Our take: Biden, GCC+3 Summit to offer ‘innovative initiatives’ for region
US President Joe Biden, asked on June 12 about whether his upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia July 15-16 had anything to do with energy, responded, "No, the commitments from the Saudis don't relate to anything to do with energy. … It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them – (and) for (the) Israelis."
At the "larger meeting," which will include the six heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, as well as Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, the US will discuss "new and promising" ways of cooperating, according to a White House official.
With that in mind, here are five trends we are watching ahead of Biden’s Saudi trip and the GCC+3 summit:
Iran deal: dead or alive? The Biden trip will focus on Iran, including ways of further integrating Israel and the Gulf into a coalition aimed at deterring Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions. The nature of the talks may be colored by whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, is dead or alive. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was pessimistic yesterday, saying developments are "moving in the other direction," away from reviving the deal. But neither Washington nor Tehran has closed the door on diplomacy. The deal was basically done in March, but is now bogged down by "extraneous" issues, such as the designation of Iran’s IRGC as a terrorist group by the US. A strengthened deterrent posture would complement ongoing regional diplomatic efforts, including between Saudi and Iranian representatives in Baghdad, whether there is a deal or not. Diplomacy and deterrence are essential either way; one reinforces the other.
Israel: "Everyone looking at Saudi Arabia." Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on June 15 that "the rumors about talks regarding Saudi Arabia are not unfounded," adding that Biden going directly from Israel to the kingdom is a sign of a "connection." Lapid cautions that Israel-Saudi relations are not on the verge of a "quantum leap." That will depend on progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which will also be part of Biden’s agenda in Jerusalem and the West Bank July 13-14. Back in April, Michael Herzog, Israel’s ambassador to the US, told Al-Monitor, "We would like to see Saudi Arabia join others in normalizing relations with Israel. … Understand that this is a complex issue in terms of the Saudi traditionalist views of how to go about Israeli-Arab peace."
Yemen: giving peace a chance. The now two-month cease-fire in Yemen is both fragile and a breakthrough for the Biden Administration, which has made ending the war a top priority. Yemen, once labeled the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by the United Nations, now has a chance, but is its people remain at risk, absent a peace deal. Biden will rally Saudi Arabia and the GCC to keep up the urgency and intensity required for an eventual settlement in Yemen, and on ways to keep Iran, and the Houthis, engaged in the process. [For more, check out our interview with US Yemen Envoy Tim Lenderking.]
The GCC Plus 3. Including Egypt, Iraq and Jordan in the Jeddah summit reflects a "big think" approach to the region, recognizing the linkages, and advantages, of integration among the Gulf, Levant, and the Red Sea. A senior White House official on June 13 said that at the GCC+3 summit, Biden will discuss, in addition to Iran and energy security, "some pretty innovative initiatives we have ongoing in CENTCOM, in the Red Sea; some unique naval task forces, which we’ll discuss on the security side; but also the economic integration. … There’s some really important infrastructure and climate projects that are being done across borders by capitals who are cooperating with each other in really new and promising ways."
Meeting with MBS. Biden will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), and according to the Saudi press release of the meeting, the two will engage directly on a wide range of topics, including Yemen. Human rights advocates and other critics, including and especially within Congress and the Democratic Party, continue to call out the administration for this turnaround in Saudi policy, especially after Biden labelled the Kingdom a pariah during the 2020 election campaign, following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But with the visit and meeting, the Biden Administration is signaling that it is moving on, keeping a focus on human rights in bilateral relations, while resetting a relationship that the White House deems vital to energy, Iran, Israel’s further integration into regional security, and of course Yemen. For example, a White House official said that "just last week" that MBS played "a critical role in securing the extension of the truce."
From our regional correspondents
1. Israeli tourists pulled from Turkey over Iran threats
“The scenes described this week by Israeli tourists whisked out of Turkey by Israelis security agents to escape Iranian assassins sounded like something out of an action film,” writes Ben Caspit.
The evacuations from Turkey follow a string of suspicious deaths in Iran blamed on Israel. Iranian officials have vowed revenge for the apparent assassinations of two aerospace officers who died as “martyrs.” A top-level Israeli intelligence official told Al-Monitor that Iran deployed several assassination squads targeting Israelis in Turkey.
This week, Israel’s Counter Terrorism Bureau upgraded its travel risk for Istanbul, but it’s unclear whether Israelis are heeding the warnings. Caspit reports Ben-Gurion Airport still has long lines of Israelis checking in for flights to Istanbul and Turkey's seaside resorts.
2. After Sadrist exodus, what happens next in Iraq?
The future of Iraq’s government hangs in the balance after influential Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his 73-member bloc to submit its resignation to parliament on Sunday. The question is, has Sadr created an opportunity for his Iran-aligned rivals to form the next Iraqi government?
According to Iraqi law, the 73 vacant seats will now be given to the second-place finishers in October’s parliamentary election. The en masse resignations pave the way for the Coordination Framework to form a new government by forming an alliance with Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers. But as Al-Monitor explains here, that would require the political blocs getting over their sharp differences.
3. Water grows scarce amid Lebanon’s electricity crisis
As Lebanon’s electricity crisis deepens, households and businesses are struggling to afford clean water. Rodayna Raydan reports that many Lebanese are spending much of their salaries paying private companies to fill water tanks on their roofs. Many farmers, meanwhile, are installing solar panels to supply their farms with the electricity needed for pumping water.
Lebanon is among the world’s most water-threatened countries despite its abundant water resources. The World Bank has long warned that the cash-strapped government is not investing in keeping water supplies safe and secure.
4. Northern Syria’s farmers confront wheat shortage
The Russian war in Ukraine continues to wreak havoc on the global wheat supply, forcing farmers in Syria’s impoverished Idlib province to grow more of their own wheat. Mouneb Taim reports that the Syrian Salvation Government, which affiliated with the US-designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has provided more than 1,900 farmers with loans to distribute herbicide and manure. Elsewhere in northern Syria, Khaled al-Khateb reports on efforts by the opposition's self-styled interim government to prevent the smuggling of wheat and other crops from areas under its control.
5. Disney’s gay characters roil Egypt’s Al-Azhar
Calls are growing in Egypt for a boycott of Disney over its movies that feature gay characters. Last week, Egypt’s Al-Azhar religious authority warned against promoting homosexuality through children’s entertainment content. A number of Egyptian actors and film critics have also spoken out against Disney’s inclusion of gay characters, reports Mohamed Sabry.
The entertainment giant reportedly hasn’t obtained permission to screen its new Pixar movie “Lightyear” in 14 countries, including Egypt. The animated film includes a scene with a same-sex couple who briefly kiss.
Multimedia this week
Listen: Ben Caspit talks with Shivi Greenfield, deputy director general at The Jewish Agency, about Orthodox Judaism’s place alongside liberalism in Israel.
Watch: As Russia’s war on Ukraine threatens global wheat supplies, farmers in northern Syria's Idlib province are stepping up their own wheat production.
Listen: CNBC anchor Hadley Gamble and Andrew Parasiliti discuss why Saudi-Israel normalization may be just a "matter of time,” President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, as well as some good news trends in regional markets.