Why Biden Returned from Saudi Arabia Empty-Handed

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Jeddah Security and Development Summit, which US President Joe Biden attended in July, exposed the diminished influence of the United States in the Middle East and how oblivious Washington apparently is to the rapid changes playing out in the Arab world, writes 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow Ebrahim Hashem. The result, he argues, was political and diplomatic humiliation for Washington.

Why Biden Returned from Saudi Arabia Empty-Handed

Seeking help with energy prices: The low-polling US president meets the crown prince of Saudi Arabia (Credit: Saudi Press Agency)

The global economic and political landscape is going through a transformation that has not been seen in at least a century. There is clear recognition shared by world leaders, including many in the West, that the international order is changing and that, while the US and the West are losing relative power and influence, Asia and the rest are rising. “We are coming to the end of Western political and economic dominance,” Tony Blair, who served as British prime minister from 1997 to 2007, acknowledged recently in a speech.

Redrawn alliances and new partnerships in the Arab world

The Arab region is experiencing tectonic changes of its own, with shifting alliances and partnerships. Dynamic Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt are rebalancing and diversifying their strategic relations and partnerships, going beyond energy trade and security to technology and science, investment, space exploration, infrastructure and other sectors. Arab states are building solid relations with re-emerging and rising powers such as China, Russia, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

With the new president of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan: The Arabs no longer need to rely only on the US and are diversifying their relationships and partnerships (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

With the new president of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan: The Arabs no longer need to rely only on the US and are diversifying their relationships and partnerships (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

A couple of days before US President Joe Biden’s arrival in the region, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan stated in his first public speech since taking office in May that his country would continue to balance and diversify its partnerships with different nations. For his part, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud has been highlighting the kingdom’s desire to maintain strategic relations with various nations – not sticking solely to the US or the West but expanding to include emerging powers such as China, Russia and India.

The rules of international relations are being gradually rewritten through the existing order or through new parallel organizations and initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and its New Development Bank (NDB). Arab nations are either founding or key members of many of these new organizations and initiatives.

Recently, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – the three largest Arab economies –participated in BRICS+ meetings. Many Arabs believe that an expanded BRICS, including major Arab nations, has the key advantage of bringing together some of the largest energy importers such as China and India with some of the biggest energy exporters including Saudi Arabia, Russia and the UAE. With the right framework and components such as technology and industrialization, which are strategic objectives in the long-term plans of Arab countries, the BRICS+ framework can prove appealing to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, which have been disappointed by traditional partners such as the US for their unreasonable restrictions on technology transfer.

Becoming more confident and self-reliant, the Arab region has been trying to handle regional challenges on its own. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya have been frozen and the region has become more stable. Solutions to those conflicts are being worked out and many Arabs are confident that they will be settled soon mainly through intra-regional efforts.

In addition, economies in the Middle East have been pursuing initiatives to develop and integrate. Recently, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states announced that their electricity networks would connect with Iraq’s grid to boost that country’s power generation capacity and reliability. In May 2022, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan signed an agreement on Industrial Partnership for Sustainable Economic Growth, focusing on five major industries: food agriculture and fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, textiles, minerals and petrochemicals.

Washington’s much-diminished global influence

While the Arab region is becoming more dynamic, united, optimistic and confident about its future, the US appears to be losing stature and global influence. It disgracefully withdrew from Afghanistan, its society is politically polarized, its economy is experiencing high inflation and negative growth, its fiscal and trade deficits are becoming unsustainable, the US dollar dominance is eroding, and energy prices are skyrocketing. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval ratings have been extremely low.

The Arabs are aware of this power and situational shift and try to manage wisely their strategic relations with old and new partners. Shortly before Biden’s arrival in Jeddah, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who previously served as Saudi ambassador in Washington and London and was also head of Saudi intelligence, observed that “Biden is coming [to the region] as a much-diminished president.”

While official statements indicated that the King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud invited Biden to visit, it is well known in the region that the request for what was the president’s first trip to the Middle East since taking office in January 2021 was initiated by White House officials. The short-term objective of the US for the tour, which also took the president to Israel, was find ways to reduce energy prices that have remained persistently high because of the Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia and lack of investment in the oil industry.

