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The important counternarrative on Biden’s Middle East trip 

Symbolism matters, but progress matters more — and there was progress.
Biden Saudi Arabia

A visit of consequence….  

Let’s start here: Joe Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East was among the most consequential US presidential visits to the region in years.

All presidential trips are designed to deliver both tangible and intangible gains, often on complex or sensitive issues that require the ultimate decision-maker to weigh in.

But they seldom resolve issues like the Yemen civil war or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as desirable as that might be.

Instead, there’s invariably a focus on the symbolic — a meeting between adversaries or, as in Biden’s trip, a fist bump with a former “pariah.”

But there should also be an appreciation of the progress on issues of consequence, including and especially on Iran and global energy and food security.

Only with Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia last week could those issues so quickly be elevated to the six heads of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, not to mention the first stops for meetings with leaders in Israel and the West Bank. 

Much critical commentary has been focused, wrongly, on Biden returning "empty-handed" from his trip to Saudi Arabia. Worse, he was criticized for appearing to backtrack from his previous comment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a "pariah" because of US intelligence's assessment of his role in the death of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018.  

…for seven reasons 

The Biden trip to Saudi Arabia was both necessary and impactful, furthering US diplomacy and deterrence in the region, for at least seven reasons, probably more. 

  • The Saudi reset. Although the administration stumbled from the outset on whether Biden would meet with MBS, and then probably botched the choreography by agreeing to the fist bump, it was the sit-down with the crown prince that gave the Biden visit its urgency and relevance. "Deliverables" on energy, Iran, Yemen, food security, and more could only be set right once Biden and MBS cleared the air. With the meeting, US-Saudi relations have moved into the post-Khashoggi phase, which was inevitable. Biden’s exchange with MBS was distinctly American, and distinctly Biden. The differences were stated bluntly and directly, and the conversation and agenda moved on to other affairs of state. This was not forgive and forget over the Khashoggi murder. It was "let’s get it out in the open, because we have work to do." That work, outlined in the Jeddah Communique, is long and loaded with shared priorities.

  • Deterring Iran. This column has argued that nuclear diplomacy with Iran requires a robust US-led regional deterrent posture — whether there is a deal or not. Building on increasingly expansive if quiet talks involving Israel and some Gulf states, and by flying from Tel Aviv to Riyadh, Biden sent a clear message to both US partners and Tehran about the US security  commitment. He also restated his preference for diplomacy with Iran and not, as Ben Caspit reported, fixing a timeline for the talks to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as Israeli leaders wanted him to do. Note that Iran’s commentary on the trip has been restrained; Iran’s foreign minister said this week that Iran will keep negotiating until sanctions are lifted.

  • Yemen’s ceasefire. The fragile four-month ceasefire needs to be renewed Aug. 2. The US-Saudi partnership on Yemen has been a good news story for the Biden administration. Biden appointed Tim Lenderking as envoy to Yemen, and he has been working closely with the kingdom, the UN, and other partners to end what was once described as the world’s greatest humanitarian tragedy. A lot depends on Iran and the Houthis, of course. But the progress to date would be nowhere without the revived US-Saudi partnership over the past year.

  • Food security. David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program, said this week that the global food crisis resulting from the Ukraine war is going to be "beyond anything we’ve seen in our lifetime." There are already riots around the world because of price hikes and shortages. The risks are especially high in Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia and Lebanon. This is a crisis which is expected to get a lot worse. It deserves summit-level attention. The US, GCC+3 joint statement included announcements of $11 billion for food security assistance.

  • Don’t rule out OPEC+ yet. While Biden did not get a commitment for an expansion of Saudi oil production, there is still some potential give when the current OPEC+ agreement expires in late August. And that potential give would have been a non-starter without the meetings in Saudi Arabia. While Saudi officials have said the decision will be based on the market and in consultation with the other members of OPEC+, including Russia, the hedge here is that the US-Saudi partnership will be part of the calculation as well in Riyadh. Martin Indyk told Al-Monitor last week that an understanding on some expanded production is likely a done deal. Karen Elliott House wrote this week that while MBS won’t shut down his relationship with Russia in OPEC+, she too expects OPEC+ to boost production in September.

  • Rebuilding Palestinian-Gulf ties. While expectations were low for progress on Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, especially with an interim Israeli government in place, there appears to have been some work done to rebuild Palestinian-Gulf ties. Relations between the Palestinians and especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been bad, but the Biden visit spurred some baby steps toward reconciliation, securing $100 million in aid from the GCC for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which provides healthcare to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It’s a start. Biden also told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he had succeeded in stalling some Israeli settlement expansion, as Daoud Kuttab reports

  • Iraqi energy security. Biden welcomed Iraqi agreements with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan to diversify Baghdad’s energy resources and lessen dependence on Iran. Iraq’s participation in the summit was noteworthy and consequential. The agreement to link the Iraq and GCC electricity grids is a boost for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who has recast Iraq’s role in regional affairs, expanding ties with the GCC and the Levant, while balancing ties with Iran. In a separate meeting, Biden and Kadhimi reaffirmed the US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement. The summit meetings and energy cooperation agreements were timely. Iraq has been unable to form a government since elections in October 2021, and this week accused Turkey of an attack in Iraqi Kurdistan which killed nine civilians, as Amberin Zaman reports

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