U.S. President Joe Biden is heading back to Washington Saturday after meeting Arab leaders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he laid out his vision for U.S. engagement in the Middle East to counter Iran and reasserted influence in the strategic competition with China and Russia.
“The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region, a partnership with all of you,” Biden said in remarks at the GCC+3 Summit, a gathering of leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” he said. “We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”
Biden laid out key principles of American engagement in the region, including strengthening partnerships and supporting defense capabilities of countries that “subscribe to the rules-based international order,” and deterring foreign and regional powers that seek to dominate through military action and jeopardize freedom of navigation.
He named Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and China’s actions in the Indo-Pacific as examples of efforts to undermine the rules-based order.
Biden said Washington will also work to reduce tensions and end conflicts “wherever possible,” and support human rights and values outlined in the U.N. Charter.
“Supporting the rules-based order doesn’t mean we always have to agree on every issue,” Biden said. “But it does mean, we align around the core principles to allow us to work together on most pressing global challenges.”
Highlighting those global challenges, he announced $1 billion in food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa. He welcomed the $3 billion pledge from Arab leaders for the global infrastructure and investment initiative that Washington is launching to counter China’s Belt and Road program.
Summit leaders also announced a deal to connect Iraq’s electric grid to the GCC’s grids through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, thus reducing Baghdad’s dependence on Iran. They did not discuss increasing oil production to offset rising prices triggered by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“It wasn’t really a subject for the summit,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to reporters. OPEC+ will do “what they believe is necessary to maintain balance in the markets,” he said.
The statement confirmed what U.S. officials have said – that no oil output announcements are expected until next month’s meetings of the 13 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries plus 10 other oil producers, including Russia.
The administration warned of growing ties between Russia and Tehran, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan saying the U.S. has intelligence indicating the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred drones, or UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs.
The White House released three photos of the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying precision-guided missiles.
“Russia is effectively making a bet on Iran,” said a senior official in a briefing to reporters Saturday. “We are making a bet on a more integrated, more stable, more peaceful, prosperous Middle East region.”
The war in Ukraine has led to a rapprochement between Russia, China, and Iran, said Bernard Haykel, director of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East.
“There’s a kind of an axis of countries that are coming closer,” he told VOA. “Drones is only one aspect of this closeness.”
The Saudis say they reject a zero-sum approach.
“The region has matured and that means we have developed strategic relationships with a number of partners,” said Faisal bin Farhan. He said while the summit clearly demonstrates that Washington remains the region’s main strategic partner, that doesn’t mean that countries cannot also “have strong partnerships and relations” with others.
In his remarks, Biden said foundational freedoms are key to “who we are as Americans.”
He told the roomful of Arab men that the future belongs to countries where “women can exercise equal rights and contribute to building stronger economies, resilient societies, and more modern and capable militaries.”
Biden did not speak of the global struggle between autocracies and democracies – a theme many observers see as his foreign policy doctrine. But in a mild rebuke, he said the future belongs to countries “where citizens can question and criticize their leaders without fear of reprisal.”
That statement may not temper sharp criticism over Biden’s meeting and fist bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, according to U.S. intelligence, was behind the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, U.S. resident and a critic of the kingdom.
Biden said he raised Khashoggi’s murder at the top of his Friday meeting with the crown prince, often referred by his acronym MBS. Biden said MBS told him that he was not personally responsible for the murder.
CNN reported quoting an unnamed source that when confronted about Khashoggi, MBS reminded Biden of the abuse of prisoners by American forces at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004.
Some observers say Biden has no choice but engage with the Saudis, not just for energy and regional security, but also in its strategic competition with China and Russia.
The U.S.–Saudi reset will “reaffirm U.S. security assurances in exchange for expectations that the Kingdom will align itself with core U.S. interests when they are threatened by its global rivals,” said Dan Shapiro, former ambassador to Israel, now with the Atlantic Council. “Today, Ukraine; tomorrow, perhaps, Taiwan.”
Pivot back to the Middle East?
Earlier in his Middle East trip that began in Israel, Biden said Washington’s strategic pivot away from the Middle East had been a mistake.
His tour is designed to reassure Arab countries of American staying power as they seek greater security protection from Washington to manage Iran’s destabilizing activities. That includes in Yemen, where a proxy-war between Riyadh and Tehran that began in 2014 is held by a fragile truce.
“We further agreed to pursue a diplomatic process to achieve a wider settlement in Yemen,” Biden said in remarks following his meeting with MBS and his father, Saudi King Salman. “In this context, we discussed Saudi Arabia’s security needs to defend the Kingdom, given very real threats from Iran and Iran’s proxies.”
Administration officials declined to elaborate about which security assurances were agreed upon by Washington and Riyadh.
The Saudis are seeking a durable security partnership from Washington that will not be subject to partisan domestic swings,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy director at Chatham House’s Middle East North Africa Program, to VOA. “Only over time and with concessions regarding Saudi’s relationship with China can they secure the security guarantee they are looking for.”
Under the Trump administration, Washington significantly reduced the number of troops deployed in the region. Last year, the Biden administration reduced the number of U.S. antimissile systems in the Middle East as it focuses on challenges from China and Russia.
Integrated missile defense network
In remarks to Arab leaders, Biden did not mention Israel’s security or regional integration – themes his aides have said are the focus of the trip.
Officials have touted Biden’s tour as an opportunity to gain momentum toward creating a network of air and missile defense capabilities powered by American and Israeli technology to combat drone and missile attacks from Iran and its proxies.
“In our bilateral discussions with several nations, we believe, they believe, that there is a great advantage to try and see if we can’t network some of those capabilities together,” a senior administration official said in a briefing with reporters Saturday.
A significant step toward this decades-long goal happened last year, when the Pentagon transferred Israel from the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that coordinates military operations and relations with partners in the Middle East. The realignment was aimed at strengthening deterrence against Iran as Arab countries normalized relations with Jerusalem under the Trump-era Abraham Accords.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and parts of Iraq have come under drone or missile strikes claimed by or blamed on Iranian-backed militias. Other regional countries also rely on drones in conflict zones, including the Turks in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Israelis against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The concept of regional missile defense coordination through CENTCOM is “supported in theory,” Vakil said, but in practice developing technology to align these systems will take time, trust and commitment.
The Saudi foreign minister said summit leaders did not discuss a GCC-Israeli defense alliance, and he noted that diplomacy is the best solution to Iran’s nuclear program.
“In the end, it’s up to Iran to decide if it wants the path of diplomacy or not,” he said. “We hope they do.”
Siamak Deghanpour, Kevin Nha contributed to this report.