President Joe Biden concluded the final leg of his four-day trip by attending an Arab summit on Saturday to lay out his Middle East strategy in a region poised for a confrontation with Iran.
The US President spent the morning meeting individually with the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, some of whom he had never met.
Biden invited Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who became UAE president two months ago, to visit the White House this year, saying he looks forward to “another period of strong and growing cooperation” between their countries under the sheikh’s leadership.
The Gulf Cooperation Council summit, which is taking place in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, is an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate his commitment to the region after spending much of his presidency on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing influence in Asia.
Hours before the conference began, the White House released satellite imagery showing Russian officials have recently visited Iran twice to see combat drones it wants to acquire for use in the war in Ukraine.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the summit said Moscow’s efforts to acquire drones from Tehran show that Russia is “virtually banking on Iran.”
None of the countries represented at the summit have imposed sanctions on Russia, a key foreign policy priority of the Biden administration.
Once shunned, now punched
Biden’s presence at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit followed his Friday meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom and heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman.
The U.S. president initially avoided Prince Mohammed because of human rights violations, notably the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence officials believe was likely approved by the crown prince.
But Biden decided he needed to rebuild long-standing ties between the two countries to address rising gas prices and bolster stability in the volatile region.
Biden and Prince Mohammed greeted each other with a fist when the president arrived at the royal palace in Jeddah, a gesture that was immediately criticized. Biden later said he did not shy away from discussing Khashoggi’s murder during their meeting.
According to a U.S. official familiar with the private conversations, the topic sparked a “cold” start to the discussion.
However, over time, the atmosphere has calmed down, the official said, as the focus was on energy security, the expansion of high-speed Internet access in the Middle East and other issues.
Biden even tried to add humor to the conversation towards the end of the meeting, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to discuss the private session.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network, citing an unnamed Saudi source, said Prince Mohammed reacted to Biden’s mention of Khashoggi by saying attempts to impose a set of values could backfire.
He also said the US made mistakes in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison where prisoners were tortured and put pressure on Biden over the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shirin Abu Akle during a recent Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s state minister for foreign affairs, called the visit a “great success” and brushed off questions about friction between the two countries.
“Perhaps the naysayers are people who are looking for theatrics or drama. However, the reality is that these relationships are very strong,” he told Arab News, a Saudi news organization.
Energy prices on the agenda
Speaking before the Gulf Cooperation Council, Biden will offer his most comprehensive vision of the region and the US role in it, the White House said. The Biden administration is also expected to announce $1 billion (about €1 billion) in food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa.
The first trip of a US president to the Middle East came 11 months after the chaotic withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Biden also seeks to distract the country from the devastating wars in the Middle East and ongoing conflicts stretching from Libya to Syria.
Energy prices, which have risen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, were expected to be high on the agenda. But Biden aides tempered expectations that he would leave, striking a deal with regional producers to boost supply immediately.
“I suspect you won’t see this for another couple of weeks,” Biden told reporters late Friday night.
At the summit, Biden should have heard concerns about regional stability and security, food security, climate change and the lingering threat of terrorism.
In general, when it comes to foreign policy, the heads of the nine Middle Eastern states agree on little. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates are trying to isolate and push Iran away because of its regional influence and puppets.
Oman and Qatar, on the other hand, have strong diplomatic relations with Iran and have acted as mediators in negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
Talks recently took place in Qatar between US and Iranian officials who were trying to revive the Iranian nuclear deal.
Not only does Iran share a vast underwater gas field in the Persian Gulf with Qatar, it rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties and imposed a years-long embargo on Qatar that ended shortly before Biden took office. .
Disappointment in Biden over Yemeni Houthis decision
Biden’s actions have disappointed some leaders. While the US has played a major role in encouraging a months-long ceasefire in Yemen, its decision to reverse a Trump-era move that listed Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist group angered the leadership of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
As for US concerns about China’s expansion of influence, China appears ready to provide Saudi Arabia with missile and nuclear technology, in which the US is more hesitant. China is also the largest buyer of Saudi oil.
For Iraq, which has the deepest and most important ties to Iran of any Arab country, its presence at the meeting reflects US-backed Saudi efforts to bring Iraq closer to Arab positions and the so-called Arab circle.
Iraq has held several rounds of direct talks between Saudi and Iranian officials since Biden took office, though the talks have come up short.
Before the summit, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, who survived the November assassination attempt via armed drones, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that Iraq faces many challenges but is working “to solve Iraqi problems with Iraqi solutions.”
“When US President Joe Biden arrives in the Middle East this week, he will arrive in a region facing multiple challenges, from terrorism to food insecurity to climate change,” he wrote.
“But the Middle East is also a region that is increasingly facing these challenges together under the leadership of a group of leaders committed to positive change.”