Biden Resets Relations with Arab Middle East

The trip reflected President Biden’s style and preference for building coalitions of allies and partners to address international issues, but the public readouts from the meetings were fairly anodyne. They indicated agreement on broad issues and some new commitments of resources and cooperative endeavors, but there were few breakthroughs. On issues such as Russia, China, and Iran, not all discussions or agreements would necessarily be made public.

President Biden framed his meeting with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Iraq and Egypt as a continuation of long-standing cooperation and as a demonstration that Washington would remain a steadfast partner that would not cede that region to Chinese and Russian influence or leave states in the region without an external great power partner. The trip and President Biden’s speeches – and presumably his diplomatic dialogues with leaders – sought to allay fears that the United States was no longer a partner that could be counted upon.

The Trump administration’s “America First” motto and policy preferences led many U.S. allies and partners to doubt the steadfastness of historic American commitments. President Biden’s rhetoric early in his administration about a coalition of democracies as well as pointed remarks about autocratic leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince heightened suspicion about U.S. steadfastness among the leaders of the Gulf Arab states and Egypt.

On a trip of this level, which is planned and staffed in advance, it is known ahead of time whether significant “deliverables” are going to be agreed upon with only final details or the most difficult issues left for negotiations among heads of state. While some press reports on the trip deemed it a failure since President Biden did not immediately come back with a significant commitment by Gulf Arab oil producers to increase oil production in the short run, Washington likely knew that this was not in the cards before Airforce One left the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews. Instead, agreements were modest, vague (a recent commitment by OPEC+ to increase production in July and August but with no details of by whom or how much), and often future-oriented in terms of deliverables.

It was not just that the U.S. did not get much solid in terms of commitments by the Gulf Arab states on oil. Neither did the Gulf Arab states get much in terms of specific and solid commitments by the United States on issues such as the resumption of certain classes of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. While press reports ahead of the trip indicated that the Biden administration was considering lifting its moratorium on the sale of offensive weapons to Riyadh, the reports also indicated that such a resumption would be tied to Saudi Arabia helping to make progress toward ending the war in Yemen. Smaller and easier agreements, such as the establishment of new naval and joint task forces between GCC states and the U.S. and other regional partners to monitor and counter maritime threats (presumably to offshore platforms and oil tankers), were as far as the leaders were willing to go at this point.

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