Joe Biden and the permanently troubled Middle East

collage of flags on a Middle-East map
collage of flags on a Middle-East map

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been longstanding. They go back seven decades. It is a strategic alliance, established with what is called the ‘Quincy Pact’. The cruiser USS Quincy was the American warship on which then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s King Ibn Saud on February 14, 1945. Legend has it that both rulers struck a strategic bargain then: Saudi Arabia accepted to reserve its oil production and reserves exclusively to the US, in exchange for which the US assured the security of the Saudi Kingdom.

The fact is, however, that according to the memorandum of the consultations published by the Office of the Historian on that ship, there was not a word about it. It was only in the years that followed that the lines of some sort of agreement “oil for protection” were drawn out. Whatever the case, the strategic alliance exists and continues to this day. There have been some ups and downs at times, and a number of events did evolve the nature of the relationship.

When Jimmy Carter became U.S. president in 1977, he focused his foreign policy on promoting international human rights and pursuing relaxation with the Soviet Union. This culminated with the signing in June 1979 of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) II nuclear arms treaty between the Soviet Union and the United States.

However, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, some in the Carter administration thought that the invasion of Afghanistan was the first step in an attempt by the Soviet Union to control the vast oil resources in the Middle East, and the tone changed. During his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, Carter warned, “Let our position be absolutely clear: an attempt by a foreign power to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be considered an attack on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an attack will be met with all necessary means, including military force.”

A second test occurred ten years later after Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait in August 1990. While preparing for the reconquest of Kuwait in 1991 with the first Gulf War, some 500,000 mostly U.S. troops were stationed on the kingdom’s territory. This simultaneously protected Saudi Arabia from the threat posed by the Iraqi army.

The turning point

The attacks of September 11, 2001, however, were the major turning point. Of the 19 suicide bombers, 15 were Saudi. This led to great mistrust in the United States and an investigation was carried out, resulting in a long kept secret report.The report raised disturbing questions about the financing of the attacks. This called into question the foundations of the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. All questions are still unanswered but both countries had an interest in continuing the Agreement even after 9/11. Tensions eventually gradually leveled off over time.

Times and circumstances change

When Barack Obama became president, the U.S. put in place a strategy to become energy autonomous — if not independent. This reduced their dependence on the Gulf in general and on Saudi Arabia in particular while oil was one of the two pillars of the alliance.

With the U.S. development of shale oil, which has accelerated under Donald Trump, the United States has once again become the world’s largest oil producer ahead of Saudi Arabia. The U.S. no longer needs Saudi oil, and therefore the initial alliance is worth less. Thus, the Saudis are concerned about the stability of the other pillar: U.S. security insurance.

On September 14, 2019, the sites of the massive Abqa’iq refinery and the main Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia suffered an attack by the Houthis from Yemen with drones and missiles. The Saudi regime probably hoped the United States would respond militarily but in vain. For the Saudis, this was a real shock, confirming doubts about the sustainability of the alliance, even if it is not formally questioned.

Donald Trump

Before becoming president, Donald Trump was very critical of Saudi Arabia. In a tweet during the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks in 2014, he wrote, “The Saudis are just a bunch of bullies, tyrants, cowards. They have the money but not the courage”. Once the presidential campaign got underway, he went even further: “Saudi Arabia is a cash cow that we need to milk as much as possible and as soon as its milk dries up, we need to leave the Middle East.” He added that he was ‘certainly not a big fan’ of Saudi Arabia and that America had paid too much to support ‘Saudi terrorists’.

Once elected, Donald Trump, in an interview with Reuters complained that the U.S. had lost a lot of money defending Saudi Arabia: “Frankly, Saudi Arabia didn’t treat us well because we lost a lot of money defending Saudi Arabia.” However, relations between the United States and the Saudis, at least on the surface, never seem to have been stronger than under Donald Trump.

Traditionally, every new White House tenant travels to neighboring countries Mexico and Canada before visiting another country. Against all odds, Donald Trump broke with that tradition. His first trip on May 20, 2017, led him to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The fact that he could win $110 billion in arms contracts there must have helped determine his choice. Donald Trump may have been president but he is first and foremost a businessman, and so he saw an exceptional opportunity here to seal a big business deal. He was probably not concerned with being strategic in the geopolitical sense, as he emphasized before his trip.

Nevertheless, after that trip, a very special personal relationship developed between Donald Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A form of complicity, both political and personal. In the weeks following his trip, Trump reportedly told friends that he and Jared had maneuvered Mohammed bin Salman into the position of crown prince “We‘ve put our man on top.” After the scandal of the bloody ‘Khashoggi affair’ in early October 2018, Donald Trump made it clear to those who interviewed him, and in particular to Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, that the crown prince was indebted to him: “I saved his ass.”

