US will not leave the Middle East or leave a vacuum, Biden told Arab leaders

President Joe Biden assured Arab leaders that the United States will continue to be actively involved in Middle Eastern affairs on Saturday as he completed his first tour of the region since taking office.

“We will not go away and leave a vacuum that will be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said during a summit in Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia.

In particular, U.S. relations with the Gulf powers have been fraught with a host of issues in recent years, notably Washington’s push for a deal to contain Iran’s alleged nuclear program and its lukewarm response to attacks on Saudi oil installations in 2019. rebels.

The summit, the final leg of Biden’s tour of the Middle East, brought together six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Biden hoped to use the trip to discuss oil price volatility and outline his vision for Washington’s role in the region.

On Friday, he met with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who U.S. intelligence agencies say “endorsed” the 2018 operation that killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

After the fight with Prince Mohammed, Biden said he raised the issue of the Khashoggi case and warned against future attacks on dissidents.

Prince Mohammed, who presided over Saturday’s opening summit, denied any involvement in the death of Khashoggi, who was dismembered at the royal consulate in Istanbul and whose remains have never been found.

Biden told the assembled Arab leaders that “the future will be with countries that reach the full potential of their populations…where citizens can ask questions and criticize leaders without fear of reprisals.”

Air Force One took off from Jeddah around 1700 (1400 GMT) on Saturday, ending Biden’s four-day stay in the region.

Ukraine tension

Biden said the United States will provide $1 billion in food aid to the Middle East and North Africa amid rising food insecurity caused by the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed once-unthinkable rifts between Washington and key Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, oil giants that are becoming increasingly independent on the international stage.

The wealthy Gulf states, which host US troops and have been a solid supporter of Washington for decades, have conspicuously refrained from supporting the Biden administration as it seeks to stifle Moscow’s escape routes, from energy to diplomacy.

Analysts say the new stance marks a turning point in the Gulf states’ relationship with the US, which has long been the region’s protector against neighboring Iran.

But Saturday brought some conciliatory gestures: Biden invited his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to visit the White House before the end of the year.

In his speech at the summit, Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia said he hoped this would “establish a new era of joint cooperation to deepen the strategic partnership between our countries and the United States of America, to serve our common interests and enhance security and development in this vital region for all over the world”.

Click on the oil

Riyadh and Washington on Friday signed 18 agreements in areas such as energy, space, health and investment, including the development of 5G and 6G technologies, Saudi Arabia said in a statement.

In a separate joint statement, the two countries noted “the importance of their strategic economic and investment cooperation, especially in light of the current crisis in Ukraine and its aftermath, reaffirming their commitment to the stability of global energy markets.”

Saudi Arabia has agreed to connect the GCC’s electricity grid to Iraq, which relies heavily on energy from Iran, “to provide Iraq and its people with new and diversified sources of electricity,” the White House said.

Washington wants Riyadh to open the oil floodgates to bring down skyrocketing gasoline prices that threaten the Democrats’ chances in the November midterm elections.

But Biden on Friday tried to dispel expectations that his trip would bring immediate profit.

“I’m doing my best to increase shipments to the United States of America,” he said, adding that concrete results won’t be seen “for another couple of weeks.”

Israeli connections

White House officials used the trip as an attempt to promote integration between Israel and the Arab countries.

The strategic Red Sea islands of Tirana and neighboring Sanafira were also expected to be on the agenda on Saturday.

Egypt ceded the islands to Saudi Arabia in 2016, but the deal requires an Israeli green light, a move that could spur ties between the Jewish state and Riyadh.

On Friday, Biden said the decades-old multinational peacekeeping force, including US troops, would leave Tiran, while the White House added that they would leave the country by the end of the year.

Saudi Arabia has refused to join the US-brokered Abraham Accord, which in 2020 established ties between Israel and the kingdom’s two neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

But he is showing signs of being more open to Israel, and on Friday announced the lifting of overflight restrictions on planes traveling to and from Israel, a move Biden called “historic.”