Biden’s Bumpy Visit to Saudi Arabia Exposes U.S. Limits

In sacrificing values for interests, the president's first Middle East trip risks compromising both

Biden’s Bumpy Visit to Saudi Arabia Exposes U.S. Limits
President Joe Biden, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist-bump in Jeddah / Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s tour of the Middle East started with a faux pas. For a trip aimed at rapprochement with a state he wanted to cast as a “pariah,” optics were going to matter. Biden was determined to avoid a photo-op with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who had Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and a U.S. resident, hacked to death. To avoid shaking the bloodied hand of a tyrant, Biden used pandemic-era precautions as an excuse to fist-bump his way to the kingdom’s capital.

But he lost his nerve at the very first stop. Faced with Israel’s intransigent former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden’s hands and lips got ahead of himself offering a reflexive handshake and a placatory “I love you.” This overture has made his fist bump in Riyadh today appear that much more awkward — and offensive. (Nor has it earned him any plaudits since it was lost on no one in the region that Israel’s recent killing of a journalist — Shireen Abu Akleh, a U.S. citizen — raised no similar concerns).

For all Biden’s claims about “a more stable and integrated Middle East, with the United States playing a vital leadership role,” it is this disregard for people’s sentiments that has left hearts and minds in the region unconquered. In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Biden affirmed his support for the “Abraham Accords” and claimed that “a region that’s coming together through diplomacy and cooperation — rather than coming apart through conflict — is less likely to give rise to violent extremism.” It is unclear if Biden is speaking from conviction, but in inverting cause and effect, he is confirming that America will not — or cannot — correct its failed policies in the region.

Because the main source of the resentment toward the U.S. — a cause that has driven some to violent extremism — is its very support of Arab tyrannies and its unwavering defense of Israel’s human rights abuses. Strengthening the same autocracies while consolidating their capacity for repression and uniting them with Israel in an axis of human rights abusers, all while ignoring the plight of the Palestinians, is unlikely to curb extremism. It may even increase it.

Ironically, while the nascent Israeli-Arab alliance addresses some of the Gulf monarchies’ anxieties about Iran’s growing intransigence, it is unlikely to help with Biden’s immediate concern: the war in Ukraine and the economic strain caused by fuel and food costs. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel have all been hitherto unhelpful in the effort to thwart Russian aggression in Ukraine. And for all Biden’s pandering, none of these states is likely to help improve his party’s chances in the midterms.

Under the last Democratic administration, with Biden as vice president, the U.S. had undertaken a massive reorientation of its foreign policy without fully considering its consequences. The nuclear deal with Iran was supposed to defuse threats to U.S. interests in the Gulf and Israel while moderating Iran. To this end, the administration offered up Iraq and Syria as sacrifices, supporting the pro-Iran Nouri al-Maliki’s reelection in Iraq and undermining its own “red line” in Syria, sparing President Bashar al-Assad punishment for launching the worst chemical attack in a quarter century.

Yet far from moderating Iran, such appeasement had the opposite effect. With a large cash windfall, the Iranian regime became more aggressive, projecting its power more broadly and threatening U.S. allies more directly. Indeed, the Islamic Republic’s forces ran rampant in Syria as it further tightened its grip over Iraq. Its domestic repression only grew in magnitude.

One aim of President Barack Obama’s policy was to show the Gulf kingdoms that, while the U.S. appreciated their support, it did not consider them indispensable. They needed the U.S. more than the U.S. needed them. The monarchies, however, saw this pivot in existential terms; as a direct threat to their survival. Though the administration had been slow to react to the Arab Spring uprisings and — beyond Libya — had shown little enthusiasm for them, the Saudis and Emiratis blamed the U.S. for not doing more to protect Egypt’s old guard and blamed the Americans for allowing the country to fall into the hands of the feared Muslim Brotherhood. In response, the Saudis and Emiratis supported Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s coup in Egypt and Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s insurgency in Libya.

The critical turn in U.S. relations with the Gulf came in 2015, first with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and later with the Russian intervention in Syria. In contrast to Obama’s dithering in Syria, they marveled at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bold intervention that turned the war in Assad’s favor. Russia’s military arsenal looked formidable, and in the years after the intervention, its weapons’ sales doubled in the region. Indeed, Russian arms manufacturers have since become a fixture at Dubai’s International Defense Exhibition and Conference.