American officials did not set the right diplomatic tone for the Arab-US Jeddah Security and Development Summit, which included the leaders of the six GCC members, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. According to some sources close to the policymaking circles in Washington, it was only after the Ukraine conflict led to disruption in the energy market that Biden became interested in meeting with Arab leaders. After all, during his election campaign, the president had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah”. That promise did not fit with Biden’s domestic political agenda.

Strategically, the US has been concerned about rapidly growing relations between the Arabs and the Chinese and Russians. US officials had been nervous that their role in the region would further decline and hoped that the Jeddah Summit would be an opportunity to realign strategic directions and visions. To the Arab states, the visit and the regional gathering were a good opportunity to understand better current US policy towards the Arab world and whether they could consider the Biden administration a constructive and reliable contributor to regional security and development.

Wishful thinking and misaligned objectives

Since the war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, the Arabs have learnt a hard lesson – not to put all your eggs in one basket. That principle was reinforced by the disastrous Arab Spring, to which the administration of Barack Obama (whose vice president was Joe Biden) heavily contributed. The events of the last 20 years have shaped Arabs’ thinking about their future strategic direction, especially in relation to their efforts to diversify their strategic partnerships.

US statements before the summit in Jeddah, meanwhile, made many observers in the region wonder whether Biden administration officials were oblivious to the major changes taking place in the Arab region, or if they were deliberately ignoring them.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow, 2019: The US says it will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for either Russia or China to fill (Credit: President of Russia)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow, 2019: The US says it will not leave a vacuum in the Middle East for either Russia or China to fill (Credit: President of Russia)

There was initial confusion about whether or not Biden would meet with the Saudi crown prince. Then, prior to the summit, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held a press conference to explain the objectives of the trip but sounded tone-deaf to regional changes and aspirations when he raised unnecessarily the issues of human rights and political reforms, and resurrected the “New Middle East” agenda that had been promoted aggressively by the hawkish American policymakers such as Condoleezza Rice and was roundly rejected by the Arabs in the early 2000s. It appeared that Biden administration officials hoped that, by coming to the region, they could talk the Arabs into abandoning their strategic interests with China and Russia. After all, the US, as Biden put it, was “not going to leave a vacuum in the Middle East for Russia or China to fill.”

US officials unrealistically viewed their relations with the Arab states through the pre- Arab Spring prism of a unipolar world with the expectation to reassert their hegemony over the region. In reality, the Arabs have long abandoned unipolarity and are now fiercely committed to multipolarity. The mismatch of expectations and strategic visions between the two sides was clearly outlined in Biden’s essay, Why I'm going to Saudi Arabia, published in the Washington Post on July 9.

The piece is full of wishful thinking. It was written from an outdated perspective when the US still had outsized regional influence and the Arabs had strong faith in Washington. In response, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the US and granddaughter of beloved King Faisal, who reigned from 1964 to 1975, published an essay in the American press that outlined Saudi expectations for Biden’s visit: “Long gone are the days when the US-Saudi relationship could be defined by the outdated and reductionist ‘oil for security’ paradigm…We envision a future where our region is not bogged down in conflict, but is rather focused on regional economic cooperation, social development and multinational projects that deliver benefits to everyone.”

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Biden visited Israel. The two countries released a strategic partnership joint declaration, which revealed heightened anxiety about Israel’s weakening position in the region, especially considering the ongoing transformation of the regional and global order. Many in the Arab world view the declaration as biased since it focuses mainly on Israel’s unilateral needs without wholistically addressing the Palestinian-Israeli issue. The Americans have been trying to “integrate Israel into the region” and the Abraham Accords, negotiated during the administration of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, was an attempt to do just that. Some Arab countries signed the Abraham Accords in good faith and have indicated that they are willing to accept Israel in the region if it is willing to acknowledge and accept the rights of Palestinians.

There is, however, a mismatch between what the Arabs want to achieve and what the Americans and Israelis want to achieve through the Abraham Accords. The Arabs seek a comprehensive resolution for the Palestinian-Israeli issue based on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, whereas the Americans and Israelis want to integrate Israel into the region without addressing the root causes of the issue.

