Biden meets with Arab Gulf countries to counter Iran threat

President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Joe Biden on Saturday will lay out his strategy for the Middle East as he closes out of the final leg of a four-day trip meant to bolster U.S. positioning and knit the region together against Iran.

In the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Biden will meet with heads of state from six Arab Gulf countries, plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq for a regional summit. It comes a day after he championed steps toward normalizing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and sought to rebuild cooperation with the Saudi king and crown prince after once promising to make the kingdom a “pariah” for its human rights abuses.

When he speaks to the Gulf Cooperation Council and its Arab allies, the White House said, Biden will offer his most fulsome vision yet for the region and how the U.S. can cooperate with it.

His first Middle East trip comes 11 months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as Biden aims to reprioritize the U.S. away from the Middle East’s ruinous wars and ongoing conflicts stretching from Libya to Syria.

“It’s a strategy fit for purpose for 2022 as opposed to the two decades of major land wars that the U.S. fought in this region over the course of the 2000s,” Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters in a preview of the speech.

Energy prices — elevated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — were expected to be high on the agenda. But Biden aides tempered expectations that he would leave with a deal for regional producers to immediately boost supply.

“I suspect you won’t see that for another couple of weeks,” Biden told reporters late Friday.

At the summit, Biden was set to hear a chorus of concern about the region’s stability and security, as well as concerns about food security, climate change and the continued threat of terrorism.

Overall, there’s little that the nine Mideast heads of state agree on when it comes to foreign policy. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are trying to isolate and squeeze Iran over its regional reach and proxies. Oman and Qatar, on the other hand, have solid diplomatic ties with Iran and have acted as intermediaries for talks between Washington and Tehran.

Qatar recently hosted talks between U.S. and Iranian officials as they try to revive Iran’s nuclear accord. Iran not only shares a huge underwater gas field with Qatar in the Persian Gulf, it rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off ties and imposed a years-long embargo on Qatar that ended only shortly before Biden took office.

Biden’s actions have frustrated some of the leaders. While the U.S. has played an important role in encouraging a months-long ceasefire in Yemen, Biden’s decision to reverse a Trump-era move that had listed Yemen’s rebel Houthis as a terrorist group has outraged the Emirati and Saudi leadership.

On Friday, Biden fist-bumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader, as he arrived at the royal palace in Jeddah. But he rejected the notion that he was ignoring the kingdom’s human rights abuses as he tries to reset a fraught diplomatic relationship.

“I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”

U.S. intelligence believes that the crown prince likely approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based writer, four years ago. Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed that he was “not personally responsible” for the death. “I indicated I thought he was,” the president said he replied.

None of the countries represented at the summit have moved in lockstep with the U.S. to sanction Russia, a key foreign policy priority for the Biden administration. If anything, the UAE has emerged as a sort of financial haven for Russian billionaires and their multimillion-dollar yachts. Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.

As for U.S. concerns over China’s expanding reach, China appears willing to provide Saudi Arabia with missile and nuclear technologies that the U.S. is much more hesitant to do. China is also the kingdom’s biggest buyer of Saudi oil.

For Iraq, which has the deepest and strongest links to Iran of all the Arab countries, its presence at the meeting reflects Saudi efforts — supported by the U.S. — to bring Iraq closer to Arab positions and the so-called Arab fold. Iraq has hosted around five rounds of direct talks between Saudi and Iranian officials since Biden took office, though the talks have produced little results.

Ahead of the summit, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, who survived an assassination attempt with armed drones in November, wrote in Foreign Policy that Iraq faces many problems, but is working “to solve Iraqi problems with Iraqi solutions”.

“When U.S. President Joe Biden comes to the Middle East this week, he will be arriving in a region facing numerous challenges, from terrorism to food insecurity and climate change,” he wrote. “But the Middle East is also a region that is increasingly facing those challenges together under a group of leaders pursuing positive change.”

Mara Rudman, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, said Biden’s trip is important to defend American interests in the region.

“When we are not there, others are going to claim that ground, claim those lines of communication,” specifically China and Russia.

“You have to keep your eyes on multiple fronts at the same time,” she said. “That can almost feel like resisting a force of gravity.”

Martin Indyk, distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the increased cooperation between Israel and Arab countries, driven in large part by threats from Iran, is the most important storyline in the Middle East right now.

“Now there’s a much more clear-eyed perception in Washington of the way in which Iran’s ambitions to dominate the region threaten our interests and our allies and partners,” he said.

Under Biden, Indyk said, the U.S. role in the region has been shifting “from being the dominant power in the region that supposedly took care of all the threats. . . to the role of supporting partners and allies in the region.”