OpinionMiddle East

Why Arabs don’t trust the Biden administration

Judging from Arab reactions to Blinken's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the Saudis and other Arabs have lost confidence in the Biden administration.

U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons via the U.S. president's Twitter account.
U.S. President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on July 17, 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons via the U.S. president's Twitter account.
Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award winning Arab and Palestinian Affairs journalist formerly with The Jerusalem Post. He is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states apparently still do not trust the Biden administration, largely because of its perceived abandonment of its traditional Arab allies in the Middle East and President Joe Biden’s hostility to Saudi Arabia.

This view began with then-presidential candidate Biden declaring the kingdom a “pariah” state, and is continuing with U.S. attempts, still ongoing, to revive a “nuclear deal” that will enable an expansionist Iran to obtain nuclear weapons with which to potentially topple other countries in the region.

Nor is Saudi Arabia likely to improve its relationship with the Biden administration in the aftermath of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the kingdom in early June, according to Arab political analysts and columnists.

“The Biden administration has misjudged its approach to the Middle East,” noted Jason Greenblatt, former Representative for International Negotiations for the Trump administration. “It alienated the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and wasn’t particularly great with the United Arab Emirates.”

Meanwhile, the same administration has continued to cozy up to the Iranian regime, which the U.S.’s own State Department has called the “top state sponsor of terrorism” and which has, until recently, not only been attacking both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates through Iran’s proxy militia, the Houthis, in Yemen, but has also been supplying troops and weapons to Russia for use in its war against Ukraine.

The message being sent is that being America’s enemy pays handsomely, but, as with Afghanistan, being its friend can be fatal.

“U.S. President Joe Biden visited Jeddah last summer and met King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman,” noted Syrian author and political analyst Fatmeh Yasmin.

“That visit was a turning point in the history of the long relationship between the two countries, because it came from a president who had announced strict positions against Saudi Arabia during his election campaign. After he entered the White House, Biden quickly implemented what he pledged against the kingdom: stopping the export of offensive weapons to it, punishing some Saudi security officials, and preventing many Saudi personalities from entering the US by not granting them visas,” she continued.

Referring to Blinken’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, Yasmin said that the Biden administration is pretending that the old alliance between the Saudis and Americans has not changed.

“But Saudi Arabia, during the year separating the visits of Biden and Blinken, turned towards the Far East, unleashed unbridled relations with China, and allowed the Chinese to launch a Saudi-Iranian dialogue that led to the opening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh after a seven-year diplomatic break,” she wrote.

“Ironically, the opening day of the restoration of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh was the day the U.S. Secretary of State arrived in Jeddah. His visit also coincided with the visit of Venezuelan President [Nicolás] Maduro, whom the U.S. places on the list of its enemies. Blinken, however, swallowed all that, and talked about good relations [with Saudi Arabia],” she continued.

Yasmin added that Saudi Arabia is not expected to make a full turn back to the U.S. administration, as Biden’s last year in office is approaching and he will devote his time to his critical reelection campaign.

Yasmin pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s current policy is based on strengthening its relations with China and achieving reconciliation with Iran, Turkey and even Syria.

“The current Saudi effort is completely devoted to building a Middle East in which the kingdom would play a major role and strengthen its own economy and that of its neighbors,” she said.

The London-based Rai Al-Youm online newspaper said that Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia failed to achieve most of its goals, including promoting normalization between the kingdom and Israel. According to Rai Al-Youm, the Saudi media ignored Blinken’s visit, while playing up the arrival of former Real Madrid soccer player Karim Benzema in the kingdom after he joined the Saudi club Al-Ittihad.

“It was remarkable that the official Saudi media ignored, and certainly deliberately, the two-day visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the kingdom,” the newspaper said.

“He was the second U.S. official to visit Saudi Arabia in the past month after U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who was met with extreme coldness by Saudi officials and reportedly waited for three days before he had a meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince,” the report stated.

Rai Al-Youm noted that Saudi newspapers published news about Blinken’s meetings with the Saudi crown prince and the foreign ministers of the Gulf states on the inside pages, and in small print.