The Jeddah Security and Development Summit: A political and diplomatic humiliation for Washington? (Credit: @POTUS on Twitter)

New global realities and how the US is struggling to deal with them

On his trip, Joe Biden came to a new Arab region that had become confident and focused on development and prosperity with a defined strategic direction for the future and rapidly strengthening strategic partnerships with China, Russia and India. The US is no longer the Arab world’s only strategic partner. Since the dawn of the 21st century, the US and some of its allies have tried to reshape the politics of the Arab region to suit their interests, but failed miserably and sapped the deep reservoir of goodwill that the region used to have towards the US and the West. The Arabs are fiercely proud of their traditions and Muslim heritage, and will not allow foreigners to impose their values on them, as the Saudi crown prince reiterated in his opening statement at the summit: “We are proud of our noble values, and we will never abandon them; we hope that the others will respect them as we respect their values.”

The Arab world can take care of itself

One reason for antagonistic Arab-US relations, especially over the last 10 years, is the unrealistic desire of certain American officials to limit the relations of Arabs with great powers such as China and Russia. But they have underestimated the advantages that a united China-Russia anti-hegemony front has given to many small and middle powers, including Arab nations, especially those who have been terribly wronged and neglected by the US and its allies and can now afford to push back.

Some American analysts and politicians still erroneously think that the security of Saudi Arabia and Arabs is highly dependent on the US. But the Arabs have proven that they are taking responsibility for regional security and development, and it would be impossible for the US to monopolize influence over the region.

To gauge the decline of US influence in the Arab region, all one needs to do is consider who is spearheading efforts to resolve regional conflicts in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Though it instigated many of these clashes, the US is certainly not taking the lead in finding solutions to them.

The recent Arab-US summit has proven to Arabs that US officials are struggling to adapt to and deal with new regional and global realities. Biden’s trip came at a pivotal moment in the history of the region when Arabs have openly declared that they support a multipolar world in which various centers of power share global responsibilities. The Arabs know too well what it means when one nation or one bloc of nations monopolizes international affairs, as was the case between the fall of the USSR in 1991 and the 2008 global financial crisis.

A “Middle East NATO” is doomed to fail

If the proposal for a “Middle East NATO”, promoted by some US officials in the media prior to the summit, was an attempt to create a military alliance against Iran, then it would fail because the Arabs do not want confrontation with Tehran. Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to the president of the UAE, has even indicated that Abu Dhabi was planning to send the UAE ambassador back to Iran some six years after diplomatic relations were downgraded in response to attacks on the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital.

The Arabs consider Iran a neighbor with whom they must find common ground and coexist, as both the Saudi crown prince and the Saudi foreign minister asserted in their statements during and after the summit. The Arabs believe that confrontation with Iran means that everyone loses, and that their economic and development ambitions will be derailed or thrown out the window altogether. Many Arabs believe that normalizing relations with Iran would eventually help eliminate the boogeyman that has been created to blackmail regional players.

And if the idea of a “Middle East NATO” was an attempt to use the Arabs to fight for the US, that trial balloon, too, will fail. The Arabs are too wise and too careful to be taken down this path, especially now that they have defined their future strategic direction.

Lessons for the US

The next time US officials come to the region, they would be well advised to keep their lecture notes on values and human rights at home. The Arab people and leaders will not accept sermons on human rights and values, especially from those whom they consider major violators of human rights. Some US establishment politicians are not happy about the summit outcomes, believing that Biden did not get the respect he deserved. On the other hand, many Arab observers believe that he got more respect than warranted.

Listening to what the Saudis and Americans said at the summit, and comparing it to what actually has happened on the ground, one realizes that American official statements, including those made by the US president, were not as honest as they should have been. Saudi officials contradicted many of pronouncements made by the Biden administration during and after the summit, which many saw as a political and diplomatic humiliation for Washington. If President Biden came to the region to “not leave a vacuum”, assuming that the Arabs would join the Western camp to prop up the crumbling US-led “liberal international order”, then he must have left sorely disappointed.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Ebrahim Hashem

Ebrahim Hashem

2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong

Ebrahim Hashem is a strategist, consultant and scholar interested in the global economy, the world order, and Arab-China relations. He is a 2020/21 AsiaGlobal Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at The University of Hong Kong and non-resident senior fellow at Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. He has been watching China’s rise since 2011, when he did a strategic project related to China’s 12th Five-Year-Plan for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). He was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy in 2017-18. He has worked as a public policy and strategy adviser to the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office and headed the long-term strategy division of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). He advises various organizations on long-term strategies and Arab-China relations. He holds master’s degrees in three different fields: engineering science, business administration and public administration.

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