The relationship between Washington and Riyadh may have been rather spectacular but it was more of a personal than a strategic alliance. After all, it is this same Donald Trump who did not deign to respond militarily after the bombing of Abqa’iq and Khurais on September 14, 2019 in favor of his ‘big friend’ the crown prince.

Joe Biden wants to ‘recalibrate’ relations

Joe Biden is highly critical of the personal nature of the relations that the previous administration maintained with the current Saudi regime. He therefore wants to “adjust” relations with Saudi Arabia. But not only with Saudi Arabia.

In the eyes of a foreign policy ‘realist’ like Joe Biden, however, ‘recalibration’ does not mean radically calling into question the already decades-long close relations with the Saudis. During his first speech on February 4, 2021 about the foreign policy he would pursue, he announced that a number of arms contracts signed under Trump with Saudi Arabia would be reviewed. In addition, he also questioned the United States’ support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. He did add, “We will continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

Biden wants to try to broker a peace deal between the Saudi coalition and the Houthis. Since the official position is that you don’t negotiate with terrorists, he removed the Houthis from the State Department’s blacklist of terrorist organizations. One day before the end of Trump’s term, Mike Pompeo had added the Houthis to the list, much to the satisfaction of Saudi Arabia.

That Biden did not mention the blockade of Yemen in his speech Riyadh apparently interpreted as implicit support for it. In March, CNN discovered that Saudi warships had been preventing all oil tankers from docking at the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah since the beginning of the year. In response, 80 Democratic Congressmen wrote Biden a letter on April 6 urging him to “publicly pressure Saudi Arabia to immediately, unilaterally and fully lift this blockade.” But some accuse the president and his team of wanting to maintain the blockade in order to use it as a bargaining chip.

The Khashoggi Affair

Biden further decided, in accordance with his campaign promise, to publish the CIA report on the ‘Khashoggi affair’, even though the contents of the report were largely already public knowledge because the CIA, much to the dismay of former President Donald Trump, had previously organized leaks to the American press.

Sanctions, called the ‘Khashoggi Ban,’ were taken against 76 Saudi nationals believed to be involved in a policy of intimidation and persecution of Saudi opponents. The crown prince, however, was spared. Jen Psaki, the White House spokeswoman, commented, “Historically, sanctions are not imposed on leaders of foreign governments with whom we have diplomatic relations (…) We believe there are more effective ways to ensure that this does not happen again.”

The crown prince was safeguarded from being personally punished. And it is precisely there that the nature of Joe Biden’s subtle ‘recalibration’ lies. Biden says he would rather work with his real ‘counterpart’ King Salman — who is, however, very old and sick. By the way, he thanked King Salman for his efforts to free a number of imprisoned critics of the regime. The status of the crown prince was thereby devalued and, politically speaking, the punishment was completed.

All in all, the measures taken are still fairly mild. Joe Biden wants an ‘recalibration’ but not an ‘upheaval’ in relations. Mohammed bin Salman has been somewhat put in his place but there is no question of severing relations with Riyadh. After all, the crown prince, whatever one may think of him, is destined to succeed his old father when he dies. The United States will not break with Saudi Arabia because the ties between the two countries are too close and too long-lasting. It would also mean too radical an upheaval. China and Russia must be prevented from taking the place of the U.S.; the U.S. does not want to lose its military bases in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf; and the flow of money from the Gulf to the U.S. must continue.

Joe Biden and Iran

The ‘recalibration’ Joe Biden wants also lies in an adjustment toward Tehran. Biden has always believed that Donald Trump’s exit from the JCPOA agreement with Iran was a mistake because it gave Tehran more room to maneuver on nuclear issues.

Biden therefore wants to go back to the agreement, but not to the agreement as it used to look. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out back in January that a ‘stronger agreement of longer duration’ was needed. And therein lies the problem, because Tehran does not want to hear anything about renegotiating, expanding or strengthening the original agreement. Lift all sanctions first and return to that Agreement and we’ll see the rest later, is Tehran’s message.

‘Normalization’ with Israel

The fact that the U.S. has now started indirect negotiations with Iran in Vienna — with the EU as go-between — is logically seen as very wrong in Riyadh — but not only there. After all, Iran is the obsession of the oil monarchies. That obsession also explains the oil monarchies ‘normalization’ with Israel, because Israel, rightly or wrongly — in this case, probably rightly — is considered the only credible military player in the region that could be able to carry weight against Iran. Hence the rapprochement to what is seen as the common Iranian threat.

