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President Biden looks no further than a US-led world order on Gulf visit

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

President Biden looks no further than a US-led world order on Gulf visit

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signing the new “US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration”, in Jerusalem on July 14.

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signing the new “US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration”, in Jerusalem on July 14. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Evan Vucci

Biden’s first trip as President to the Gulf was not about bringing lasting peace to the region.

President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia in the second week of July was not prompted by a sudden desire to solve the Israel-Palestine dispute or bring lasting peace to the region. His first visit to the region since taking office is being viewed as a last-ditch attempt to rescue his presidency and prevent him from becoming a lame-duck leader midway through his four-year term. Midterm elections will be held in November, and barring a miracle, the Democrats are expected to lose control of both legislative Houses.

The main reason for the President’s domestic unpopularity is the state of the country’s economy. For the first time in decades, inflation in the US has hit double digits. The Biden administration’s draconian sanctions against Russia after the conflict in Ukraine erupted led to an economic blowback mainly resulting from the disruption of global oil supplies. With the price of oil soaring over $100 a barrel, the US consumer saw the price of petrol per gallon reach unprecedented levels.

The US used to import significant amounts of Russian oil. Venezuela used to be among the biggest suppliers of oil to the country until the previous administration banned its import. The refineries set up to process Russian and Venezuelan crude, which is harder to refine than oil from the Gulf, are now virtually lying idle. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among the world’s biggest oil producers, had refused to join the US-led sanctions on Russia and implement Biden’s requests to increase oil production levels to make up for the shortfall from the loss of Russian oil.

US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  flanked by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa (left) and Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a photo opportunity at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16.
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  flanked by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa (left) and Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani during a photo opportunity at the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16. | Photo Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD

Russia and Saudi Arabia are the two biggest exporters of oil. In fact, according to reports in the Western media, both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed refused to even take Biden’s call to discuss the issue in early March. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the oil cartel of which the Saudis and the Emiratis are lead players, had worked in tandem with Russia until now. In desperation, the Biden administration had even sounded out the Venezuelan government on the possibility of resuming supplies. “Biden needs the Saudis to increase their oil production to help keep global oil prices in check,” The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan wrote in an opinion piece. “The trip sends the message that the United States is prepared to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake.”

The Biden administration’s relations with the Saudis were fraught until now. When Biden was on the campaign trail in 2020, he had vowed to bring those responsible for the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to justice and declared his intention to turn Saudi Arabia into an outcast state for its role in the death. US intelligence agencies had identified the Saudi Crown Prince as the man who gave the orders for the assassination. The Biden administration had also stopped the sale of offensive weapons systems to Saudi Arabia following a backlash over their indiscriminate use against civilian targets in the war in Yemen.

After taking over as President, Biden started back-pedalling on most of his campaign pledges relating to foreign policy issues.
After taking over as President, Biden started back-pedalling on most of his campaign pledges relating to foreign policy issues. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Evan Vucci

After taking over as President, Biden started back-pedalling on most of his campaign pledges relating to foreign policy issues. While running for President, he had promised to expedite the revival of the Iran nuclear deal, repair relations with Cuba, and bring peace to the West Asian region. A new Iran nuclear deal is nowhere near fruition as the Biden administration shows no inclination to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) from the US State Department’s terror list. The IRGC is the most important wing of the Iranian armed forces. Under pressure from the Israel lobby, the Biden administration has put new obstacles for the revival of the deal. Israel was the first stop of Biden’s four-day tour of the region.

Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a new “US-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration”, which stated: “The United States stresses that integral to the pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” After signing the declaration, Lapid stressed that there should be “a credible military threat” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “Diplomacy will not stop them. The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear programme, the free world will use force,” he claimed. Biden replied that the diplomatic way was the best way forward. Iran, unlike Israel, is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has pledged never to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel is reputed to have an arsenal of more than 200 nuclear weapons.

The US-Iran nuclear deal, if the US shows the will to resurrect it, will guarantee that Iran will never be in possession of nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future. Biden had nothing to offer the beleaguered Palestinians in the occupied territories. In a speech he delivered during his visit, he said that his love for Israel was “deep rooted” and described the progress the country had made since its creation “as close to miraculous”. On the other hand, he tried to downplay the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state in the near future. He said he continued to support a “two-state solution” as the best way forward but claimed that it was not feasible “in the short term”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris on July 20.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris on July 20. | Photo Credit: LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

He made this statement just before his meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) chief Mahmoud Abbas, during a four-hour trip to Ramallah. Biden has continued with most of the pro-Israeli settlement polices the Donald Trump administration had implemented. The previous administration shifted the US embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in defiance of international public opinion and UN Security Council resolutions. The embassy remains in Jerusalem. East Jerusalem is the designated capital of the Palestinian state. The US consulate in East Jerusalem, from where US diplomats used to do business with the PA, has not opened since the Trump administration ordered it to close. The Palestinian mission in Washington, which was also forced to close by the Trump administration, has yet to open.

