President Joe Biden arrived Wednesday in Israel, part of a broader Middle East visit with stops in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. He will push Israel’s deeper integration into the region, urge Gulf countries to pump more oil to alleviate the global energy crisis and offer assurances that the U.S. is not deprioritizing the region, despite its focus on the war in Ukraine and strategic competition with China.
It will be a complicated trip for Biden, who has been criticized by activists and members of his own party for his apparent reset of relations with the Saudi kingdom that he once characterized as having “no redeeming social value.”
"Our goal has been to recalibrate but not rupture the relationship with Saudi Arabia," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday. Sullivan argued that in a world that’s increasingly geopolitically competitive, especially in the Indo Pacific and Europe, the U.S. must remain intensively engaged in the Middle East.
“The Middle East is deeply interwoven with the rest of the world. And if we act now to create a more peaceful and stable region, it will pay dividends to the American national interest and to the American people for years to come.”
In Israel he will meet caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Israel’s security amid a resurgent Iran, including the integration of its air defense capabilities with Gulf Arab countries.
In the West Bank, Biden will reiterate support for a two-state solution and seek to reset relations with the Palestinian Authority after the Trump administration slashed aid and closed the American consulate in Jerusalem that served as the U.S. mission to the Palestinians.
Biden will attend the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) and Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, where he will lay out his vision for U.S. engagement in the region.
He is set to meet King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to repair ties with Saudi Arabia – a country he once called a pariah.
Observers will be watching how Biden might balance those interests with a foreign policy doctrine that centers on the supremacy of democracies over autocracies, especially in light of the killings of journalists Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh.
Here are key issues to watch:
As the U.S. and other countries face soaring fuel prices and high inflation triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine, Biden has little choice but to engage oil producing countries in the region.
However, prices have jumped so steeply that it’s highly unlikely producers can pump enough oil to sustainably lower prices, said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East.
Oil prices have remained high despite a June agreement to boost crude output by 648,000 barrels per day in July and August by the group known as OPEC+, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, including Russia.
“I just don't see that the Saudis and the UAE are willing to break out of the OPEC+ framework,” Ulrichsen told VOA. “They have their own relationship with Russia to think about.”
Market dynamics are unlikely to change any time soon, observers say, a reason why the administration has been downplaying expectations that the visit could lower gas prices and alleviate inflation, underscoring instead that the focus will be on regional security rather than energy.
Israeli integration, Iran containment
The U.S. has for decades pushed for an integrated air defense system between GCC member states and Israel – a proposal with renewed prospects given the growing cooperation between Israel and key Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates.
“Bilaterally we're talking with nations across the region about air defense capabilities specifically and what we can do to assist with their defense and then, exploring the idea of being able to kind of integrate all those air defenses together,” John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told reporters Thursday.
The increasing alignment is motivated by fear of an expansionist and resurgent Iran. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley said earlier this week that Tehran is potentially weeks away to accumulating enough highly enriched uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb.
Talks aimed at breaking an impasse over how to salvage Iran's 2015 nuclear deal ended last week without much progress.
With Jerusalem and Riyadh both unnerved by Iran, the Biden administration has been quietly working toward diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Given the kingdom’s clout in the Muslim world, it would be the most significant expansion of the Trump-era Abraham Accords, whereby the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan recognized Israel, overriding the Arab world’s commitment to withhold normalization until Israel agrees to end its occupation of Palestinian territory.
During the trip, Biden will fly directly between Tel Aviv and Jeddah and back, a first for a U.S. president after Trump’s historic 2017 flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. There are currently no direct commercial flights between the two countries.
While normalization is unlikely to happen any time soon, observers see Biden’s flight as another signal by the Saudis that it’s inevitable.
Israeli businesspeople are already visiting the kingdom, said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Having it be acknowledged publicly would be helpful for the Biden administration to point to as an indicator of progress, Cook told VOA.
Observers believe Saudi recognition will not be given while King Salman remains in power. However, “it is no secret that the new Saudi leadership sees great benefit in a relationship with Israel,” said Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to VOA, referring to the crown prince.
Ending the seven-year proxy war in Yemen between the Saudi-led coalition and the Tehran-backed Houthi militias has been a goal of the Biden administration. The conflict has turned the country into a breeding ground for jihadist groups like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and led to a humanitarian disaster with over 300,000 people killed.
Biden is expected to encourage the Saudis to lift the remainder of the blockade of the Houthi-controlled northern Yemen and make the cease-fire – enacted in April and renewed until August – permanent.
Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said he is concerned about the potential of a Houthi drone or missile attack reigniting the conflict.
“The tinderbox in the Middle East today is such that it could blow up at any moment,” he told VOA. “I fear that that could happen while President Biden is in the region.”
Values vs. interests
How Biden handles the killings of journalists Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh will be a test of his ability to balance commitment to American values and U.S. geopolitical and economic interests.
Many will be watching how strongly he raises issues of press freedom as well as the rights of women and minorities as he deals with some of the world’s most repressive and authoritarian leaders.
Saudi columnist Khashoggi was gruesomely killed with the approval of the Saudi crown prince. A U.S. judge presiding over a lawsuit from Khashoggi's fiancée has given the administration until Aug. 1 to decide whether to grant immunity to the crown prince. The White House declined to say whether it would.
I cannot comment from here on that, because it’s a legal determination," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told VOA.
Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist, likely died by an Israeli bullet according to international experts with access to the investigation.
Kirby declined to confirm, when asked by VOA whether Biden plans to address their deaths while he is in the region. Kirby also sidestepped the question of whether Biden will frame his summit speech around the “battle between democracy and autocracy” theme that centers his foreign policy doctrine.
Biden is learning it isn't that clear-cut, said James Jeffrey, chair of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
“That's to his credit, but that means he's got a lot of baggage because he hasn't formally renounced this thing,” Jeffrey told VOA, recalling Biden’s Summit of Democracies in December.
“What has it done since then? Has anybody even mentioned it since it occurred? I rest my case.”
Anita Powell contributed to this report.