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Biden’s Middle East strategy needs fresh look

By Imran Khalid
04 August 2022   |   3:36 am
In the last three decades, none of the US administrations have been as much clueless and directionless about their Middle East policies as the Biden administration.

US President, Joe Biden (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

In the last three decades, none of the US administrations have been as much clueless and directionless about their Middle East policies as the Biden administration. The much-touted visit of US President Biden to the Middle East has further complicated and muddled the situation there. Though he wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on July 09 before leaving for the Middle East in an effort to set the tone for this very crucial yatra to the region, but it attracted more censure because of the embedded confusion and awkwardness in it.

This whole trip in one sentence can be summarized as: more confusion and more frustration. There were three predefined objectives of this trip. One, President Biden wanted to rally support against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The protracted war in Ukraine has created unprecedented instability in the energy market. For quite some time, Washington had been proposing price cap on oil to frustrate Putin financially through this tactic. The Americans felt that price capping would put intense pressure on Putin to eventually seek a negotiating solution to the Ukraine invasion, but they never found any unanimous strategy on this matter because of the existing differences among their Western allies as well as OPEC members.

On the other hand, Putin had been successfully countering this strategy by continuously increasing production since May. So, President Biden also modified his strategy and he tried to convince Saudi Arabia and other Arab members of OPEC to increase their oil production to muffle the Russian game plan. But frankly speaking, he did not get any clear nod from his hosts in the Middle East on this matter.

The second important matter was to involve the regional countries to find long term solution to pre-empt the food suppl chain disruption that erupted as a major side effect of the Ukraine war. In this matter, President Biden was reasonably successful in conducting the first-ever joint session of the I2U2, which derives its name from India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States, to find ways for collaborative public and private investment in six crucial sectors including the food supply chain.

The inaugural project of the I2U2 is to launch a $2 billion project that will create a food corridor between India and the UAE. Perhaps this is the only part of his Middle East tour that can be termed as successful, otherwise, President Biden failed in almost all other defined goals. The third and most crucial matter was to assure the regional countries about the “renewed” American engagement and interest in the region, particularly in the wake of the Ukraine war.

This is the fact that, after the arrival of President Joe Biden at the White House, the American disengagement from the region has been quite palpable and Biden’s political rhetoric against certain regional states has also pushed them to re-unify and enhance their intra-regional cooperation to tackle a potential American pressure. Against this backdrop, there was a widespread fear in the White House that Iran, Russia and China would definitely jump into region to fill in the vacuum created by the American disengagement policy. The Ukraine war has further aggravated the American’s distress, which is reflected by Biden’s passionate anti-Iran and anti-China rhetoric during his Middle East tour.

But here, for obvious reasons, Biden faced a very lukewarm response from his hosts on Iran and China. Ground realities have drastically changed in the region in the last one decade. There is fatigue and exhaustion in the region after a protracted friction with Iran. Now these countries are in no mood to continue with the old-styled anti-Iran narrative. The economy and trade interests are now driving their foreign policies and they are not ready to be part of a demarcated anti-Iran bloc anymore. The trade and investment safeties, despite American sanctions against Iran, have compelled the regional states to find ways of living with an ostensibly “belligerent Iran”.

Same is the case with China, which has much deeper and stronger trading relations in the region from Egypt to Oman. Saudi Arabia, once the biggest market for the American products, has replaced China as its biggest trading partner. In the early phase of his stint at the White House, President Biden ill-advisedly talked about disengagement from this region and this has seriously – and to some extent irreversibly – damaged the American credibility in the region. The regional countries are in no mood to become proxies in the tussle between bigger powers anymore. The economic stability and regional peace are the main theme on which the realignment of regional power equation is being done and Washington seems to be to tally oblivious to these changing priorities of the regional players, who are not ready to be compartmented in the camps of the bigger powers.

The dilemma with these regional countries is that they can’t afford to delink themselves militarily from Washington and economically from China. They are trying to create a balanced equation that will keep their region stable and free from more hot spots like Syria. President Biden’s visit was a visible attempt to consolidate the Gulf states and their allies against Iran and China with two key points in mind: One, to create further wedge in the region to satisfy Israel and weaken the position of Iran by isolating it completely in the region, and two, to gain indirect support of the two most influential players in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – for his new mantra “China Threat” which was inculcated in the proceedings of the NATO summit in Madrid recently. His indirect offer of American protection to the Arab Gulf States did not yield any positive response – an indication that the regional states are not sticking to the rapprochement process with Iran with a view to ease the Arab-Iran tension.

President Biden needs to see the Middle East through a new lens. He needs to overhaul American foreign policy with a long-term vision, not to initiate short term foreign policy adventures to bolster his ebbing approval rating at home and generate support for Democrats in the mid-term polls. He needs to think big and far.