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United States of America president Joe Biden isolated first floor on black background during a speech in Washington DC in 2022.

President Biden tried to convince the nine Arab leaders he met with in Saudi Arabia last week that a reviving Cold War is coming to the Middle East and to sign up on the side of the United States against Russia and China. He found no takers for his message, even when he added Iran to the equation.

Media coverage obsessed over Biden’s “fist bump” with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) when the two first met Friday and what it signaled. It certainly put an end to the president’s “pariah policy” toward the kingdom’s de facto ruler in retaliation for his authorization of the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Just as significant, however, was the public silence of those Arab leaders when it came to Biden’s talk of a Cold War or even the US and Israeli confrontation with Iran over its accelerating nuclear program.

Biden sought to put to rest their fears that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East to deal with competition from China and with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Biden sought to put to rest their fears that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East to deal with competition from China and with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. “We will not walk away to leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” he said. “The United States is not going anywhere.”

Biden offered no new specifics, however, on what his administration plans to do if it is indeed staying in the Middle East other than providing $1 billion to help it achieve food security and working with Saudi Arabia to compete with China’s Huawei Technologies whose web service the Saudis have already signed up to buy. Otherwise, Biden just repeated the one Middle East “red line” he had already drawn, namely, not to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb even as it is coming closer and closer to an ability to make one.

He made no new U.S. commitment to the security of Saudi Arabia or any of the other participating Arab states, only to help them in their own efforts to that end. There was no mention of putting together a US-backed “Middle East NATO” such as Jordan’s King Abdullah had called for prior to the meeting. Nor did Biden repeat the words of former President Obama who declared the following after a meeting of the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman—held at Camp David in May 2015: “I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf Partners.” (By contrast, Biden said only that the United States “will make sure those countries can defend themselves against foreign threats.”)

Nor did Biden even hint that his administration was ready to lift its ban on so-called “offensive weapons” to Saudi Arabia, as was speculated he might before his trip in reaction to the latest Saudi efforts to end its invasion of neighboring Yemen. Nor did he say anything about whether his administration will persist, or give up, its plan to sell F-35 warplanes to the UAE, which Congress opposes. However, he did offer its new president, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, a visit to the White House before the end of this year.

It is too early to discern what impact Biden’s visit may have made in changing the minds of America’s Gulf Arab partners, and of the other three participants—Egypt, Jordan and Iraq—regarding the United States, which they generally see as a shrinking presence in the Middle East. 

The oil producers among them, led by Saudi Arabia, continue to cooperate closely with Russia, also a major oil exporter, to keep prices high.

The fact is that they are not reacting to the revived Cold War settling over Europe as they did to the old one between the US-led, Western European NATO and the Soviet Union. They are either standing on the sidelines or, more often than not, expanding their relations with Russia and China. They have refused to follow the United States and its European allies in imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. The oil producers among them, led by Saudi Arabia, continue to cooperate closely with Russia, also a major oil exporter, to keep prices high. On a visit to Moscow June 16, Saudi oil minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman described Saudi-Russian relations “as warm as the weather in Riyadh,” which on that day registered 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

As for Iran, nothing Biden said publicly about continuing to pursue diplomatic means is likely to please the “hawks” among GCC members—Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain—which are most opposed to his efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Trump withdrew from three years later. 

These three Arab monarchies of the Gulf are also the most inclined to support military action against Iran, at least by Israel and the United States, even while remaining fearful of Iranian retaliation against them if they become involved. For now, what they are doing is secretly increasing their participation in an air defense system arrayed against Iranian missiles in partnership with Israel and the United States.  Such a system would be vital if Biden turns to what he calls his last resort in dealing with Iran, namely military action likely to evoke retaliatory Iranian missiles.   

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more