One of the main objectives of U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East is to strengthen strategic alliances, to contain both adversaries and allies.
Biden’s visit follows the pattern set by the last two American presidents: Barack Obama and Donald Trump—that after the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States can no longer function as the world’s sole policeman and seeks a more isolationist foreign policy. Biden is rejuvenating the alliances the United States established to contain the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War: NATO in the Atlantic sphere, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in Southeast Asia and the Baghdad Pact in the Middle East.
All three American presidents have defined China as the main adversary of the United States in the international arena. However, China is also an important player in the global economy and, therefore, can be defined as a “frenemy” of the United States. China is a partner in the economic sphere and a rival on security issues. Trump chose to confront China economically through trade wars and high tariffs. Biden has chosen a different strategy.
In September 2021, Biden initiated and established two related and important defense alliances in Asia: AUKUS, the English-speaking alliance with Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the Quad, with the United States, Australia, Japan and India. These alliances were designed to contain China, and closely cooperate in diverse military and security areas. China strongly criticized them.
During Biden’s upcoming visit, he plans to form a regional defense alliance at a regional conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The coalition will include the United States, Israel and a host of Arab countries, including Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In this sense, Biden continues Trump’s policy of the Abraham Accords.
The new alliance is intended to contain Iran and, in the first stage, will be based on an air defense system against Iranian missiles and attack drones, as well as cyber-security measures. Biden may succeed in upgrading the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Biden’s visit is intended to send two messages: Despite the failed withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States has no intention of leaving the Middle East and will continue to be involved in critical developments in the region. The second message is intended for Iran: there is yet another, last chance to reach a nuclear agreement, and if no deal is reached, the price will be the cultivation and consolidation of the regional defense alliance against it.
The leading player in the planned alliance is Saudi Arabia; it is no coincidence that Biden will visit the kingdom during his Mideast trip in July or that the founding conference will be held there.
Biden has completely reversed his policy toward Saudi Arabia. He and his colleagues in the Democratic Party, especially those who call themselves progressives, lashed out against Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for his involvement in the murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The criticism caused a severe crisis between the two countries. The visit to Saudi Arabia aims to achieve reconciliation with Prince Mohammed.
The main reason for the policy reversal is the war in Ukraine and its economic consequences. The sanctions against Russia have caused a steep rise in fuel prices, reaching an all-time high of more than $5 per gallon. Inflation has reached 8.6%, the highest in 40 years. Interest rates and the cost of living are sharply rising. The bleak economic situation enhances the chances of a Republican victory in the midterm elections in November.
Biden decided that the economy and the elections were more important than moral considerations and criticism from the Democrats’ progressive wing. He asked Prince Mohammed to increase oil production to reduce the shortages caused by the sanctions against Russia. The Saudi leader refused and demanded a change in Biden’s policy, including a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
China also appears in the background of the U.S. alliance building. In March 2021, the foreign ministers of Iran and China signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement in Tehran. China has pledged to invest $400 billion in Iran’s energy industry in exchange for sizable oil and gas purchases at discounted prices.
The Chinese investments are intended to discover and develop oil and gas fields and purchase petrochemical products. In recent years, China has circumvented the sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and bought large quantities of oil. The agreement allows China to deploy about 5,000 security personnel in Iran. As far as the United States is concerned, the Middle East alliance could also block China’s penetration of Iran.
During Biden’s visit to the region, a summit will be held via Zoom, at the level of leaders, connecting Asia’s alliances, discussed earlier, with the Middle East’s new regional alliance. This alliance is called I2U2, and comprises Israel, India, the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
Tectonic strategic changes are taking place in the Middle East, and Israel has a central place. The White House announced that the visit to Israel would take place even if the coalition of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid falls. In normal times, Biden would have avoided a visit to Israel at such a time because it could have been interpreted as interference in Israeli politics.
But Biden arrives in Israel at a critical juncture, amid a deadlock in the nuclear talks with Iran, which is producing uranium enriched to near-military grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency condemned Iran for violating agreements. In response, the Iranians shut down surveillance cameras at its nuclear sites, creating increased anxiety among U.S. allies about Biden’s Iran policy.
The effects of the war in Ukraine, and the upcoming congressional elections in the United States, cannot wait for the Israeli domestic political situation to settle.
Professor Eytan Gilboa is an expert on U.S.-Israel relations, international communication and public diplomacy. The founding head of both the School of Communication and the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University, he has been a senior fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. He has served as an adviser to the government of Israel and several foreign governments.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.