JEDDA, Saudi Arabia. During his painful clashes with several Arab leaders here in Saudi Arabia this weekend, President Biden continued to return to the sole reason for resuming his relationship with American allies who were on the wrong side of the struggle, which he often describes as a battle between “democracy and autocracy.”
“We will not go away and leave a vacuum that will be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” Biden said Saturday at a meeting with nine Arab leaders in the grand ballroom of a hotel in this ancient Red Sea port. “And we will try to seize this moment under active and principled American leadership.”
mr. It is telling how Biden describes America’s mission as part of a renewed form of superpower rivalry. For decades, American presidents have largely viewed the Middle East as a hotbed of strife and instability, a place where the United States needed a presence mainly to keep oil flowing and eliminate terrorist sanctuaries. Now, more than 20 years after a group of Saudis left the country to stage attacks on the World Trade Center and strike at the Pentagon, Biden is driven by a new concern: his forced dance with dictators, though nasty, is the only choice if its main goal is to contain Russia and beat China.
“We’re getting results,” he insisted Friday night after meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who clearly sees an opportunity for diplomatic rehabilitation after Biden refused to see him for months, accusing him of complicity in murder of Jamal KhashoggiSaudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.
mr. Biden’s efforts to negotiate more oil output – nasty enough for a president who came to power promising to help wean the world off fossil fuels – are driven by the need to make Russia pay a high price for invading Ukraine. So far, the price has been paltry: Not only do the Russians continue to earn significant oil and gas revenues, they even supply Saudi Arabia with fuel for its power plants, Reuters recently reported, at cut-price.
Perhaps the most notable of Mr. Biden’s flurry of announcements with the Saudis was signed on Friday night to cooperate on a new technology to build the country’s next-generation 5G and 6G telecommunications networks. The main competitor of the United States in this area is China, as well as Huawei, China’s state-backed rival, which has made significant strides in the region.
This is all part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to start putting pressure on Beijing in parts of the world where for years the Chinese government has made progress without feeling much competition.
Three weeks ago, at the NATO summit, mr. Biden hailed a new “strategic vision” for the Western alliance, which for the first time recognized China as a systemic “challenge”, calling its policies coercive and its cyber operations around the world malicious. The doctrine says that Beijing, along with Russia, is trying to “undermine the rules-based international order,” words similar to those used by the Biden administration during this trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
After that summit, European officials said they would focus on fighting China’s influence in Europe and reducing reliance on its electronics, software and other products.
President Biden’s visit to the Middle East
The US president visited Israel and Saudi Arabia after calling the latter country a rogue state following the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The effort here in Jeddah is similar—to show that the United States will help counter Chinese and Russian influence. mr. Biden laid out a five-part “new framework for the Middle East” that includes support for economic development, military security and democratic freedoms. “Let me conclude by summing it all up in one sentence,” he said. “The United States is investing in building a positive future in the region in partnership with all of you, and the United States is not going anywhere.”
In a room full of unelected autocrats and absolute monarchs, he pushed them towards human rights the day after meeting Prince Mohammed, who, according to the CIA, ordered the 2018 operation that killed Mr Mohammed. Khashoggi. The freedom to dissent will make them stronger, not weaker, he says.
He didn’t mention the fact that hangs over the Middle East’s trade relationship with Beijing: they know that Chinese investment comes without lectures, let alone sanctions, for human rights violations. But Mr. Biden was trying to prove that freedom and innovation go hand in hand.
“I have received a lot of criticism over the years. It’s not fun,” he said. “But the ability to speak openly and share ideas freely is what paves the way for innovation.”
mr. Biden also sought to reassure Sunni Arab leaders at the table that his efforts to strike a new nuclear deal with their Shiite enemy in Iran would not put them at risk. “As we continue to work closely with many of you to counter the threat posed to the region by Iran, we are also engaging in diplomacy to bring back restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program.” Biden said. “But no matter what, the United States is committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.”
The meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the leaders of three other Arab states, came after Biden met separately with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, where tens of thousands of political prisoners are imprisoned and Mr. Sisi ruthlessly suppresses dissent. mr. Biden did not comment when reporters were in the room for the first few minutes, and instead thanked Mr. Trump. Sisi for “incredible help” in Gaza, where Egypt promised to help rebuild letters between Hamas and Israel after last year’s war. Aides said he would raise the issue of human rights in private.
In rivalry with China, the United States continues to maintain close ties throughout the Middle East with business interests that have developed decades after the discovery of oil.
However, as many presidential advisers acknowledge, fighting Chinese influence in the region will be a difficult task. China has made significant progress in recent years.
As America waged wars in the region, China’s Belt and Road Development Initiative pushed its way through the Persian Gulf, to the point of building a major port in the United Arab Emirates—until work halted after US warnings from the UAE that the real goal was Beijing has been setting up a secret military base.
In January, Chinese officials held a virtual meeting with Saudi Arabian officials about the sale of military equipment to the kingdom, acknowledging that Chinese weapons are now significantly more high-tech than even a few years ago. (Decades ago, Saudi Arabia bought several giant intercontinental ballistic missiles from China, raising fears that the country might develop nuclear weapons, but those fears did not pan out.)
Huawei is connecting the region by quietly installing its networks, based on the theory that a country that controls the flow of electrons in national networks will have exclusive control over the region’s infrastructure.
During the Trump administration, the United States warned allies that if they signed a contract with Huawei and other major Chinese suppliers, Washington would deny them access to intelligence reports and limit their participation in military alliances. But all this was a stick, not a carrot, because there was no alternative to the American product that could be offered to them.
Which Mr. Biden this weekend unveiled a new technology called “Open-RAN” for open radio access networks that primarily runs on software and access to information in the cloud – all areas where the United States has an advantage. Over the course of several months of negotiations, US officials crafted a “Memorandum of Understanding” that would essentially turn Saudi Arabia into a proving ground for using the system on a large scale, even though Huawei had already rolled out its networks across the country.
“That’s the idea behind the project,” said Ann Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cybersecurity and emerging technologies. “Prototype quickly here in Saudi Arabia, prove it works at scale, and become a model for the region.” She called it “a pragmatic, reality-based project”.
When asked about the US strategy, Saudi officials went to great lengths to say they were not trying to displace China in any way and that they could use both Western and Chinese telecommunications systems. Saudi Ambassador to the United States Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud compared coexisting technology to having Starbucks and Coffee Bean or McDonalds and Burger King. But networks are much more complex because they have to work with each other.
Skeptics wonder if the Cold War formulation of the need to revive alliances in the Middle East is more of a pretext for oil deals than a real interest in deep engagement.
“It’s true that China is making some headway,” said Corey Shake, director of foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But this is a natural result of China’s energy needs and oil producers thriving because of Russia’s invasion, and the U.S. under the last three presidents refusing to respond to Iranian strikes on the Persian Gulf.”
“But it’s also the result of the Biden administration’s policy of challenging China as a democracy against autocracy,” she added, “which puts Saudi Arabia on the side of China.”