Decode39 reads Biden’s Middle East trip. The US president touched down in Israel and Saudi Arabia for a four-day trip that yielded immediate successes, limitations, and longer-term developments. Later, we held an expert Live Talk to delve beyond the headlines.
- Our own Emanuele Rossi moderated a discussion with two of Italy’s leading experts on the MENA region: Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and Giuseppe Dentice, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk at the Centre for International Studies.
Ever more central. After Israel, Mr Biden flew to Jeddah, where he met with Mohammed Bin Salman, de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, for the first time since his election. Alongside him were the Gulf Council’s leaders and those of Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
- Mr Rossi noted how the region is enjoying a newfound, energy-related centrality as a consequence of the Russian war in Ukraine. That was one of the main drivers behind the US president’s decision to visit the Saudi prince, following years of cooling ties.
- Israel, too, “is acquiring a sort of centrality linked to the US regional disengagement,” arguing that the US was entrusting it to manage regional affairs.
- The process of rapprochement between the Israelis and Saudis, “which is ongoing but with distinctions,” is a direct result of the above.
It’s about influence. The US was striving to find shared solutions on oil and a way to disengage the Gulf countries from China (and, partly, from Russia). An attempt to halt a decline in its influence in the region, argued Ms Bianco.
- That decline began a few years ago, particularly with regards to Saudi Arabia. The decades-long relationship saw the US acting as a security provider vis à vis Iran and gaining Saudi cooperation on energy markets in return.
And oil games. Riyadh alone can manipulate the oil market globally, as it did in 2020 when Washington leveraged their relationship “to force Russia to come to terms with their idea of coordinating production, so as to control and preserve Saudi market shares endangered by the pandemic.”
- This policy, which seemed suicidal for the Saudis, “drove the price of crude oil into negative territory and forced the Russians to negotiate a production agreement.”
- Now the Americans are asking the Saudis to consider an impact strategy to put the Russians in a difficult spot and weaken them in the one area where they still manage to get funds for the invasion of Ukraine.
- “If we do not understand this, we do not understand why this trip was important. [Mr] Biden had distanced himself from [Mr] Bin Salman when he was elected, but now he has tried to smooth things over,” added Ms Bianco.
Is it enough? Back home, the Biden administration found itself having to justify the trip and rebuild relations with MbS. Facilitating the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations, and distancing the formers from the Chinese, were suitable objectives. However, argued the ECFR expert, “pursuing all of them creates many opportunities for failure.”
- She argued that the Saudis would build relations with Israel by themselves.
- Also, the one trip wasn’t enough to distance the Saudis from the Chinese, who are privileged customers.
Balancing needs. “Riyadh understands that China has been weakened by Cocid mismanagement, as have the Russians with the Ukraine invasion. However, if they are to set them aside, they need a level of commitment that the US is unwilling to make,” argued Ms Bianco.
- On the other hand, the European role in the region is growing. The EU always left the US to deal with energy issues, but following the latter’s retreat, the former is paying more attention to that area.
Turning to Israel: Giuseppe Dentice, head of the Middle East and North Africa desk at the Centre for International Studies, noted the Israeli press saw Mr Biden’s visit as “a success.”
- Still, he argued, it’s hard to tell what he achieved. “He presented himself as a historical partner, showing that the relationship is still strong and basing his initiative on anti-Iranism, moving in continuity with previous administrations. He assured that he also wants to protect Israel militarily, which only reaffirms the US commitment in this field.”
- Other issues, such as Palestine, “were kept on the sidelines,” as Mr Biden “implicitly held up Donald Trump’s line of decoupling the issues” and reiterated the status quo.
- One tangible result is the opening of flights between Tel Aviv and Jeddah, but there was nothing else that politically defines this qualitative leap, argued the CeSI expert.
- “The Saudis acted not based on the Abraham Agreement but on the 1944 Chicago Declaration. The Saudis want to abide by the rules of commercial air flights.”
And Italy is in the MENA area “both as an international player and within the EU,” added Mr Dentice. “If we think of Italy as a global player, it has its strength, but its influence can only be such within the European context.”
- To date, the most active power is France, which pursues its own foreign policy that sometimes is independent of European lines. “This is why Italy must seek a common line with the EU in cooperation with France, Germany and Great Britain, he said, and try to promote interest in issues beyond security. Understanding that Italy is a medium-sized and active power, but cannot alone solve the problems of the southern shore of the Mediterranean.”
The regional trend of détente will continue for the medium term, argued Mr Dentice, until international dossiers capable of changing the cards on the table – such as the stalled Iranian nuclear issue – become unstuck.
- “We are moving forward in a process that entails transformations in intra-state relations, and normalisation with Israel is part of this process that will go on at its own pace. The Iranian and Syrian dossiers will be central to seeing the shape of the dynamics in the region.”
- Finally, the expert foresees the nationalisation of the Libyan crisis, although international actors continue to move; “it is a fluid context.”
The Italian language Live Talk is available here.