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Biden Needs to Show Personal Touch with Gulf Leaders
President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022. (Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
(Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Biden Needs to Show Personal Touch with Gulf Leaders

Luke Coffey

Joe Biden’s ongoing first trip to the Middle East since entering the White House comes at a time when the US president is facing mounting pressure at home. His poll numbers are low and gas prices are high. Rampant inflation is starting to hit the pocketbooks of most Americans.

In terms of foreign policy, Biden is not faring any better. According to YouGov polling, his job approval rating started to decline on Aug. 25 last year—exactly 10 days after the US abruptly left Afghanistan and the Taliban captured Kabul. The foreign policy consequences of America’s defeat and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan are still being felt.

First of all, adversaries of the US are testing the limits of American weakness. As a global power, what America does in one region can easily affect another—and it often does. Iran feels emboldened by the US’ defeat in Afghanistan. One only needs to look at the increase in drone and missile strikes carried out across the region by Iranian proxies. Some have even targeted US troops.

Also, US allies and partners are questioning American resolve in light of how Afghanistan was left at the mercy of the Taliban. Many long-standing partners are now questioning American resolve and commitment. This is particularly true across much of the Middle East.

So, between Biden’s domestic troubles and his foreign policy problems, things were not looking great heading into his first visit to the Middle East as president.

Further complicating the circumstances surrounding his trip was the fact that, since coming to office, Biden has given the region a low priority. At every turn, he has tried downplaying or undoing many of the initiatives his predecessor started in the Middle East. For example, it took months before the administration acknowledged the success of the Abraham Accords.

With his visit to Saudi Arabia, Biden has an opportunity to get US Middle East policy back on track. The very first thing he should do is admit to his regional counterparts, at least privately, that he should have been more engaged with them from the beginning. As regional leaders gather in Jeddah, Biden must take the time to engage and meet with each one individually. This should be the start of what will become more routine and frequent meetings between senior US officials and their counterparts in the Gulf. He should also return the hospitality and host the Gulf leaders in the US in the near future.

In addition, Biden should stress the importance of missile defense against Iranian air threats in the region during his visit. According to US Central Command, “Iran’s ballistic missile force is the most formidable in the region.” It is no secret that Tehran has been supplying its proxy forces across the region with advanced missiles and drones.

Increasing missile defense cooperation with the Gulf states at this time could serve as an important and much-needed confidence-building mechanism between regional countries and the White House. It could also serve as an important catalyst to revive the Middle East Strategic Alliance concept. This idea was first proposed by the Trump administration as a way to deepen US engagement in the region while increasing burden sharing. For a number of reasons, it never got off the ground. Perhaps the growing aerial threat from the Iranian-backed Houthis is a good reason to get this proposal back on the agenda.

Finally, Biden should announce that he is pulling out of the talks with Iran over its nuclear program. It is becoming clear that President Ebrahim Raisi is not really interested in securing a new deal at this time. Also, due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is inconceivable for the US and Europeans to think that the talks can continue in good faith with Moscow playing such an important role in the process.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Monday said that Iran is probably providing Russia with drones to be used in Ukraine. The Iranians are using the Biden administration’s desperation for a new agreement to drag out the negotiations and try to squeeze more concessions out of the Americans. It is time to pull the plug on the talks. Making such an announcement, while standing on the Arabian Peninsula, would send a strong message to the region.

I will never forget a conversation I had more than a decade ago with a senior government official from an unnamed Gulf state. Seeing what the Obama administration did to the Czech Republic and Poland in 2009, when it unexpectedly canceled missile defense sites in those two countries, he asked a simple question: If Obama was willing to throw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to get better relations with Russia, then why wouldn’t he throw us under the bus to have better relations with Iran? A few years later with the nuclear deal, that is exactly what happened.

It is important that Biden starts rebuilding relationships in the region. The US-Saudi relationship in particular has had many ups and downs over the past several decades. Now is the time to get it back on track.

Read in Arab News

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