Biden's Middle East trip reinforced an untenable status quo

6 min read
26 July, 2022
Analysis: Setting aside the human rights agenda he campaigned on to achieve realpolitik goals, observers say Biden left the Middle East empty-handed.

It is unclear what the US administration expected from President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East earlier this month, but what is clear is that the public reaction to the visit and its aftermath were likely not what they’d hoped for.

Since Biden’s return to the US, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to Saudi Arabia to discuss oil production. Oil prices in the US, meanwhile, remain high.

Moreover, a US-based human rights lawyer, who represented slain Saudi columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, has been detained in the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf ally that routinely violates human rights and due process. 

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Misreading public opinion? 

Probably the most memorable moment of Biden’s trip was his fist bump with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), inevitable fodder for international ridicule. 

The chummy fist bump (chosen to minimise exposure to covid, which Biden tested positive for days after his return), quickly came to symbolise a US administration seemingly out of touch with its constituents and the international community.   

“I think the White House itself was surprised by the American public’s negative reaction to the trip,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, tells The New Arab.   

“They somehow missed that this would be an unpopular trip,” he said.  

"Implying that meeting with MBS and supporting an abusive government is our only option forward is not true. There are many other policy and energy options"

Prior to the visit, it was believed, or at least hoped, by many that this visit would be based on realpolitik - a cynical but necessary move to bring down the price of oil, show a united front against Russia, and try to steer Saudi Arabia away from doing business with China.

Before Biden’s departure, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, speaking with MSNBC, said circumstances had changed, citing the war in Ukraine, making this trip a necessary compromise.   

"One of the things that has changed since the campaign, has changed in recent months, is that Russia is committing daily human rights violations, atrocities in Ukraine against thousands of Ukrainian civilians," he said.    

"And one other thing that's changed - the strain, the pressure on our key European allies and partners because oil and gas prices continue to rise," he continued.   

Joe Biden (left) and Mohammed bin Salman (right).
US President Joe Biden was welcomed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 15 July 2022. [Getty]

Worse than realpolitik? 

But after Biden left, it became apparent to many that the outcome of his visit might have been even worse than realpolitik.

Even when setting aside the human rights ideals he’d campaigned on, he appeared to leave empty-handed.   

“The US gets nothing. Zero. Let’s assume you don’t care. They still get nothing. It’s not even realpolitik,” says Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN), tells TNA

As though to confirm this sense of failure, when the Saudi government was asked what Biden had gained from the trip, they said that he’d gotten the chance to meet a world leader.  

For some, this was reminiscent of recently resigned UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s March trip to the country shortly after the Saudi government executed 81 people.  

"Biden had promised to prioritise human rights but instead has maintained the same relationships he had said he would change"

An unnecessary trip?  

Was Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia necessary? Parsi doesn’t think so.  

“Since Biden was so adamant about not meeting MBS, many saw this as engaging in humiliation,” says Parsi. “I understand the need to make the trip to Israel, but the Saudi leg of the trip I just don’t get.” 

That’s not to say that the Saudis are especially savvy, but rather, “We are fundamentally unsavvy,” he says. “We’re playing our cards badly.” 

Raed Jarrar, an advocacy director at DAWN, saw the meeting between Biden and the crown prince as “a shameful indicator that US policy will continue in the wrong direction”. 

He notes that Biden had promised to prioritise human rights, but instead has maintained the same relationships he had said he would change. Moreover, he sees these necessary alliances for gas prices as a false narrative. 

“There are many geopolitical reasons and solutions for dealing with high gas prices,” he says.

“Implying that meeting with MBS and supporting an abusive government is our only option forward is not true. There are many other policy and energy options. There’s alternative energy or oil from other suppliers. Those issues can be dealt with separately."

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A similar reaction over Israel 

Biden’s time in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, just before heading to Saudi Arabia, though less high-profile and arguably more necessary, appeared to elicit a similar public reaction, particularly after saying that now was not the right time for peace talks. 

Biden’s flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah made him the first president to fly between the two countries, a symbolic step in the normalisation process between Israel and oil-rich Gulf states, all the more remarkable given the Palestinians’ absence in this historic process. 

“The discussion is about you, but you’re not there,” Hatem Al-Bazian, a lecturer of Middle East languages and culture and UC Berkeley, tells TNA. “Israel has already said it wants to pursue an economic plan with the Palestinians, not a land-based plan.” 

He describes this plan as superficial and not getting to the heart of the issue, which is a lack of human rights and democracy. 

“No matter what Arab countries you bring in, it’s still an apartheid state. It’s not going away,” he says. 

Palestinians hold banners during a protest against US President Joe Biden's support for Israel in Ramallah, West Bank on 15 July 2022. [Getty]

Why is Biden not keeping his campaign promises? 

While it can be easy to criticise Biden for failing to keep some of his key campaign promises related to the Middle East – such as making Saudi Arabia a pariah and not meeting MBS, reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem, and renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal – it can be difficult to understand the level of pressure he’s under to continue with the previous administration’s policies. 

He might have seen what happened to Obama after he chose Cairo as his first visit and major speech in the region in his first term, as he proposed a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world. 

“He got pulverised in the midterms,” Al-Bazian recalls. 

At least for now, he says he’s not optimistic about the future of the region, one he sees as reverting to a pre-Arab Spring status in terms of democracy and freedom, accelerated by a lack of strength by US leadership.   

"We are fundamentally unsavvy. We're playing our cards badly"

This dismay over Biden’s foreign policy since taking office has not been limited to the activist community.  

On Sunday, The New York Times published an analysis titled ‘On U.S. Foreign Policy, the New Boss Acts a Lot Like the Old One’ arguing that Biden’s policies strongly resemble those of former president Donald Trump – from following the Abraham Accords to sidelining Iran. 

Though this is arguably unfair in many areas, in the Middle East, Biden’s policies are in line with Trump’s much more than with Obama’s. 

While it is no doubt difficult to change course, many of Biden’s voters might say that’s why they elected him over his opponent in the first place.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business, and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews