Biden’s First Visit In The Middle East: A New Era Of US Influence?

On Wednesday, 13th of July, US President Joe Biden landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, in Israel, where he started his first presidential visit to the Middle East. Biden’s decision to embark on this trip has been coldly welcomed by both US politicians and the general public, and the President was under pressure to deliver results, considering the lack of breakthroughs in his domestic policies. The last time he had been to the region was in 2016, when he was Barack Obama’s vice-president. Since then, a lot has changed. The Trump administration in the Middle East implemented reckless and militaristic policies, with only a few recognizable successes, and its legacy in the region was mostly limited to the Abraham Accords and the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2018.  

Biden’s main objectives for this trip seemed to be the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states – following Trump’s efforts in the same direction -, the statement of a new bloc in the Gulf to pressure Iran into a new nuclear agreement, and the increase in oil production to counterbalance the oil crisis that hit the West as a result of the Ukrainian war. More broadly, this visit could be seen as an attempt to avoid the polarization of the Middle East towards Russia and China, who have been exerting more and more influence in the area and constitute a threat to US foreign policies.  

However, the President has been harshly criticized for the choice of destinations for this Middle Eastern trip, as he will entertain relations with Israel, the occupied West Bank, and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia. During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden claimed the promotion of democracy and human rights would have been the focus of his foreign policies in the region. He especially condemned the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, defining it as a “pariah” after the assassination of the reporter Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, for which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been identified as a mandator. Israel’s human rights record is not immaculate either, and it is the ghost of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh that the President must deal with there.  

In Israel, US’s longtime ally, Biden concentrated on stressing the quality of relations between the two countries, which he defined as “deeper and stronger than they have ever been”. Stefanie Dekker, reporter for Al Jazeera, noted how the President’s visit was “all about Israel, his [Biden’s] long history with Israel and how connected he [Biden] is with Israel”. The President barely addressed the Palestinian question, only quickly reaffirming his belief that the two-State solution is the best for resolving the conflict, but didn’t push for negotiation to resume nor made a strong statement on the matter. He also still hasn’t reversed Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, signaling that the rupture between his and the previous administrations is not as deep as it was expected to be.  

Traveling from Israel, the US team flew an unprecedented direct flight, signaling the improvement in relations between the two countries which Biden was hoping to achieve. The White House’s strategy is to unite the Middle Eastern bloc in a new regional organization formed by Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE, Bahrein, and Qatar to pressure Iran into a new nuclear agreement and allow the US to gain a bigger role in the conflict management process. As the Middle East is becoming even more crucial for oil supplies Biden was also hoping to encourage the Kingdom towards additional oil production, ready to keep an eye closed on those human rights and democratic values that seemed to be so important to him during the 2020 presidential campaign. 

In the aftermath of the visit, no immediate tangible results were achieved. However, Biden has finally made clear what his strategy in the Middle East is. “Greater peace, greater stability, greater connection” is what he declared to be his goal for the region, which he intends to achieve through the “3D approach”: deterrence, diplomacy, and de-escalation. While the prospect seems positive, the US in reality is trying to protect its own interests and establish a new era of influence on the region, in fear that the void would otherwise be filled by Russia and China.  

Camilla Giussani