All the latest headlines about President Joe Biden’s July trip to Saudi Arabia focus on a deal to push down gas prices. In reality, he is making a much more sinister and dangerous calculation than most realize: He is reportedly planning to offer the dictators in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — where all but two of the 9/11 terrorists came from — a defense pact that commits American lives to defend their regimes. What could go right?
When Biden ran for the White House, he pledged to break with then-President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy: bring U.S. troops home from the Middle East, renew the Iran nuclear deal, end the war in Yemen, and “make the Saudis the pariah that they are.” But after refusing to take necessary steps to return to the Iran deal, and with rumors abounding that he is about to offer the UAE and Saudi Arabia a defense pact, Biden’s policy is increasingly looking like a continuation of Trump’s Middle East strategy.
Committing American lives to defend these Arab dictatorships is far more scandalous than an embarrassing presidential handshake with MBS.
Biden isn't just forgiving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his direct role in the beheading of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in return for a Saudi promise to pump more oil. As Biden admitted last week, this Middle East trip is about regional security — and that of Israel in particular. “The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” Biden told reporters June 12. “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them — for Israelis.”
Rumors have been circulating in Washington for months that Biden is seeking to expand Trump’s signature foreign policy initiative — the Abraham Accords — which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE; Biden wants to bring Saudi Arabia into a similar kind of arrangement with Israel. Details are beginning to leak of how he will try to get Saudi Arabia to take critical steps toward recognizing Israel. And the most alarming one is that the United States is offering a major security pact to the autocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
According to a source close to the ruler of the Emirates, this would be a “binding strategic defense cooperation pact” that goes beyond anything the U.S. has agreed to in the region before. A former Biden adviser, Daniel Shapiro, confirmed to Newsweek magazine that Saudi Arabia was looking for assurances that the U.S. will "retain significant military presence in the region to help Saudi Arabia address the threats it faces from Iran," as well as to take Saudi Arabia’s side in its gruesome war in Yemen.
Committing American lives to defend these Arab dictatorships is far more scandalous than an embarrassing presidential handshake with the Saudi crown prince. Biden will in one swoop break his promises of bringing troops home from the Middle East, making Saudi Arabia pay a price and ending the war in Yemen.
And arguably, Biden’s arms sales-boosting defense pact is the reason why he is breaking his pledge to return to the Iran deal as well, since that would require delisting Iran's Revolutionary Guard from the U.S. terrorist list, which would infuriate Israel and Saudi Arabia and jeopardize the defense pact.
For the U.S., this amounts to an awful deal. It's all give and no take, because none of what the Gulf states are offering is likely to pan out.
To start with, establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel is a concession to Israel, not to the U.S. It does not advance U.S. security one iota. Nor does it bring peace to Israel and Palestine, or stability to the Middle East, which the experience thus far with the Abraham Accords already has proven. Indeed, peace is not really the objective. Rather, according to Jared Kushner’s August 2021 annual strategy document of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, the objective is to “move beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
In that spirit, the Biden administration has not pressed Israel for any concessions to the Palestinians as part of this agreement. Instead, Biden has requested that Israel refrain from any provocative actions in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem that could inflame tensions ahead of his visit. Once his visit is over, Biden will presumably have no objections to Israel’s ongoing repression of the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel’s creeping annexation of Palestinian territory has accelerated since the Abraham Accords were signed. As Zaha Hassan and Marwan Muasher write in Foreign Affairs, “The truth is that the accords have not advanced peace in the Middle East because Israel’s aim in signing the accords was to redirect world attention away from its military occupation, not to end it.”
Biden’s gamble is also unlikely to push down skyrocketing gas prices.
This is not a recipe for peace, but for violence. Not surprisingly, during the first three months of this year, almost 50 Palestinians were killed by Israel, and Palestinians have killed 18 Israelis. The Palestinian deaths are a fivefold increase over the same period the previous year, while the comparative increase in Israeli deaths is even greater.
Secondly, Biden’s gamble is also unlikely to push down skyrocketing gas prices. Experts are skeptical that the Saudis sit on enough unused capacity to push down American gas prices substantially. The root of the problem is Washington's overreliance on Saudi Arabia — a dependence that will only grow more damaging to U.S. interests as Biden moves closer to the Wahhabi kingdom at the expense of diversifying America’s relations in the Middle East. For instance, Iran has an estimated 85 million barrels of oil stored onshore and offshore that could almost instantly be put on the market, presuming, of course, that Biden would return to the Iran nuclear deal.
Thirdly, Biden’s defense pact is not likely to make the Middle East overall more secure. The Abraham Accords — contrary to claims that they are a creative new approach to security in the Middle East — continue a four-decade-long, failed American strategy in the region: That of organizing the region around the goal of isolating and containing Iran. As Biden officials themselves have admitted, this strategy has been a source of conflict in the region rather than a force for stability. “Most of the region’s dysfunction has roots in Iran’s exclusion," Biden’s Iran envoy Rob Malley said in late 2021.
Organizing the rest of the region against Iran will be a boon for arms producers, but it will not create security. Iran is already widely outspent on arms and defense by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE, and an American commitment to defend these states has, in fact, made their foreign policies more aggressive and risk-accepting in the past. Faced with a united Israeli-American-Saudi-UAE front, in the midst of an escalating Israeli campaign to assassinate Iranian officials, Iran may be more likely to make the political decision to build a nuclear bomb. (American, European and Israeli intelligence services all agree Iran has not made that decision thus far.)
Perhaps the most important commitment the U.S. will seek to extract from Saudi Arabia and the UAE is alignment with America’s strategy to confront Russia and China. "The Saudis will make certain commitments about remaining fully aligned with the United States in its competition with Russia and China," Shapiro told Newsweek. But there’s little to suggest that Biden’s strategy of showering the Saudi crown prince and the ruler of the UAE, Mohammed Bin Zayed, with concessions will bring about a sustainable Saudi-Emirati commitment to the U.S. side in the great power competition of this century.
The Saudi crown prince has driven an uncompromising line with Biden — and won. He famously shrugged off Biden’s refusal to engage with him during the initial stage of his presidency. "I simply do not care," he told The Atlantic, and patiently waited for Biden to cave. The Saudis are already dictating the terms of Biden’s visit, forcing Biden to see the crown prince before he is allowed to meet any other Saudi official. Giving the crown prince more is not likely to make him more malleable, as political scientists Patricia Sullivan, Brock Tessman and Xiaojun Li’s research shows that “increasing levels of U.S. military aid significantly reduce cooperative foreign policy behavior with the United States.”
The most likely outcome of Biden's meeting with the crown prince is that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pocket Biden’s many concessions and offer tactical collaboration against Russia and China in the short run, while keeping their options open to betray Washington down the road. If they truly believed that they shouldn’t bet against China and Russia in this competition, they would not have needed all of these American concessions to align themselves with the U.S.
From the very moment then-President Barack Obama concluded the Iran nuclear deal, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed it and favored an arrangement that would further tie the U.S. to the Middle East and to their own security interests. By quitting the Iran deal and signing the Abraham Accords, Trump took the first steps toward acquiescing to the demands of these states. Biden is now completing what Trump started.
CORRECTION (June 21, 3:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the first name of a former Biden adviser. He is Daniel Shapiro, not David.