Although Mr. Biden made a veiled attempt to criticise the Saudi leader, the meeting’s focus on bilateral cooperation in 5G technology and integrated air defence, and the fact that Mr. Biden welcomed Saudi Arabia’s plan to strategically invest in projects aligning with U.S. Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) goals, all point to Washington’s need more than Riyadh’s.

Furthermore, the Crown Prince did not make any public commitment to increase oil production. With Saudi Arabia, Mr. Biden is perceived as having skirted critical issues in the bilateral relationship such as the release of political prisoners, clemency for opponents of the regime, and easing of travel restrictions, especially for those who hold dual citizenship in the two countries.

However, two developments from Mr. Biden’s visit could result in positive externalities for the region: one, the consensus to sustain a UN-mediated truce in Yemen and two, the opening of Saudi airspace for civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel. The aim of the former is to translate the truce, which has led to 15 weeks of peace, into a durable ceasefire and political process between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, creating conducive grounds for development and aid in war-ravaged Yemen. The latter emboldens the spirit and objectives of regional bonhomie, which the U.S. sought through the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration has tried to add a different hue to the Abraham Accords by establishing the Negev Forum, following up from the Negev Summit held in March 2022.

The energy situation

At the heart of Mr. Biden’s trip to West Asia lay the global energy situation, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine. There is a strong possibility that gas prices in the U.S. may surge as much as three times the current value before the U.S. midterm elections in November. As stricter Western sanctions on Russia kick in, Russia is expected to retaliate by even halting supplies to Europe ahead of the December 5 deadline set by European countries to fully ban Russian cargo ships carrying oil to Europe. Among the top priorities for the Biden administration during the visit to the region were to ensure predictability in energy supplies, stabilise energy prices, curb inflation, assure European allies of energy supplies before winter, and convert these into domestic support for the Democrats in the midterm elections.

As Russia has cut oil and gas supplies to European countries significantly, there is a new energy scramble in Europe which is characteristically both long and short term. In the short term, European countries such as Germany and Austria are bracing for a harsh winter amid limited energy supplies and possibly the threat of a total cut-off by Moscow. In the long term, the U.S. has led the Western effort to establish alternate energy supply routes to ensure energy security for Europe even amid limited Russian supplies.

Mr. Biden’s trip to West Asia also saw several other meetings with heads of state as part of his meetings with Gulf Cooperation Council countries in Jeddah including Prime Minister Al-Kadhimi of Iraq; President of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed; Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi; Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar; King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain; and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Much in line with Mr. Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his meetings with other regional leaders ended without any substantive breakthrough.

Seeking a toehold

With the first leaders’ meet of the I2U2 group (comprising India, Israel, the UAE and the U.S.), sometimes referred to as the West Asian Quad, the Biden administration may have found a new toehold in West Asia. The I2U2, beyond its promises of integration, is of strategic value to the U.S. on the back of troop pull-out from Afghanistan, a not-so-favourable relationship with Saudi Arabia and a hostile relationship with Iran. The group’s limited focus in this meeting on food security and energy security is understandable given its recent launch, but its agenda of tying the West Asian region with South Asia through innovation, private sector investments, initiatives in water, energy, transportation, space, health, and the promotion and development of critical emerging and green technologies depict an integrated inter-regional future for the two regions.

Since the beginning of his term, Mr. Biden has sought a reorientation in the U.S.’s West Asia policy. Resetting relations with Iran through a reworked Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would have the U.S. back in the agreement; troop pull-out from Afghanistan, which is having regional security ramifications; and a principled support to democracies translating into a calibrated distancing from regional autocracies and dictatorships were all part of the recalibration. Expectedly, one of the few continuities that Mr. Biden did not want to disturb was the U.S.’ relations with Israel.

The Russia-Ukraine war and its implications have shown that the U.S.’s somewhat tenuous relations with countries in the region will continue despite underlying concerns about human rights and political freedom. For now, realpolitik and the compulsions it has engendered for Washington may have trumped the Biden administration’s rather vocal positions on principles. And it may well be a wise choice in the end if it translates into domestic political support in the U.S. and a more favourable West Asia for Biden.

Harsh V. Pant is Vice President for Studies at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and Professor at King’s College London; Vivek Mishra is a Fellow at ORF

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