Dr. Salem Al Ketbi
Dr. Salem Al KetbiCourtesy

In the coming days, all media attention will be focused on President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, during which he will visit Saudi Arabia, Israel and the 'West Bank'.

The President’s visit to the region is important in its own right, especially as it is Biden’s first visit to the Middle East since taking office, but the political circumstances and context make the visit all the more newsworthy.

-Highest among the facts surrounding this visit is the Russian military operation in Ukraine and all related issues, most notably the energy question.

-There are also questions about Saudi-US relations and the extent to which the visit will reflect a change in the White House’s approach to the kingdom, one of America’s most important strategic allies in the region.

-There are also the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which are stalled and deadlocked, and regional relations in all their backlog of details.

Needless to say, Biden’s visit to the Middle East differs from previous visits to the region by previous US presidents. It takes place in the shadow of exceptional political circumstances in Israel.

The Knesset recently voted to disband, as Naftali Bennett’s ruling coalition collapsed, and prepare for new elections on November 1, the fifth time in less than four years. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is acting Prime Minister and leading the government in these difficult domestic and foreign circumstances.

In recent years, the US has not been serious about fulfilling its security commitments to strategic partners and allies in the Middle East.
The visit also takes place against a backdrop of pronounced tensions between Riyadh and Washington, the causes of which are well known. They stem entirely from President Biden’s attitude and policy towards the Kingdom. This visit is a serious test to see if there is a change that matches the importance of the Saudis as a strategic partner in US global strategies.

Biden appears to be in a tough spot ahead of this visit, especially since he has been very slow to address the causes of tensions with Saudi Arabia. He needs to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in his administration before the November congressional elections. And he needs political flexibility and diplomatic pragmatism to change his approach and make a success of his mission.

One columnist headlined the visit “Joe Biden ventures back into Middle East’s shifting sands.” But it’s not really about making a comeback in the region, but mainly about correcting the mistakes of US policy, which actually began with the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015.

In recent years, the US has not been serious about fulfilling its security commitments to strategic partners and allies in the Middle East. Biden’s visit is intended to underscore the Middle East’s priority and central role in US strategy.

But that mission is no longer what it used to be.

To top it all off, the President faces a different political environment than the one he knows personally through his experience as Obama’s former VP for eight years and the one he reads in periodic reports to the White House.

It is true that the countries in the region continue to have a strong strategic relationship with the US.

But the uncertainty that has crept into this relationship in recent years requires a major effort to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of ties with the regional countries, individually and collectively. In a complex context, Biden has a specific agenda that he wants to discuss with regional leaders.

At the forefront is the US/Western energy issue and calls for increased oil production to alleviate the global energy crisis and cushion rising energy prices with associated economic consequences in the US and Europe. This is an issue that will be a priority in Biden’s talks, particularly with the leadership in Saudi Arabia.

Here it is no longer a question of pressure and whether or not to comply with them. It is about the extent to which the US welcomes changes in its Gulf allies’ strategies and reconsiders the alliance in both sides’ interests. There is also the issue of renegotiating Iran’s nuclear deal.

The Biden administration has failed to reach out to its Gulf allies to coordinate on this vital Gulf security issue. Exclusive consultations and coordination with Israel had no clear impact on the White House’s strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.

This coordination often looked like a kind of reassurance to avoid pressure from the pro-Israel lobby at home, regardless of what actual impact it had on White House strategy.

I think the success of Biden’s visit to the Middle East depends on how willing he is to turn the page on the year and a half since he took office and to be pragmatically flexible about the current geopolitical realities in our region.

The Gulf is not just about oil anymore. The equation is no longer about oil for security.

Peace agreements link Israel and its Arab neighbours? The US is no longer an active mediator capable of calming tensions or brokering between conflicting parties, nor does it have the capacity to act and influence regional crises. While the US is not a single political spectrum, there are elements within it that flexibly adapt to the shifting variables. The problem remains the diehard stereotypes in the minds of the old generation of leaders.

Dr. Salem AlKetbiis a UAE political analyst