JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — President Joe Biden will set out his Middle East strategy on Saturday as he wraps up the final leg of a four-day trip designed to strengthen US positioning and unite the region against Iran.
In the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Biden will meet with heads of state from six Arab Gulf states as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq for a regional summit. Hours before the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, the White House released satellite images that suggest Russian officials have visited Iran twice in recent weeks to showcase weaponized drones it plans to acquire for use in its ongoing war in Ukraine.
None of the countries represented at the summit joined the US in imposing sanctions on Russia, a key foreign policy priority for the Biden administration. If anything, the UAE has become something of a financial haven for Russian billionaires and their multi-million dollar yachts. Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.
The release of the satellite images – which show Russian officials visited Kashan Airfield on June 8 and July 15 to view the drones – could help the government better align the relevance of the war with many Arab nations’ own concerns about the nuclear ones Iran’s ambitions and others to link malicious activity in the region.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the summit said Moscow’s efforts to acquire drones from Tehran show Russia is “effectively banking on Iran.”
The gathering of leaders comes a day after he pushed for steps to normalize Israel-Saudi Arabia ties and sought to rebuild cooperation with the Saudi king and crown prince after once promising he would make the Kingdom a “pariah” for its human rights abuses.
When he speaks with the Gulf Cooperation Council and its Arab allies, the White House said, Biden will present his broadest vision yet for the region and how the US can work with it. According to the administration official, the Biden administration will also announce $1 billion in food security aid to the Middle East and North Africa at the summit.
His first trip to the Middle East comes 11 months after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Biden wants to turn the US away from the cutthroat wars and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East that stretch from Libya to Syria.
“It’s a strategy that’s appropriate for 2022, in contrast to the two decades of major land wars that the US waged in this region throughout the 2000s,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters in a preview the speech.
Energy prices – increased since then Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – should be high on the agenda. But Biden’s aides dampened expectations that he would leave with a deal for regional producers to boost supply immediately.
“I’m guessing you won’t see that for a couple of weeks,” Biden told reporters late Friday.
At the summit, Biden was expected to hear a chorus of concerns about the region’s stability and security, as well as concerns about food security, climate change and the ongoing threat of terrorism.
Overall, there is little that the nine Middle East leaders agree on when it comes to foreign policy. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are trying to isolate and squeeze Iran about its regional reach and proxies. Oman and Qatar, on the other hand, have solid diplomatic ties with Iran and have acted as mediators in talks between Washington and Tehran.
Qatar recently hosted talks between US and Iranian officials trying to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Not only does Iran share a vast undersea gas field with Qatar in the Persian Gulf, it rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties and imposed a year-long embargo on Qatar that only recently ended before Biden’s capture, office ended.
Biden’s actions have frustrated some of the leaders. While the US has played a major role in sponsoring a months-long ceasefire in Yemen, Biden’s decision to reverse a Trump-era move that listed Yemen’s Houthis rebels as a terrorist group has outraged Emirati and Saudi leaders.
On Friday, Biden punched Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader, as he arrived at the royal palace in Jeddah. But he dismissed the notion that he was ignoring the kingdom’s human rights abuses while trying to reignite a strained diplomatic relationship.
“I have said very bluntly that it is irreconcilable for an American President to remain silent on a human rights issue of who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I will always stand up for our values.”
US intelligence believes the crown prince likely authorized the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based writer, four years ago. Biden said Prince Mohammed claimed he was “not personally responsible” for the death. “I hinted that I thought he was,” the president said, he replied.
As for US concerns about China’s growing reach, China appears willing to supply Saudi Arabia with missile and nuclear technologies, with the US being much more reluctant to do so. China is also the kingdom’s largest buyer of Saudi oil.
For Iraq, which has the deepest and strongest ties to Iran of any Arab country, its presence at the meeting reflects US-backed Saudi efforts to bring Iraq closer to Arab positions and the so-called Arab fold. Iraq has hosted around five rounds of direct talks between Saudi and Iranian officials since Biden took office, though the talks have yielded little.
Ahead of the summit, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, who survived an armed drone assassination attempt in November, wrote in Foreign Policy that Iraq faces many problems but is working to “solve Iraqi problems with Iraqi solutions.”
“When US President Joe Biden arrives in the Middle East this week, he will arrive in a region that faces numerous challenges, from terrorism to food insecurity to climate change,” he wrote. “But the Middle East is also a region that is increasingly confronting these challenges collectively among a group of leaders seeking positive change.”
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