Joe Biden’s Moment of Truth in the Middle East

Joe Biden’s Moment of Truth in the Middle East

The contrast between the two competing visions in the Middle East is clear.

Second, the Abraham Accords, which paved the way for Israel’s diplomatic recognition by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020, have widened the scope of regional security structure, thereby reducing the security burden upon the United States. As for Saudi Arabia, it will wait to realign its strategic interests accordingly, at least until Israel agrees to settle the Palestinian issue in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and subsequently endorsed by the Arab League. U.S.-sponsored initiatives such as the expected return of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia and the possible use of Saudi airspace for Israeli commercial flights could be the starting point in this regard.

Third, Saudi Arabia has changed drastically since Biden’s last visit in 2015. Whereas women could not drive till mid-2018, the education, work, and public spaces have now become totally open to them. Reforms have touched almost every aspect of social life, public and private, spanning sports, tourism, entrainment, arts, culture, and much more. This revolution is the handiwork of the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is popularly known. His Vision 2030 strategic plan also seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil through giga development projects such as the $500 billion futuristic Neom city with zero carbon emissions.

Evolution, Not Revolution

So, when Biden sits face-to-face with the young Saudi leader for the first time, he will get to know how much the socio-economic reforms underway in the kingdom are at par with his administration’s own priorities for human rights and a green economy. He will get a fair idea about the value of evolution in Saudi Arabia’s social transformation, against the revolutionary upheavals that have destroyed the established nations of Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Biden will learn that investments by the kingdom’s $620 billion Public Investment Fund in the United States are playing a critical role in his Build Back Better plan for the American middle class. Biden will also discover that the Saudi economic diversification drive offers exceptional opportunities to American investors and companies in many lucrative fields.

The two leaders are reportedly scheduled to discuss bilateral cooperation on a range of issues, including emerging technologies, economic investment, space, renewable energy, cybersecurity, climate and environmental initiatives, healthcare, food and energy security, and expanding trade and commercial ties. Each year since 2017, the Saudi Future Investment Initiative, dubbed the “Davos in the Desert,” has garnered keen interest among prominent American businesses for investment in major Vision 2030 projects, including in entertainment, healthcare, electric cars, and renewable energy. They just await the official U.S. government nod to benefit from the kingdom’s investment-friendly climate.

Like Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf nations are also pursuing their own national visions of social liberalization and economic diversification. Dubai and Doha are already living examples of the possibility of unlimited progress in the region. The kingdom is well on course to surpassing this hopeful reality. Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt are still struggling to overcome the implications of the 2011 uprisings and integrate with the economically-rising Gulf. Hence, all the attendees of the Jeddah summit have a common agenda: to build a better life for their people and a prosperous future for the region. 

The Way Forward

Compare this collective Arab quest with Iran’s persisting bid to impose its will in the Arab neighborhood, and the point raised at the outset about the two competing visions of progress vs. regression becomes crystal clear. It is a war, if you will, between good and evil, which will end only when the civilized world understands the intensity of the continuous crisis in the Middle East and stands with the Arab nations for its viable resolution.

We know how much the ayatollahs of Iran repress their own people, but this is an issue for the Iranian people to settle. But what the ayatollahs do beyond their borders surely bothers all Arabs. The Saudis even more so, as they have tasted the fruits of progress under dynamic leadership. But Iran’s clerical establishment is now moving the conflict to the next level: acquiring nuclear weapons so as to force the entire region into submission and destruction. History proves that no amount of persuasion will work in this case, which demands the immediate renunciation of nuclear talks and resumption of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

It is also clear from previous discussions that Saudi Arabia and its Arab partners can amicably work out differences with America over contested issues like the price of energy and the role of China and Russia. What remains pending for the last forty-three years is the resolution of the lurking danger from Iran. The Jeddah Summit, which brings the U.S., GCC, and Arab leaderships together on the same platform, will make history by taking a tangible step to effectively neutralize Iranian militarism, proxy warfare, and nuclear blackmail.

The conclusion of a comprehensive strategic defense agreement will be the right step to ensure that the world’s most powerful nation is firmly on board in support of its trusted allies in the Middle East. The agreement should be so framed that there is zero scope for Iran to endanger the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its Arab neighbors. This should be a collective defense treaty, binding the United States to develop integrated air defenses in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and to come to their aid in times of need. It must also aim to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile and drone programs, interdict its arms supplies to proxies, and, above all, deter its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Finally, it must include the provision to refer Iran’s aggressive conduct to the UN Security Council, if all else fails.

Ali Asseri served as ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Pakistan (2001-09) and Lebanon (2009-16) and is a Board member at RASANAH, the International Institute for Iranian Studies in Riyadh. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Beirut Arab University and has authored a book titled Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror. (Oxford University Press, 2009). The article reflects his personal views.

Image: Reuters.