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.