Even more attractive was Putin’s ruling style. His bare-chested strongman image resonated with regional leaders, and his decisiveness appealed to them. They supported him without constraint, facilitated perhaps by the fact that he will sell his weapons without any of the (insincere) demands for respecting human rights. They didn’t want to lose access to U.S. technology, but neither did they want to become dependent on an ally whose support was conditional and subject to the vagaries of domestic politics. Democracies simply do not make reliable allies for dictatorships; they are always at risk of finding a conscience. In Putin, the autocrats found a kindred spirit. Putin’s biggest triumph was also theirs.

It was the election of Donald Trump (which the UAE had tried to assist) that returned the U.S. to its transactional relationship with the Gulf. No more was there any talk of rights or reforms. No longer was there even the pretense of democratic accountability. In typical autocratic fashion, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner used U.S. resources without the constraints of state institutions to carry out his personal diplomacy while overlooking the abuses and crimes of the partner regimes. He even helped cover up some of the more egregious violations. This personal diplomacy suited the Gulf autocrats. The relationship was no longer hostage to the constraints of domestic politics.

The return of a Democrat to the White House was not well-received by any of them — especially a Democrat who had threatened to make a pariah out of the Saudi crown prince and revive the Iran deal. Like Obama, Biden considered the Gulf autocracies dispensable; and, as under Obama, the Gulf states saw Russia as a better ally and China as a better economic partner than the U.S. Indeed, to Gulf leaders’ eyes, it was the U.S. that seemed like a dispensable ally.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended this equation.

No one expected the war to go as poorly as it has for Russia. The image of invincibility so carefully cultivated in Syria was swiftly shattered in Ukraine. There, Russia lost almost twice as many men and machines during 16 weeks as it had in the 16 years of wars in Afghanistan and Syria combined! Its vaunted air force has proved no match for American Stinger and British Starstreak missiles; its much-touted Pantsir air defense system has failed to even protect itself against Turkish-supplied Bayraktars; its feared armor is repeatedly turned into metal coffins by American-supplied Javelin missiles. Diplomatically, Russia is more isolated today than it has ever been. Putin has become a diminished figure, his insecurity and long tables a subject of frequent ridicule.

Humiliated by losses and paranoid about his survival, Putin no longer looks like a man any autocrat wants to emulate. For now, the Gulf monarchs are helping him survive by allowing him to make war costly for the West at the pump. But there are many months until November — when winter will increase energy needs and Biden will have to face midterm elections — and it would be a risky gamble for the UAE and the Saudis to bet on a Russian victory.

The war in Ukraine has also given the Democratic administration cause for reappraisal. Any gains of Obama’s Iran gamble were always equivocal; but the strain that the war in Europe has put on the world economy is a rude reminder of the reasons every U.S. administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s has aimed to keep Saudi Arabia in its good graces. Not even the largest economy in the world can afford to alienate the world’s biggest oil supplier. To silence Russian guns in Ukraine, Biden will have to bite the bullet in the Gulf.

This, of course, gives the UAE and Saudi Arabia immense leverage. They have little reason to help Biden avoid electoral defeat, and any inducement that Biden may offer, they will be able to extract from a future Republican leader with a premium, without the humbug about human rights.

For all the selectiveness in its commitment to human rights, when the U.S. does pick up the issue, it makes a tangible difference to people’s lives. Dissidents under many authoritarian regimes have felt protected once the U.S. decided to champion their cause. But the inconsistency in its approach to human rights (gleefully highlighted by Russian and Chinese media and officials) has made much of the world leery of its pronouncements. To most, it seems like grandstanding. This is one reason it has struggled to rally many countries in Asia and Africa to its position over Ukraine. Kowtowing to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Israel at this point will only make it harder to make such a case based on principle.

There is, of course, another way. Instead of allowing the Kremlin to hold a gun to the world’s head and bluff it into compromising (which it eventually might), the U.S. can scale up its military support in Ukraine to such a level that Putin is forced to back down. Instead of seeking dubious alliances in the Middle East, it can use its existing ones in Europe to pressure states like Germany and France into carrying their weight. Not only will it deter Putin’s aggression, but it will also help reverse the erosion that the principle of non-aggression has faced over the past decade. More importantly, it will help the U.S. avoid the moral compromises that have won it friends in palaces but alienated the masses.

In sacrificing values for interests, the U.S. has often risked both. It needn’t have to be this way. U.S. policy toward Ukraine is an example of how values and interests can align. The goodwill thus generated is more stable and enduring than any transactional relationship. Back in 2009, Biden’s Democratic predecessor made a speech in Cairo whose words resonated in the region. But in subsequent years, his administration did everything to undermine them. A simple thing Biden can do to restore American prestige is not to replace handshakes with fist bumps but to erase the space between words and deeds.

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