The US president’s upcoming trip to the region is being driven largely by a domestic political crisis linked to the price of oil, writes CIS Robert E Wilhelm Fellow Steven Simon and his co-author Aaron David Miller. This article first appeared here in Foreign Policy.
With rare exception, the Middle East has become a place where US presidential ideas, especially big ones, go to die. Wisely recognizing this cruel reality, US President Joe Biden’s administration tried to steer clear of the region through much of the past year and a half.
But the siren call of Arab hydrocarbons amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising gas prices have forced Biden back in. Still, as he travels to the region, Biden confronts big challenges—the need to increase oil supply; a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process; looming tensions between Iran and Israel; and an uncomfortable meeting with a Saudi crown prince, whose country Biden once deemed a “pariah”—that only offer the prospect of incremental gains.
The Biden administration may well succeed in facilitating progress in Israel’s emerging relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. But in truth, Biden’s priorities lie elsewhere. And he will be rightly wary of making deep commitments that might drag the United States deeper into a dysfunctional and disorderly region that is likely to remain so for years to come. Israel and the Arabs will take what the US president has to give, but they are acutely aware of his diminishing political currency and have begun to look past him toward the return of former US President Donald Trump or his avatar.
US presidential visits to the Middle East have come in various shapes and sizes. Biden’s upcoming trip to the region—triggered initially by now-former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s invitation—is being driven largely by a domestic U.S. political crisis linked to the price of oil.
Under an arrangement negotiated in 2020, the group of oil-producing countries known as OPEC+, which includes Russia and Saudi Arabia, aimed to reverse the fall in prices resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic by slashing production. As prices rebounded, OPEC+ producers began to unwind these production cuts. But the bow wave of initial cuts collided with rising demand while the Ukraine war disrupted supply. Energy prices skyrocketed, driving inflation in the United States and eviscerating Biden’s domestic political position in advance of the US midterm elections—hence the urgent need to pay court to the pariah.
The awkward fact, however, is that oil traders have already factored the ongoing loosening of supply restrictions into the price of energy, and Saudi commitments to pump more oil in response to Biden’s visit are too small to lower the price at the pump in the near term. Moreover, energy analysts expect that over the longer run, global demand will outstrip supply. If that trend holds, sustained high prices are baked into the world’s economic future, and relatively minor adjustments made by the Saudis in exchange for US favors won’t provide much solace to ordinary Americans.
In the meantime, Washington and its allies are considering US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s plan to cap the price of Russian oil. One thing is clear regarding the crisis that is propelling Biden to the Gulf: Fossil fuel consumption is getting the kind of boost that will push an energy transition into the indefinite future. The thrust of Biden’s visit might yield minor political benefits now, but they will come at a much more serious, though deferred, cost to the environment.
Biden’s Israel stop is perhaps the easiest lift of the trip, though it’s certainly not uncomplicated. He was not going to repeat the mistake of his former boss, former US President Barack Obama, by not visiting Israel early in his term—or worse, traveling to the region without stopping in Israel.
The Bennett-led “government of change” that Biden seemed to have bet on—hence his avoidance of pressuring it on settlements, or anything else for that matter, out of concern that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might return—has now collapsed. Yair Lapid, a moderate centrist, is now the caretaker prime minister. New elections will be held on Nov. 1, with Netanyahu angling to return to power.
By definition, a presidential visit will make Lapid look prime ministerial, which is what he needs to boost his case against Netanyahu, the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history. Biden will almost certainly talk about the United States’ unbreakable bond with Israel and its deep commitment to Israeli security. Lapid’s inaugural speech denounced extremism, reached out to Palestinians, and warned Iran. These are themes Biden can work with.
It is possible, though unlikely, that Lapid will use the opportunity to press Israeli requests for funding for laser air defenses as well as aircraft and munitions that would enable Israel to attack Iran on its own. If Lapid does go this route, Biden will likely temporize. Both of his recent predecessors refused requests for bombers and bunker-busters, fearing that Israel would start a fight it couldn’t finish and thereby drag the United States into a war it didn’t want.
Biden will meet with Netanyahu as head of the Israeli opposition, as is tradition. They’ve known each other for decades, but the happy talk will mask the fact that Biden is not relishing the return of Netanyahu, who humiliated him when he visited Israel during Obama’s first term. And Netanyahu, for his part, clearly hopes Biden will be replaced by Trump. The meeting is only a courtesy though, and given scheduled elections, it will reinforce the fact that Biden isn’t playing favorites. Expect a good deal of glad-handing and forced smiles but not much else.
The meeting between Biden and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas is obligatory. Biden will pretend that his administration is actually interested in doing something about the Palestinian issue and will talk about the importance of confidence-building measures as well as support for a two-state solution. Abbas will politely pretend that he has any hope that Washington will support the resumption of a political process that addresses Palestinian national aspirations for an independent state with agreed upon boundaries and a capital in East Jerusalem. He will press the US president on settlements and ask why he’s slow-walking the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem.
Biden, in turn, will push the Palestinians on fighting terrorism and press for an end to PA support for families of Palestinians imprisoned for acts of violence and terror against Israelis. At best, the meeting will be long on intentions and short on results.
Iran is the one truly strategic issue that will bedevil Biden’s talks in both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia—and perhaps Israel as well—would like nothing better than to see the United States pulverize Iran. Failing that, Riyadh is likely convinced that the next Republican administration will do as Trump did and tear up a reconstituted nuclear deal if Biden has managed to get one done.
