By Kabir Taneja and Vivek Mishra
There seems to be an unusual scramble in the Biden administration’s West Asia (Middle East) policy, most prominently in its apparent rush to accomplish a normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. For the United States (US), both external and internal factors impinge on this seemingly hurried approach to strike a successful deal. Regionally, a Saudi-Israel normalisation could be a necessary diplomatic and perceptional equivalent to the China-mediated deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is despite the fact that Beijing mediating this regional détente has, in fact, given more manoeuvring space for Biden in Riyadh today than any time before over the past two years.
A successful Saudi–Israel deal could send the right signals for the Biden administration. To pursue this, Biden and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) may finally meet on the side-lines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi. At the bilateral level, it could carve out more space by building diplomatic capital with Saudi Arabia. With Russia acting rather independently on the production of energy to impact prices, patching up relations with Riyadh could prove useful in regulating global energy costs in the face of the ongoing war on the periphery of Europe. On other concerns, the deal could not only restrain Israel’s expansive agendas in the West Bank in the near term—a pervasive regional apprehension—but also extend political advantages back to Biden’s White House.
The domestic calculus
The Democratic Party has faced increasing pressure from the internal rift over support for Israel. Besides, the pro-Israel Congressional Israel Allies Caucus is amassing bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill on issues such as indivisible Jerusalem, combating the BDS Movement and Antisemitism, and supporting Israel’s right to safe and secure borders. On the further right of the political spectrum in the US, groups like the Israel Victory Caucus and other pro-Israel groups in US Congress are mounting pressure on any apparent soft stance by the Biden administration towards the Arab world, which could be interpreted against Israel.
Then, there are other domestic considerations as to why the Biden administration is pressed to score a diplomatic victory in the Middle East. The US efforts in the region may also be driven by the fact that a post-Afghanistan presence may need a reformed rationale in the region where economic competition with China trumps its traditional military-led policies. This shift could require its own modulations and accommodations by the US in the region. To many in the Republican Party, it appears that Biden’s approach could end up being too concessionary, receiving very little in the strategic bargain.
Finally, Biden faces legislative hurdles in the Congress where the support of at least 67 Senators would be needed—a two-thirds majority. On Saudi Arabia, the American political class remains divided. The last vote on the sale of weapons to Riyadh in 2021 witnessed a glaring division between the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents in the Senate.
Thinking in Saudi Arabia and Israel
A critical component surrounding the debate around a Saudi-Israel normalisation is that both states have had back-channel communications with each other for years. So, a normalisation of relations will be a swan song for what has been brewing behind closed doors for some time now. However, the risk of normalisation is tilted more towards Saudi Crown Prince MbS than Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To mitigate these risks, MbS has put forward heavy demands for the US to sign up for, should this diplomatic coup be cemented under Biden’s leadership.
First is, of course the easy one, which is some guarantees of top-of-the-line weapons sales for the Kingdom to solidify its defence needs. If Afghanistan has been America’s bad war and withdrawal, then Yemen, on a smaller but regionally equitable extent, has highlighted an unexpected lack of tactical success for the much larger Saudi armed forces. But the other two more difficult demands placed by MbS, have been for the US to agree upon a ‘NATO-like’ security pact, which basically means it will act on behalf of Riyadh’s threat perceptions (a similar construct to NATO’s Article 5). And, finally, the most contentious one, a civil nuclear agreement that allows enrichment of uranium domestically. These demands go far beyond the current security arrangements that the US has even with Israel, its most significant strategic partner in the region. However, even on divisive issues such as the question of nuclear capacities, reportshave suggested that Netanyahu may accept MbS’s nuclear outreach with the US if it leads to normalisation (and gains towards his own political stature and legacy).
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are taking advantage of Biden’s pre-election calculations where he chastised Riyadh as a pariah state in 2019. For Biden, such a posture would have remained palatable at some level even today if drastic shifts in international affairs were not realities that were rapidly unfolding, i.e., the war in Ukraine and China’s belligerence fast finding bipartisan support in Washington to counter Beijing. For the moment, both MbS and Netanyahu find it easier to call the shots with the US than the other way around.
Strategically for the US, the developments in the broader Middle East region that have followed its withdrawal from Afghanistan haven’t been inspiring. A faltering Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, cold snubs from Saudi Arabia, and Qatar’s expanding bilateral relations in the energy, investment, and security sectors with China have left the US in want of more predictability. Add to this the uncertainties that ensue from the regional countries’ own mix of recalibrations. These developments have prevented any major headway in the region. Furthermore, the vision of peace, security, and prosperity in the Middle East and around the world envisaged by the Abraham Accords, at best, has had mixed results.
Biden’s fixation on scoring big in the Middle East may have been further underscored by his recent US$6 billion deal with the Iranians to free five captive US citizens. On the other hand, he also would not want to challenge the immense ideological and theological changes MbS is orchestrating in Saudi Arabia beyond just the economy, recognising that its traditional conservative identity is not marketable. These kinds of changes are exactly what US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan sought to do. The fact that a Saudi royal is doing so himself is also immensely favourable.
Historically, most presidential legacies in the US are associated with policy decisions that have had significant repercussions for the Middle East. The former president Donald Trump tinkered with that trend when he pulled the US out of the JCPOA as well as facilitated the Abraham Accords to assist in an internal restructuring of regional relations. Without any major foreign policy successes in the region and a national election staring in the face, the Biden administration’s expectation that it can persuade both Israel and Saudi Arabia to sign a deal by the end of this year may be a race against time.
Although it may be too early to predict, Biden’s efforts to gain diplomatic advantage could very well be undone by the region’s own political and economic churns. The geopolitical realities of today are increasingly lopsided against the US. There is a palpable shift in the middle powers’ position to not be part of a US–China ‘us-versus-them’ narrative. There is no doubt that the narrative of the US being a ‘power in recession’ in the region is being used in a fast and loose manner considering the US still has over On the economic front, the US itself is now a major exporter of hydrocarbons, so its primary workload here is influencing decision-making within the cartel-like OPEC.
The one thing Biden has been unable to do up until now is to lay out his strategic thinking on what is America’s view over its long-standing strategic relations with the Middle East. This is raising anxieties not only in the US but with partners in the region as well. This missing speech from the US President is adding to the confusion, and is marketing Washington as gullible to influence. As 2024 comes closer, leaving the US presence in the Middle East as a vague policy blueprint may be seen as unbecoming of a superpower.
About the authors:
- Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
- Vivek Mishra is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation.