What was the aim of President Biden's recent trip to the Middle East? Read an analysis by an International Relations scholar.
This guest post is by Atilla Can Ekici. Atilla completed his master's degree at Birkbeck, University of London in 2020. He continues his doctoral education at the University of Plymouth, which he started in 2021 under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden. His main areas of work are Saudi Arabia, Iran, foreign aid, and the Middle East.
Biden, the 46th president of the United States, completed his Middle East tour, which he started from Israel. On July 13-16, Biden traveled to Tel Aviv, Israel's capital, the first stop on a regional visit that spanned Israel, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia.
After completing his visit to Israel and Palestine, Biden went to Saudi Arabia, the second leg of his Middle East tour, and attended a summit in Jeddah where the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries were present, as well as Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. Biden's visit is also the first time a US president has ever visited Saudi Arabia after his visit to Israel.1
In this post, we will discuss the article of Professor Pillar, who retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the US intelligence community where he was the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, published on the National Interest on July 20, 2022.
The purpose of Biden's trip
According to Pillar, the two main purposes of the trip were largely related to domestic political interests. One of the aims was to fulfil the show of love for Israel that many American politicians accept as an election condition. The other was to show American consumers that it was trying to do something to lower the price of gasoline and with it alleviate the larger inflation problem. Although a downward movement in prices has started in recent days, it is not clear how long this will last and to what extent it will be permanent. Production needs to increase to relax the market.2
The Saudis have idle capacity available to increase their production. However, they have not been willing to increase production so far, with the motive of adhering to OPEC rules on the one hand and not offending Russia too much on the other. One possibility is that Biden will persuade the Saudis to produce more oil. Iran's approach to making nuclear weapons and its close relations with Russia, the fact that the United States, although it wishes, cannot completely neglect the Middle East, and similar factors may facilitate the convincing of the Saudis.3
According to the author, if Biden really wanted to lower oil prices, he would have a better chance of making a deal with Iran and complying with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a multilateral agreement restricting Iran's nuclear activities, than going to the feet of a ruler like Mohammed bin Salman, who has a bad image in American society.
According to the author, Iranians are currently producing about 1.3 million barrels less per day than they did just before the current sanctions were imposed. And let us also note the presence of about 65 million barrels of oil that Iran stores ready for export.4
But it seems that although Biden has said that he is in favour of diplomacy in relations with Iran, his stance during this trip was far from diplomacy. In an interview with Israeli television, he once again refused to consider removing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organisations.5
Continuing on from Trump
The trip underscored that Biden's Middle East policy is a continuation of Donald Trump's, including the main theme of the trip, which is to promote deepening relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states.6 The administration clearly wants Saudi Arabia to move to full diplomatic relations with the Israelis during Biden's tenure, and push to other Arab states to take this step.7
Finally, Biden, while arguing that his country's interests necessitated this visit, declared that he aimed to strengthen inter-country cooperation without giving him credibility by trying to put Mohammed bin Salman on the back burner, but this visit will help MBS further increase the prince’s authority at home, rather than producing more oil.
Biden also wanted to emphasise the importance he attaches to the region by attending the Gulf Cooperation meeting. We will better assess over time how successful it is. Whether or not Biden managed to score any political points, the trip did not bring any obvious benefits to the national interest and is more likely to lead to negative consequences.8
As part of Plymouth’s MA International Relations: Security and Development, you’ll study modules such as Economic Diplomacy and Development and Strategy and Security and have the opportunity to discuss issues such as America's role in a changing Middle East. Find out more:
1 - Tovah Lazaroff, 12 July 2022, From Jerusalem to Saudi Arabia: 10 facts on US presidential visits to Israel, The Jerusalem Post
2 - Paul R. Pillar, 20 July 2022, Biden’s Middle East Trip Was About Domestic Politics, Not Peace, The National Interest
3 - Ibid.
4 - Ibid.
5 - Source: Al Jazeera, 13 July 2022, US willing to kill Iran deal to keep IRGC on ‘terror’ list: Biden, Al Jazeera
6 - Edward Wong, 24 July 2022, On U.S. Foreign Policy, the New Boss Acts a Lot Like the Old One, The New York Times
7 - Jacob Magid, 15 July 2022, Biden lands in Jeddah, set to announce more Saudi steps toward Israel normalization, The Times of İsrael
8 - Paul R. Pillar, 20 July 2022, Biden’s Middle East Trip Was About Domestic Politics, Not Peace, The National Interest