Can the U.S. Win the Long Game for the Middle East?

Can the U.S. Win the Long Game for the Middle East?

Though the president’s trip to the region will do little for him, it is too soon to write it off as a failure for American policy in the Middle East.

President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East, and particularly his meeting with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), have so far generated mixed reviews. Laudatory observers highlight the joint statement released by the two countries after the Jeddah summit on numerous agreements relating to energy, defense, Iran, technology, food security, Vision 2030, and regional conflicts such as the war in Yemen. Critics, on the other hand, deride the Biden team for neither securing explicit commitments from the Gulf states to boost oil production nor achieving major diplomatic breakthroughs. Progressives have also lamented that Biden’s fist-bump with the crown prince, whose government he vowed to make a “pariah” over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, marks the death knell of his supposed values-centric approach to foreign policy.

While it is true that Biden’s visit is unlikely to alleviate high oil prices in the short-to-medium term, yield an “Arab NATO,” or significantly expedite the path to normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, many commentators set too high a bar of what was achievable during the trip, overlooking its long-term implications for the U.S.-Saudi partnership and American policy in the Middle East more broadly.

Rather than a desperate attempt to secure immediate deliverables, Biden’s meeting with the crown prince should be interpreted as the first of many steps towards forging a stronger relationship with regional partners, embracing a more assertive stance against Iran, and establishing a more stable alliance with the Saudis that transcends partisanship, which both Democrats and Republicans can build upon. With a consistent and bipartisan realist Middle East policy, the Saudis and other crucial allies will view Washington as a more dependable patron and will thus be more willing to engage on various geostrategic and diplomatic issues. The president’s attempt to reset America’s relationship with its Gulf allies also presents Washington with an opportunity to pursue a more pragmatic and sustainable human rights agenda: a balance between a problematic policy of unconditional support and a counterproductive “pariah” strategy.

Advancing a U.S.-Led Regional Order

As Dennis Ross and James F. Jeffrey have explained, Biden made several important reaffirmations of America’s commitment to the security of its partners and acknowledged the threat posed to them by Iran’s potential acquisition of a nuclear weapon and its projection of power through regional proxies. These pledges to facilitate U.S. allies’ ability to defend themselves from external threats not only deter Iran’s malign behavior but also address China and Russia’s inroads in the region through arms sales and military agreements. Expanding cooperation between U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations on maritime security and joint efforts to improve air and missile defense systems can help reverse perceptions of American retrenchment in the region, making it less likely that partners turn to Beijing or Moscow to acquire vital defense capabilities.

American great power rivalry goals can also be served by cooperating with the Gulf monarchies to manage the flow of oil to the global economy (a dimension overlooked by those solely emphasizing near-term production and price). As Steven Cook and Martin Indyk illustrate in their recent Council on Foreign Relations report, while the United States is significantly less dependent on oil from the Middle East, American allies in East Asia still rely heavily on crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries. Thus, even as Washington attempts to “pivot to Asia,” the Persian Gulf will remain strategically important to the Pacific theater. Similarly, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have helped Europe gradually detach itself from Russian energy after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by diverting oil exports from Asia to Europe. Oil deliveries from the Middle East to Europe are up nearly 90 percent from January, and China’s imports of Saudi crude oil are down 30 percent compared to last June. Thanks to Biden’s reassurances that the United States will remain engaged in the region and his provision of stronger security guarantees, American partners will be more inclined to continue pursuing energy policies favorable to Washington’s interests.

The Jeddah summit struck several other notable blows to Washington’s revisionist challengers. Agreements to cooperate with the Saudis on 5G/6G and cybersecurity provide an opportunity to roll back China’s technological advances in the Middle East. The decision to integrate Iraq with the GCC’s electrical grid will serve as an important step in gradually prying Baghdad from Iran’s sphere of influence. Similarly, Qatar’s presence at the summit is an encouraging sign that Doha is continuing to distance itself from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in favor of stronger ties with other Sunni Arab states. That the Saudis agreed to extend the ceasefire in Yemen for another two months is important both for the humanitarian and strategic pictures. This demonstrates Riyadh’s willingness to end the war on reasonable terms, thereby making it more likely that American policymakers will approve weapons sales to the kingdom for defensive purposes. Moreover, the Houthis’ rejection of the truce shifts the onus of the war onto the Shia rebels and their Iranian patrons, who will likely find themselves more isolated in the international community (though this also depends on whether the Biden administration will redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization).

