It took Barack Obama less than three months to fly to the Middle East for a visit, landing in Iraq to visit the tens of thousands of US troops stationed there at the time. Donald Trump’s first overseas trip as president was to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (also three months into his tenure), where he basked in the limelight, watched in awe as his face was plastered on buildings in Riyadh, and hovered over a glowing orb with King Salman.
Now, eighteen months into his presidency, Joe Biden will be spending a few days this week in the region, making stops in Israel, the West Bank, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Biden’s decision to make a brief appearance in Saudi Arabia and sit face-to-face with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has landed like a lightning strike back in Washington, DC, a town that continues to view the mercurial thirty-six-year-old prince as a thug and a murderer. The president, who has zero affection for MbS and would rather avoid him like the plague, likely wouldn’t have scheduled the trip if it weren’t for the high prices Americans are paying at the pump ($4.68 a gallon on average). But alas, Americans pinching pennies at gas stations isn’t exactly a great look at a time when elections are just around the corner — and even less so when inflation in general is already the highest it’s been in four decades.
Biden is pitching his trip to the Middle East as an opportunity to solidify peace in a region often used as a shorthand for terrorism and violence. Writing in the Washington Post over the weekend, the president insisted his visit was less about begging the Saudis for more oil and more about preventing war from drawing American forces back into conflict.
Yet miraculously, there is actually very little conflict going on in the Middle East at the moment. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the perennial heavyweights of the region that are often at each other’s throats, are engaged in a diplomatic process more than a year after it was first initiated. The GCC rift that divided Qatar from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, is over, with blockades lifted and royal family members visiting one another’s countries like long lost brothers. The war in Yemen is still churning, but a three-month truce between Saudi-backed forces and the Houthis has diminished civilian casualties by two-thirds and provided the Yemeni people with a respite from Saudi airstrikes. The last time Israel and its Arab neighbors fought a war against each other was in 1973; in the decades since, the relationship has developed into a kind of mutual tolerance, if not respect. Talk about Israeli-Arab normalization is in the air, and there is a distinct chance that Riyadh could actually establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel when the eighty-six-year-old King Salman passes on.
This isn’t to suggest the Middle East is an oasis of peace and tranquility. To say otherwise would be sugarcoating in the extreme. Terrorism is still a part of everyday life. Iraq is in the midst of yet another political crisis. Groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon are more powerful than the state. A rivalry still exists between Qatar and its neighbors, stretching all the way to Afghanistan. Egypt, which receives more than $1 billion in US military aid annually, is more repressive today than it was under Hosni Mubarak, with tens of thousands of political prisoners locked up and torture rampant. As Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast adviser to six secretaries of state observed in a commentary for CNN on Sunday, “The Middle East offers up problems that lack immediate or easy solutions.”
All of which leads to the obvious question: what exactly will Biden accomplish during this trip?
More Saudi crude production would help cool a global oil market struggling to keep up with demand. But there are questions about the extent of the kingdom’s spare capacity and whether the Saudis will even want to assist Washington on this issue. While Biden intends to make the case to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC that pumping more oil is in their own self-interest, it’s difficult to see the Gulf Arab states taking this argument seriously. Indeed, the higher oil prices are, the more revenue these petro-states rake in. The Saudis, for instance, are enjoying huge profits this year, aided in large part to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the West’s sanctions regime against Russian energy. Saudi officials have already hinted that oil concessions are unlikely.
Progress on Israeli-Arab normalization would be a significant diplomatic accomplishment for the Biden administration, particularly if Riyadh and Jerusalem sign a formal agreement with one another. But the optimal word here is would. As dreamy as this scenario would be, it’s not going to occur during this trip — and the prospects of the kingdom taking such a dramatic step while King Salman remains on the throne are remote.
Major human rights concessions from the Saudis are about as likely as the New York Jets winning the Super Bowl next year. Saudi princes, no matter their individual personalities and dispositions, don’t like being told what to do in their own country. This is especially the case with MbS, who is perhaps the most cutthroat and ruthless de facto leader the kingdom has had in quite a while.
The Biden administration will attempt to make the most out of the trip. And the administration’s spokespeople will do what spokespeople normally do: dress it up as a win regardless of the outcomes and set expectations low if the outcomes are unimpressive — as they will most likely be.