President Biden will be in the Middle East this week, where he’ll meet with 11 regional leaders. It’s the first trip of his presidency to the region — prompted in part by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rising oil prices it’s caused.
No major strategic deals appear to be in the works but the White House says the president hopes to build on connections between the countries and support what it says is a more stable region than it was a couple of years ago.
The Middle East is relatively calm — but just barely. The seven-year war in Yemen — with hundreds of thousands dead from violence and deprivation — has seen three months of cease-fire between Iran-backed and Saudi-led forces. Although there’s frequent violence between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s nothing like last year’s Gaza war. Iran-backed attacks in Iraq — and U.S. retaliation — have stayed at low levels.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that the region is more stable now than when Biden took office. He said the U.S. seeks “a region with more stability and with fewer wars that could draw the United States in.”
And the oil is flowing from the Gulf to the world — unlike the energy supplies from Russia and Ukraine. The administration has been urging the Gulf countries to keep oil supplies high as gas prices are up in the U.S. and the midterm elections approach. Though they say the trip isn’t about oil, White House officials note that “energy security” is one of the topics.
The president is expected to announce steps to counter Iran by expanding ties between Israel and Arab countries. He’ll try to strengthen Saudi backing for the Yemen cease-fire.
And in general, Biden is expected to seek to get all the leaders he meets to help keep up the pressure on Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.
The meetings start in Israel on Wednesday. Then Biden will go to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to meet the Palestinian leadership. From there, he’ll attend a regional Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he’ll meet the Saudi leader along with leaders from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
Perhaps the main drama will come Friday or Saturday, when Biden is expected to meet face-to-face with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — along with his ailing father, King Salman, who is 86.
Meeting the Saudi leaders means the administration is turning a page
When he ran for president, Biden called Saudi Arabia “a pariah” for its human rights record and its escalation of the war in Yemen — while former President Donald Trump was defending the monarchy. Biden’s administration made public the U.S. finding that Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018.
But with gas prices high in the U.S. and several regional security issues at stake, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have things in common they both want to talk about. This meeting will take that to its highest level — breaking the ice, as one analyst says.
The U.S. has been urging Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to increase oil production. It’s praising the monarchy for agreeing to the Yemen cease-fire and wants to keep that going — one of Biden’s top foreign policy promises was to end the war there.
The meeting itself is a win for Mohammed bin Salman, who’s trying to repair his image and draw Western investment in the kingdom so it can be less dependent on oil sales. He’ll also likely ask the U.S. to resume some weapons sales that Biden has suspended because of the Yemen war.
And while the Saudis probably aren’t ready to open full relations with Israel, as Biden might wish — following the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain under the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords — they might be willing to agree to some deals about flyover rights for Israel and more cooperation on security issues.
The U.S. is eager to make sure that Saudi Arabia does not intensify its ongoing ties with China and Russia. China looks to expand its influence in the Middle East and buys a lot of oil. Russia — which depends on oil exports that are now impeded by sanctions for the Ukraine war — could look to Saudi Arabia to keep oil supplies tight so Western countries will feel the pain.
But there’s a tradeoff to closer ties with the kingdom. Biden will be helping rehabilitate the reputation of a country that’s crushed dissent at home and killed civilians in Yemen. Human rights advocates want Biden to talk about those issues publicly, putting pressure on the kingdom. Biden doesn’t promise to do that, but he’s aware of the controversy and said last weekend that he will keep human rights on the agenda.
Palestinians hope to be a U.S. priority and fear that Arab leaders will leave them behind
Biden plans to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday or Thursday. The White House says this will be to deepen channels with the Palestinians that were almost entirely severed under the Trump administration, which took some major steps favoring Israel.
To help the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, President Biden is expected to announce U.S. funding for Palestinian hospitals that had been cut by Trump. Biden is expected to reiterate U.S. support for a two-state solution for peace with Israel and an independent Palestinian state side-by-side — something Trump had left in question.
Abbas is concerned about the Arab summit in Jeddah, and wants his counterparts not to go too far in building relations with Israel until Israel ends its occupation of the Palestinian territories. Palestinian leaders see that as one of their best sources of pressure on Israel.
The White House says it’s continually seeking ways to build a foundation for new peace talks — even if the sides are too far apart now to hold them.
One issue that Biden might not address is the killing in May of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, while she was covering an Israeli military operation. The U.S. has said the bullet that killed her likely came from Israeli troops and her family has asked to meet with Biden, but tells NPR they’ve not heard an answer. Israel says it’s still investigating whether the bullet came from its troops or militants.
Israel is in transition but wants reassurances on Iran and new ties in the region
President Biden first went to Israel nearly 50 years ago and counts himself as a strong supporter of the Jewish state. Most Israelis express confidence in Biden, but they gave higher ratings in 2019 to Trump. Trump made showy moves to favor Israel, like endorsing its claim to Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy there.
Israel is in a prolonged spell of political upheaval. In November, it will hold its fifth election in just over three years. Biden will meet with caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a relative moderate in a country where right-wingers are prevalent.
Lapid will likely seek to make sure Israel is kept up to date and has input on any possible revival of the Iran nuclear deal. That deal would allow Iran to do business with the world again if it reinstates restrictions on its nuclear program.
Iran’s leaders deny Israel’s existence and periodically threaten to attack Israel. Israel — which analysts widely believe possesses undisclosed nuclear weapons — says it will not allow Iran to produce a nuclear weapon. It has been blamed by Iran for assassinating scientists and sabotaging facilities in Iran.
Biden seeks to help Israel’s “integration” in the region — meaning closer ties with Arab countries. And as he meets Israeli leaders and visits the country’s Holocaust memorial, Biden will be reminding Israelis and Americans of his commitment to the country’s security.