“Whoever wanted to read the news needed a magnifying glass,” the newspaper said.

“This [Saudi attitude] reflects the official view of the kingdom’s senior leadership. By contrast, the news and pictures of the French football player’s arrival in the Kingdom appeared on the front pages.”

The newspaper further said that Blinken failed to convince the Saudis to normalize their relations with Israel.

“The Saudi leadership had decided on its options and has redrawn the map of its international strategic alliances,” it argued.

“Blinken’s failed visit was an explicit reflection of these changes, and that is why we were not surprised to see the kingdom received Blinken by reducing oil production in coordination with Russia and in an explicit defiance of the American demands to raise production.

“Today, Saudi Arabia stands in the trench of the China-Russia alliance and supports a multipolar world while leaving the door partly open with the U.S. and the West, perhaps in preparation for its semi-final closure. What is certain is that Blinken will return to Washington depressed after his visit failed to achieve most of its objectives,” the report stated.

Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst specializing in Gulf-Israel ties, said that Saudi Arabia does not want to present a gift to the Biden administration by normalizing the kingdom’s relations with Israel:

“This is not the American administration that Saudis want to gift a Saudi-Israeli normalization to… It’s going to be a massive achievement, it’s going to be under an American umbrella, and they don’t want the Biden administration to take any credit for that.”

In what appears as another sign of disrespect towards the Biden administration, the Saudi crown prince was talking on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin while Blinken was meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan. According to some reports, Putin and the Saudi crown prince praised cooperation between their countries within the framework of OPEC+.

Despite the continued lack of clarity in Washington’s policy, wrote Lebanese columnist Sam Mansi, the visits to Saudi Arabia by Blinken and Sullivan aimed to allow the United States to play three roles: reproduce the Chinese-brokered normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran so it could be used for other purposes; stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons by returning to the negotiations with Tehran, and confront Iran’s activities in Gulf waters while activating the American role in protecting the security of the region in general.

“These three roles are considered reactions to the course of changes in the region that were anchored by the recent agreement between Riyadh and Tehran,” Mansi remarked.

“There are many obstacles to America’s success in playing these roles, including what is related to the nuclear file, as a nuclear Iran remains a concern for the Gulf and for other countries in the region. The [Saudi] agreement with Iran may alleviate this concern, but it will not dispel it. Washington’s success in settling this file in a way that does not threaten the security and stability of the Gulf states is the bottom line and it is what will determine the future of Washington’s relations with the countries of the region,” he continued.

Mansi added that the Biden administration has not yet understood that Saudi Arabia, like the Gulf countries in general, gives priority today to its national interests and the aspirations of its people, and is trying to balance its relations between East and West, in addition to pursuing a policy of “zero problems” with everyone, and accordingly it is worth reading the Saudi-Iranian reconciliation from this lens.

Do the three roles constitute an American strategy towards the region? The answer is no. Everything that the U.S. administration is doing to restore its involvement in the region remains weak in the face of the Chinese openness, he said.

Mansi continued:

“Whatever Blinken achieved during his visit to Saudi Arabia will remain weak and incomplete in the face of the dangers of ongoing tensions in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other conflict areas, most notably the civil war that broke out recently in Sudan, in addition to the comprehensive challenges posed by the fraught relations between Iran and Israel, which may explode if there is no progress in the nuclear talks, and if more daring steps are not taken to limit Iran’s continuation of uranium enrichment, and Iran’s public support for Russia and its cooperation with it in the context of the war against Ukraine.”

Judging from the reactions of these Arabs to Blinken’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, it is clear that the Saudis and other Arabs have lost confidence in the Biden administration and are not pinning any hopes on it to bring security and stability to the Middle East.

Moreover, it is evident that the Saudis feel so offended by Biden that they are willing to move closer to Iran and Russia if that enables them to steer clear of the American president. It will take more than a visit by Biden or Blinken or Sullivan to repair the damage that has been done to America’s relations with Arab countries that used to respect it.

In fact, it is safe to assume that the Arabs’ attitudes toward the Biden administration will remain steady regardless of any effort that this administration might choose to make.

Originally published by the Gatestone Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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