On November 16, 2017, then Israeli Army Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot gave an interview to Elaph, a Saudi online newspaper in London. He called Iran the “real and greatest threat to the region” and said that Israel and Saudi Arabia fully agreed on Iran’s intentions and that Saudi Arabia and Israel had never fought each other. He added that Israel was willing to exchange information with moderate Arab countries, including intelligence information to deal with Iran.

Under Donald Trump, a very close trio has emerged between Washington, Riyadh and Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were pleased when Donald Trump stepped out of the Iran nuclear deal. According to them, it is a particularly dangerous agreement for regional security. On the Iran issue, the three were united.

The perception of Iran as a dangerous regional threat did accelerate a dynamic of ‘normalization’ of some Arab countries with Israel. The peace treaties, the so-called ‘Accords of Abraham’ were signed in Washington on September 15, 2020. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan now have ‘normal’ relations with Israel.

The ‘normalization’ is a sign of an increasingly important rapprochement between Israel and the oil monarchies in general and Saudi Arabia in particular to establish a regional security system that can deal with what is increasingly seen as an ‘existential’ threat from Iran.

For Saudi Arabia, however, that ‘normalization’ is more difficult. After all, the holy sites of Mecca and Medina are located in Saudi Arabia and problems could arise with the Ummah, the global Islamic community. In addition, the kingdom has traditionally been a guarantor of the Palestinian cause. In March 2002, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia advocated the possibility of recognizing the state of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. King Salman reaffirmed the sanctity of the Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to a state with East Jerusalem as its capital at the 29th Arab League Summit in April 2018. He even went so far as to call the summit the ‘Al Quds summit’ – Al Quds being the Arabic name of Jerusalem. This was an implicit rejection of the position of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who was considered too complacent. Thus, the Saudi crown prince who implicitly subscribes to the logic of ‘normalization’ — Bahrain could never have ‘normalized’ its relations with Israel without Saudi Arabia’s consent — cannot formally allow Saudi Arabia to participate in “normalization.

During his last diplomatic tour, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Saudi crown prince on the shores of the Red Sea on November 23, 2020 — a meeting secretly attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to discuss the sensitive issue of Iran. Israel is the United States’ fundamental ally in the region, and the U.S. remains committed to Israel’s security. The question with that commitment is not whether it is there but of what kind it is.

Washington will always be mindful of the security interests of both Israel and the oil monarchies. But the triangular relationship is changing somewhat with the new Biden administration. Now that the U.S. wants to get back to the table with Iran, the angle is also different.

Shifting the focus

That Washington wants to talk to Tehran again about the nuclear deal has another reason. In the background, the United States also sees the strategic issue of the U.S. presence in the Middle East as it wants to shift its focus to Asia.

Before Donald Trump became president in 2017, the United States wanted to withdraw partially from the Middle East in order to make President Barack Obama’s so-called “pivot” to Asia. The problem is that too pronounced a withdrawal from the Middle East could create the impression that the U.S. is making way for its strategic rival China there. China was officially declared the main ‘enemy’ in the U.S. ‘National Defense Strategy’ of January 2018: “China is a strategic competitor that uses predatory economic means to intimidate its neighbors while exhibiting characteristics to militarize the South China Sea.”

For Washington, the Iranian issue is closely tied to thoughtfully managing China’s “provocation”. Especially since Tehran signed a 25-year “strategic partnership” with Beijing on March 27, 2021, which, because of the political, strategic and economic clauses included, could be viewed as a new ‘Quincy agreement,’ but one between Tehran and Beijing.

The fact that Iran could turn east in the context of a new Cold War is a bad dream for the United States. But it is ultimately the result of Donald Trump’s disastrous policies with his cancellation of the nuclear agreement and his “maximum pressure” sanctions. It is also the result of the cowardly attitude of the EU who were co-signatories of the Accord but only dared to oppose this disastrous policy of Donald Trump in words. He who sows wind can expect storm.

Now the US has to adjust. It is a matter of taking into account the Iranian factor in all its aspects while not losing sight of the interests of its allies and partners in the region. Joe Biden wants to ‘adjust’ relations with Saudi Arabia. But has to adjust not only with Saudi Arabia.


Dit artikel werd eerst gepubliceerd op Medium, een Amerikaans open platform waar lezers terecht kunnen voor dynamisch denken, en waar deskundige en minder bekende stemmen hun schrijfsels over om het even welk onderwerp kunnen delen.

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