US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East was packed with events, some symbolic and others of great regional importance. Here is a look at some of the incidents during the trip, and why they matter. They are not in chronological order.
Biden meets Sisi
Before leaving the region the US president met the Egyptian leader. “Today, I sat down with President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to reaffirm our shared commitment to the US-Egypt strategic partnership, and to discuss regional and global challenges. There is a great deal of merit in the US and Egypt working closely together,” Biden wrote.
This was an important meeting because Egypt is a key partner of the US in the region. But there are voices who believe that America needs to take a tougher stance on Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By meeting with Sisi, Biden is showing the US commitment to traditional friends and allies. This is part of a wider regional grouping that includes US backing for new agreements between Cairo and Riyadh. Egypt is also a key security partner of Israel.
Biden meets Middle East leaders
Biden met with a variety of Gulf leaders. This was also important because it was not clear how many meetings he would have during the trip. Going beyond just meeting the Saudis is essential because it relates to the Abraham Accords and the wider potential of regional security partnerships. There is a sense among some commentators that the meetings helped restore confidence in the region for US leadership. At the very least, this is part of Washington showing that it cares about its traditional partners and allies.
As part of these meetings, The National in the UAE reported that “US President Joe Biden invited the UAE President, Sheikh Mohamed, to Washington for an official visit, during a meeting in Jeddah on Saturday.” This took place just prior to the Jeddah Security and Development Summit. “We both understand that the challenges we face today only make it a lot more important that we spend more time together. I want to formally invite you to the States before this year’s out,” Biden told Mohamed.
Biden says the US won’t leave region
The American president met with Gulf Cooperation Council countries and three other leaders in Jeddah. In his speech, Biden promised that the US “would not walk away” from the Middle East. “The United States is going to remain an engaged partner in the Middle East. We will not walk away and leave a vacuum filled by China, Russia or Iran,” he said.
This is important because since 2008, there has been concern that America is leaving. The Obama administration sought to pivot and start working with Iran, and also stoked false hopes in Egypt. The chaos of the Arab Spring led to conflict in Syria. Extremism swallowed part of Iraq.
Comments by the Obama and Trump White Houses both indicated that Washington was tired of wasting lives in the region. These comments painted the area as a loss of blood and treasure, and of conflicts since time immemorial and “blood and sand.” These comments and feelings from past administrations were not helpful.
Now Biden has indicated that America is back. He met with Gulf leaders as well as UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi.
Gulf commentators weigh in
There were several articles in the Gulf that detailed concerns about the trip. In general, there was praise but also analysis of how Biden was navigating the region.
One article at Al Ain noted that “regionally, Washington should realize three things, the first of which is that we are not opponents of the United States despite all that the US-Gulf relations have gone through. Rather, we are allies who have the right to represent our interests through our relations with all parties. Second, Washington should manage the details of the strategic rivalry with the East (China and Russia) with less coarse tools in the Middle East space. And third, soft diplomacy will not achieve the required breakthrough in the Iranian case.”
The discussion about the US role taking place in the Gulf is important because it shows a more nuanced and mature relationship. Countries in the region wonder about American commitments, but the complexities of the Obama and Trump era are leading to a more mature discussion of what kind of a role the US should have. These discussions relate to energy and air defense ties as well as demands by the UAE, the Saudis and others about what they need.
There is an understanding in the Gulf that the US has gone through many phases in the region. One article looked back all the way to US President FDR’s visit and drew some conclusions. It notes that the Eisenhower administration opened its doors to the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. It also noted that LBJ was not a helpful administration for the region. This sense of history is good to have.
“We welcome President Biden, and we wish him success in his mission, and that his visit will be the inauguration of a new era of cooperation based on creative bilateral cooperation, and on the basis of dealing fairly and reliable with the Arab allies, whose life experience has proven the importance of their partnership,” one article said. It also noted that “the world is no longer entirely American, and the era of multi-polarity is [bringing about] a different world.”
Iran knows its military is weak
Iran’s Mohammed Bagheri, chief of staff of the armed forces, gave a speech during Biden’s visit in which he praised the manpower of Iran’s army. However, his overall point was that the Islamic Republic has always lacked the technical abilities of its adversaries. This was likely a reference to recent attempts to confront the US or Israel, or the Gulf. Iran knows it faces challenges. It didn’t even try to provoke America while Biden was in the region.
“We are facing a difficult and very complex combined war, we must prepare ourselves to face this type of war,” the armed forces chief emphasized. What he means is that Iran must take stock of its setbacks. In fact, Tehran appears reluctant to enter into a larger conflict at the moment.
In order to pretend that it is achieving something, Iran now prefers to focus on largely imaginary threats to Israel. For instance, Tasnim News highlighted a fire at an industrial park in Israel over the weekend, claiming this somehow was a threat to the Jewish state. Iran’s media prefers to make up “victories” rather than actually push for increased tensions with Jerusalem. While that may change, for now, it is the case.
Can the Middle East avoid travel chaos and inflation?
As Biden leaves the Middle East, there are questions about whether the region can help to alleviate energy price hikes in the US. There are also questions about how the Ukraine conflict might harm the region. What about wheat trade and other trade issues related to Ukraine? These are key questions.
In the UK there is a heat wave and concerns. Meanwhile, Emirates Airlines has rejected Heathrow Airport’s demands for airlines to stop selling summer tickets, calling the move “unreasonable and unacceptable,” according to the BBC.
“The airline accused the airport of having a ‘blatant disregard' for customers after it capped passenger numbers to 100,000 per day over summer,” the BBC reported. “For months we have asked airlines to help come up with a plan to solve their resourcing challenges, but no clear plans were forthcoming, and with each passing day, the problem got worse,” the UK’s largest airport said.
This shows that the Middle East must learn to weather the coming economic and travel chaos storm that the West is experiencing. It’s unclear if the region’s relations with the East, including China and India, can help it escape the problems of Europe.
The National reported that “the US and Saudi Arabia on Friday announced agreements on energy, regional security and Iran after lengthy discussions in Jeddah led by President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.” This shows that the region can still play a role in helping the West with its economic problems.
From I2U2 to Centcom and Morocco
Israel, India, the UAE and US are now working on a new framework called I2U2, which brings together countries with common interests. The move was announced during Biden’s trip and during a virtual summit. This was a major accomplishment. It remains to be seen if a new air defense pact in the region will also bring together Israel and the Gulf countries.
At the same time, Israel’s chief of staff is heading to Morocco after meeting the head of US Central Command on Sunday. All of these moves show the rapid integration of Israel into the region and new regional systems of partnerships.
Russia-Iran drone story grows
Russia may be seeking to use Iranian drones against Ukraine. The US alleged that Iran would provide Moscow with armed drones before Biden’s visit took place. As the president traveled the region, this story grew. Although Iran and Russia appeared to downplay the reports, US media continues to grow the story.
“A Russian delegation has visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in the last month to examine weapons-capable drones, according to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and satellite imagery obtained exclusively by CNN,” the network reports. “Iran began showcasing the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones, also known as UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, to Russia at Kashan Airfield south of Tehran in June, US officials told CNN. Both types of drones are capable of carrying precision-guided missiles.”
It remains to be seen if evidence emerges of an actual drone transfer. Russia could use Iranian drones to try to attack US-supplied weapons to Ukraine, such as the HIMARs systems. Ukraine would need to boost air defenses against any rising drone threat. Russia’s leader is expected to come to the region this week, and it will be important to see if he comes out with any concrete steps with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts regarding things like drones or Turkish threats to invade Syria.