Though normalization between the Israelis and Saudis remains a long way off, the kingdom’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli flights appears to be an incremental, but nonetheless noteworthy, step in the direction of a friendlier relationship between the two nations. For instance, during his recent trip to the region, CENTCOM chief Michael Kurilla started working towards an integrated security framework between Israel and Arab states. Expanding on this collaboration would not only bolster the American-led regional order but would also make support for Saudi Arabia more palatable to Congress. Additionally, promoting diplomatic and military ties between Israel and the Arab world helps keep Chinese and Russian influence at bay. As a result of the Abraham Accords, for instance, the UAE initiated a joint partnership with Israel to develop Israeli ports, which crowded out influence from Chinese state-owned port developers. Greater economic integration among regional powers can attract additional external investment from the European Union, Japan, and India, an effective counterweight to Chinese economic initiatives.

A Defeat for Human Rights?

Though these developments are positive for U.S. interests, progressive critics allege that they undermine U.S. values. According to this argument, Biden’s willingness to “cozy up” to autocrats diminishes America’s global image and entrenches authoritarianism in the region by signaling to dictators that political repression and the targeting of dissidents will go unpunished.

Though these objections rightly point out that Biden backtracked from his initial emphasis on human rights, they nonetheless have several flaws. First, critics assume that weakening (or even ending) relations with MBS or other regional strongmen would make these leaders more democratic or respectful of human rights. While withholding small amounts of weapons transfers has, on occasion, resulted in partners releasing a handful of activists from prison, using military aid as a lever for political reform has broadly failed to improve human rights in these countries or alter the political calculus of the ruling elite. There is little reason to believe that more severe actions would be any more effective in this regard. Similarly, Biden’s ill-advised attempt to make MBS a “pariah” has not reversed the crown prince’s consolidation of political power or the centrality of Saudi Arabia to Middle Eastern and international politics. Punitive and impulsive human rights measures are ineffective in advancing both U.S. interests and values, as they undermine the security interests of Washington and its allies with no change in political repression, while at the same time driving partners into the hands of Beijing and Moscow.

A related issue is the belief that democratic alternatives in the region are readily available and that Washington can facilitate these transitions by “getting the Middle East right” and returning to the democracy-promotion agendas of the Bush and Obama administrations. However, recent events throughout the Middle East and North Africa have repudiated these assumptions. Despite much praise and economic aid from the West, Tunisia, the alleged success story of the Arab Spring, has recently suffered a power grab at the hands of President Kais Saied, a populist who garnered significant support due to the country’s economic stagnation and political gridlock. Throughout the region, disillusionment with democracy is high, and many have expressed support for China’s authoritarian model of economic growth over the West’s emphasis on political openness. As Gregory Gause has pointed out, the choice for Washington in the region is not between democracies and autocracies, but between failed states and relatively stable ones. Indeed, authoritarianism has proven to be far more resilient in the Arab world than previously imagined. Refusing to shake hands (or bump fists) with leaders is not going to change that.

This is not to say that the West should disregard human rights and political reform altogether, but rather that a different approach is needed. The United States can help its partners in the region make modest progress on human rights, such as by securing the release of detained activists and NGO workers, but quiet diplomacy will be more effective than public condemnation or ostracism. Even then, it is important to be pragmatic about outcomes. For instance, while Washington should continue emphasizing to the Saudis that crossing certain “red-lines,” like targeting dissidents overseas, will not be tolerated in the future, the West needs to recognize that some degree of political repression is inevitable as MBS proceeds with his rapid campaign of social liberalization, which is opposed both by political opponents and reactionary clerics. Rather than attempting to sideline the crown prince, which risks inadvertently empowering hardliners within the kingdom, the United States is better off emphasizing constructive engagement where it can find common ground: empowering youth and women, diversifying the economy, curtailing the power of the religious police and clerical establishment, anti-corruption, and making progress towards greater religious tolerance. According to Saudi Arabia experts Bernard Haykel and David Rundell, while MBS’ consolidation of power is unlikely to change in the near term, encouraging these other notable transformations can gradually position the kingdom to become a more “liberal,” less-intrusive monarchy down the road.