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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Russia’s War Threatens to Upend Biden’s Policy in the Middle East

Biden’s Policy
US President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

Justin Salhani

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the global reliance on oil threatens to upend US President Joe Biden’s human rights centered foreign policy. As Biden prepares to embark on his first Middle East trip since taking office, experts and analysts question whether Biden might be redrawing his policy for the region.

Biden claims his visit – which includes stops in the West Bank, Israel and Saudi Arabia – is about Israel, but the soaring cost of oil due to the war on Ukraine will surely be at the forefront of the Biden administration’s mind. However, the collapse of the Israeli government has thrown a cog into Biden’s regional tour.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed to dissolve the Israeli Knesset and call for an early election. Lapid will be acting Prime Minister when Biden visits Israel on July 13. Biden had worked closely with Bennett and welcomed him previously to the White House. The relations between the two heads of state were an improvement from those of Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu – now the leader of the opposition – who Biden only called after one month in office.

After taking office, Biden initially signaled his intent to form a human rights focused foreign policy. Saudi Arabia was thus labeled a “pariah” state. He has until now refused to engage with the kingdom’s de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman, more commonly referred to as MBS. He also angered the kingdom by freezing arm sales to Riyadh and declassifying intelligence that blamed Saudi government officials for the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to have put Biden in a difficult position. His comments on the Saudi trip show an effort to walk a fine line between sticking to his previously stated policy while reconsidering the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

“I’m not going to meet with MBS,” Biden said on his trip to Saudi Arabia. “I’m going to an international meeting, and he’s going to be part of it.”

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, the US administration has been looking to expand the number of Middle Eastern countries that recognize Israel. While the Accords were signed under Trump, Biden’s administration has looked to continue that policy. Although there are no formal diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, an official recognition from the oil-rich kingdom would be a massive boon for the Jewish state.

However, both the timing of Biden’s statement and his claim that his plan to visit Saudi Arabia is about Israel – and not oil prices – has experts unconvinced.

“Clearly, there is recognition in the [Biden] administration that the Middle East will play a greater role influencing markets, particularly to Europe finding alternatives to Russian gas, than it previously has,” Firas Maksad, an adjunct professor at the George Washington University, told Al Arabiya.

The Russian invasion has led many Western nations to cut down on or completely cut off their consumption of Russian oil. The US has levied heavy sanctions on Russia. This has led to massive spikes in global costs of petrol and Biden’s domestic opponents have targeted him as responsible for this spike as well as inflation. With Congressional midterms approaching later in 2022, Biden is looking for solutions to this crisis and has turned to countries the US has previously tried to isolate.

The current global state of affairs could lead Biden to compromise on his human rights focused foreign policy. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first compromise the administration has made regarding human rights or the life of a murdered journalist. The US State Department has called for Israel to lead the investigation into the murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh even though press freedom advocates, dozens of American lawmakers, and even the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have called for an independent probe.

Biden has spoken regularly about his belief in human rights and supporting democracies over autocracies. This is in polar opposition to his predecessor Donald Trump who openly cozied up to Middle Eastern dictators. But a duality exists in the legacy of the US’ foreign policy toward the Middle East. For every person pushing democracy and human rights, there are still those like Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East coordinator, who, a year after the CIA determined MBS ordered the killing of Khashoggi, said “Look, I’ve worked with MBS, and he actually is someone who you can reason with.”

McGurk’s viewpoint, however, doesn’t tend to be shared with MBS’ domestic opponents. “Trying to rekindle the institution-to-institution partnerships between high-level officials, and taking MBS out of the equation is the way forward,” Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi entrepreneur whose family has been targeted by MBS and jailed on trumped up charges, told Vox.

The US’ continued overreliance on oil continues to complicate its global outlook on human rights. Biden is trying to navigate domestic issues with foreign policy concerns but there is a grand possibility that there will be little progress on either. The political updates in Israel only further complicate the end goal of what Biden is looking to get out of this Middle East trip.

“To me, it’s an unnecessary visit that is not likely to enhance the president’s poll numbers,” Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings and a specialist on US Foreign Policy, told Vox. “In fact, it’s likely to diminish them, because when you get to the first of August, and the price at the gas station is still $5 a gallon, people are going to be pretty disappointed: ‘So we went to Saudi Arabia, what is the payoff for me?’”

Russia’s war threatens to upend Biden’s foreign policy. But this political reality also shows how intrinsically linked energy is to not only the economy but the implementation of human rights. Without a reconsideration of the global dependence on oil, Biden’s quest to support democracy over autocracy may have to take a back seat.

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