In the meantime, the Saudis are hedging their bets. Like the United Arab Emirates, they have reached out to Iran to stabilize relations and put a stop to Houthi missile launches from Yemen. Nonetheless, the Saudis will ask pointed questions about what Washington will do if Iran attacks Saudi Arabia. But Biden should be extremely cautious about making any binding security commitments that might draw the United States into a war with Iran on Saudi rather than US terms.
Israel, meanwhile, is conducting not-so-covert operations to undermine Iran’s interest in reinstating the deal that Trump repudiated. Iran is now assessed to be weeks away from accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to fuel a bomb. Biden will ask Lapid for Israeli restraint while the United States tries to conclude talks that will ratchet back Iran’s nuclear progress, but Israel will not be impressed with the results of the European Union-brokered US-Iran talks in Qatar, which seemed to have ended without much progress.
Biden has been roundly criticized by the US Congress and human rights groups for his willingness to engage Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and bring him in from the cold. One way reportedly under discussion to ease the pain and parry criticism is for Washington to take a role in facilitating measures to improve Israeli-Saudi relations and create a road map toward normalization between the two countries that may include initial steps on commercial overflight rights for Israel and perhaps direct flights for Israeli Muslims to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, both home to holy sites in Saudi Arabia.
Whether Biden would be in a position to announce such measures is unclear. This week, the US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, said there would be no announcements on Israeli-Saudi normalization during this trip.
Indeed, one of the bright spots of the trip will be the growing alignment and cooperation between Israel and key Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, on matters from tourism to public health—and especially on security. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz hinted months ago that the Abraham Accords peace agreement that Israel signed with the UAE includes a special security arrangement, which apparently involves integration of Israeli and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) air defenses. Washington has been pushing for a GCC integrated air defense system for 40 years, but the member states never pulled it together.
Most recently, Obama’s 2015 US-GCC Summit at Camp David resolved to establish just that, minus the Israelis, but the GCC states never followed up despite U.S. prodding. Just because it’s an old chestnut doesn’t mean it’s pointless though. The GCC should have an integrated air defense system, and it’s in Israel’s and the United States’ interests to provide it. If it succeeds in providing early warnings of launches and the ability to destroy incoming missile and drone attacks from Iran and its Yemeni proxies, it could reduce the need for a U.S. military presence in the region. Saudi Arabia, however, will hope that it would have the opposite effect by energizing US defense contractors who supply and maintain the systems to lobby for a continued U.S. military role in defense of GCC states.
At this point, Mohammed bin Salman believes he’s won a test of wills by forcing Biden to end the freeze out that occurred in the wake of the murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. To the Saudis, Biden looks weak: a speed bump on the way to a Republican administration that will treat them in the manner they’ve become accustomed to. And it’s doubtless Netanyahu feels the same way.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia understand the Democrats’ vulnerabilities this November and read the same coverage everyone else does about the intraparty debate over Biden’s candidacy in 2024. Their incentive to be helpful is vanishingly small. Indeed, it would be surprising if Jared Kushner, a former senior adviser to Trump whose investment fund was gifted $2 billion by Mohammad bin Salman, was not working the phones, telling the Saudis to agree to nothing with the current administration.
Biden, for his part, does care deeply about Israel and understands that he needs to show that—despite larger challenges in Asia, Europe, and (of course) at home—the Middle East has not dropped off his radar screen. He will contend that his purposes for the trip transcend mere oil and domestic politics. At the same time, Israel and Saudi Arabia will take what they can get from the Biden administration, especially on security, even as they continue to worry about US retrenchment. In the case of Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman, they’ll hedge their bets in hopes of getting a better deal from the next administration.
What would a closer US-Saudi defense relationship look like? Apart from the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (the new moniker for a GCC-Israeli-US integrated air defense system) that was jump-started last year at a meeting of US, Israeli, and Gulf Arab senior officers, the range of options is wide.
At the high end, Biden could offer the Saudis a binding guarantee that the United States would come to their defense if attacked by Iran. In theory, such an agreement would require US Senate approval—in practice, not necessarily. Because these pacts limit the flexibility of signatories in a crisis or in changing strategic circumstances, they are quite rare. Moreover, in the United States, public support for the US-Saudi relationship is brittle, and a formal defense commitment would draw unwanted attention from critics.
At the low end, Biden could proffer a defense cooperation agreement where the United States would commit to consultations if the Saudis were attacked. This would be an important gesture of US interest and intention but without committing Washington to automatic intervention. This is the sort of agreement the United States already has with other GCC states. The reason there isn’t one with Saudi Arabia is that it turned one down in the 1990s and expelled the US negotiating team. As with so many things, Mohammed bin Salman’s thinking differs sharply from the old guard’s.
Despite the Biden administration’s attempt to persuade these states that America is back and not deprioritizing the region, the locals know better—or think they do. For the foreseeable future though, Saudi Arabia’s wish for a continued US military presence in the region will be met regardless of these dour expectations. The United States maintains an elaborate basing structure in the Persian Gulf, with the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, another sprawling air base in the UAE, and war materiel stored in Oman and Kuwait. US forces routinely deploy to these installations. As long as Iran remains an adversary—and as long as the price of oil is an important factor in a globalized economy—these bases aren’t going away.
If there’s a silver lining in this cloud, it’s that US risk aversion has prompted greater risk tolerance on the part of Gulf Arab countries and Israel to reach out to each other for their collective security. The United States has incubated them and kept them safe while they matured into regional powers, which they now see themselves to be. Empty nest syndrome can lead to undue involvement in the lives of one’s offspring. As Biden undertakes his first trip to the Middle East as president, he might well resist this temptation.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
Steven Simon is the Robert E. Wilhelm fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for International Studies and a senior analyst with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He served at the US State Department in Republican and Democratic administrations and on the US National Security Council staff under former US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He is a co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America. Twitter: @sns_1239