Like its predecessor, the Biden administration continues to tacitly encourage Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, in blatant violation of international law. There was no criticism of the apartheid policies the state of Israel has implemented. The Biden administration has spent billions of dollars in the last six months claiming that it is defending freedom and the right of self-determination in Ukraine. But when it comes to Palestine, the US applies a different yardstick altogether. The state of Israel was created by uprooting many of its original inhabitants, the Palestinians. Since Israel was created, it has conquered and occupied more Palestinian and Syrian lands such as the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

“Biden has continued with most of the pro-Israeli settlement policies the Donald Trump administration had implemented.”

Israel’s army targets the Gaza Strip, described as the world’s biggest “open air prison”, with alarming regularity with weapons supplied to it by the US. In last year’s attack on Gaza, the Israeli army destroyed a building housing the offices of the media organisations Al Jazeera and AP. And this year, Israeli security forces killed Al Jazeera’s correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. The Biden administration gave Israel a virtual clean chit though forensic evidence proved that an Israeli soldier had fired the bullet that killed the Palestinian journalist. Her family’s request for an audience with the visiting US President was not entertained.

Biden’s meeting with Abbas was the first important one between US and Palestinian officials after Abu Akleh’s killing. Palestinians staged protests during the visit, putting up huge hoardings and digital screens in Ramallah and Bethlehem with the words “Mr. President. This is apartheid”. Speaking at a joint press conference, Abbas called for an end to the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and accountability for the killing of Abu Akleh.

A billboard put up by an Israeli human rights group in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of Biden’s arrival in the region.
A billboard put up by an Israeli human rights group in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of Biden’s arrival in the region. | Photo Credit: AP Photo / Mahmoud Illean

The major priority of the Biden administration during the Israel trip was to further consolidate the so-called “Abraham Accords”, which the Trump administration midwifed before leaving office. Under the accord, some Gulf states, along with Morocco and Sudan, recognised the state of Israel, delivering yet another blow to the fraying Arab unity on the Palestinian issue.

New grouping

During Biden’s visit to Israel, there was a virtual, closed-door meeting between the leaders of the US, Israel, India, and the UAE. The four countries had announced the formation of a new grouping known as the I2U2 Forum before the visit. Some Israeli and Indian commentators describe the grouping as another Quad-like formation in the making with military overtones. But the statement issued after the first high-level I2U2 meeting only announced the launch of ambitious collaborative projects in the fields of clean energy and food security. It made no mention of the Palestine issue and stressed the grouping’s support for Israel’s integration into the region.

Biden, Lapid, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and bin Zayed stressed the importance of their countries working together to address global challenges. Biden said that the meeting was “about demonstrating the importance of showing the practical impact” of Israel’s growing importance in the region. US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan told the American media that the US hoped that the I2U2 “will become a feature of the broader region, just as the Quad has become the central pillar of the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States”.

India’s joining of the group will send a negative message to countries such as Iran, Russia, and China, the three countries the US has identified as its main strategic rivals in the region.

Biden’s meeting with bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, seemed to be a tense affair. The two leaders did not shake hands and only exchanged a tentative fist bump. The Khashoggi affair was swept under the carpet, though Biden later claimed that he had raised the issue in private conversations with the Crown Prince, telling him that Biden considered him personally responsible for the crime. Saudi officials denied that Biden had raised the topic during talks.

One of the things the Biden administration is touting as an achievement of the visit is the decision of the Saudi government to lift restrictions on overflights by Israeli commercial planes. The Saudi government announced that it had lifted restrictions on overflights by airlines from all countries and that the decision was not Israel specific. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan clarified that the decision “had nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was not “a precursor to any further steps” in normalising ties with Israel.

“Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia has come at a great cost to the moral and political stature of the US President.”

The Saudi government did not give a specific commitment to increase their production of oil. The Biden administration only stated that the Saudis “would support global oil market balancing for sustained economic growth”. The Ukraine conflict has boosted Saudi oil revenues, and the economy has registered impressive growth in the past five months. The Saudis also did not give a firm commitment on ending the war in Yemen but the ceasefire deadline has been extended by another 15 weeks.

Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia repaired relations between the two countries to a great extent but has come at a great cost to the moral and political stature of the US President. On his last day in the kingdom, Biden hosted a separate meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council and the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, during which he told them that the US was in the region for the long haul. He did not talk about the issue of human rights, which was high on his agenda when he ran for President. Biden made it clear that preserving the US-led global order and confronting Russia and China were now the more important priorities.