In the Disney screen adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the jungle boy Mowgli befriends an affable bear called Baloo, who takes on the responsibility of returning the reluctant boy from the dangerous jungle to the safety of the “man village”, as it was called. After many adventures, Mowgli makes it to the village – and balance is restored in the jungle.
As President Biden sets off on his much-anticipated Middle East trip, which will take him to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the West Bank, a similar refrain hangs over the itinerary: Biden is being forced to bow to the time-honored rules of international politics (the jungle) as much as he (like Mowgli) believed that an alternative reality might be possible.
This essay assesses the broader geopolitical forces driving Biden’s visit, the implications for regional powers, and the short- and longer-term objectives of the visit for US foreign policy. Above all, Biden’s visit must be seen as the reassertion of the timeless truisms of geopolitics for American strategy and foreign policy.
The bite of geopolitics
Candidate Biden called for the United States to draw upon moral considerations and judgements to guide regional relationships – at least with America’s regional Sunni-state partners. Saudi Arabia became a particular target of Biden during the campaign, casting the Kingdom as a regional pariah in part due to the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden also singled out another long-time US partner – Egypt – as another candidate for a redefined relationship based on human rights and other moral considerations. Israel somehow escaped this treatment, despite also engaging in various morally reprehensible behaviors.
To be sure, the prospect of a more distant US-Saudi partnership fit within other convenient strategic circumstances of the day, such as America’s return to the top of the heap in global oil production, which eliminated any dependence on Gulf oil imports. Moreover, Biden, like his West Wing predecessors, embraced the idea of taking a step back from America’s various failed attempts to referee the region’s enduring political disputes following the US defeat in Iraq. Various high-level government strategy documents over the last decade have all argued America should shift its attention towards more important strategic issues across the Indo-Pacific. After all, the argument went, what did the US have to show for its efforts in the Middle East over the last quarter century? Thus, the case for an alternative approach to US involvement in the Middle East seemed compelling – at least on the campaign trail.
Above all, however, international politics requires adaptation, particularly when leaders are confronted with the realities of actually governing and dealing with circumstances the way they are as opposed to the way they might like them to be. The alternative reality constructed on the campaign trail gradually (and predictably) disintegrated after the election. The list of messes, most of which were beyond Biden’s control, quickly piled up once in office: (1) fractious pandemic politics at home and abroad in combination with global economic aftershocks and supply chain disruptions; (2) debilitating domestic political divisions that sapped American strength at home and abroad; (3) an overheated domestic economy that led to sharp price increases and inflation at home that, in turn, required the Federal Reserve to sharply increase interest rates; (4) a mysterious and self-imposed unwillingness to honor a campaign pledge to simply re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that had been abrogated by President Trump; and (5) last and by no means least, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s broader challenge to the West – a war that continues to send shockwaves throughout the international system.
Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East must be seen in the context of these varied challenges at home and abroad. First, like many US Presidents before him, Biden needs Saudi support in world energy markets that have been stressed by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. He is not the first US President to pick up the phone and call Riyadh as oil prices skyrocketed, pleading for more supply to dampen gas pump prices at home and abroad. This time around, however, Saudi leadership, in the form of Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman, reportedly showed little willingness to heed Biden’s request – an item surely at the top of the list in their upcoming meetings.
Second, Biden needs regional support for the global anti-Russia coalition that pits the West against Putin and, to a lesser extent, against China. It is worth noting that two countries historically seen as two of the region’s strongest US partners (Saudi Arabia and Israel) declined to reflexively join the anti-Putin coalition. Of these, the Israeli case is the most politically galling for the US, even if it is strategically insignificant. This is not the case with Saudi Arabia, however, which wields considerable influence in world energy markets. The West needs Saudi Arabia as well as other Gulf State producers to keep their commitments to produce more oil to bring prices down and keep up the economic pressure on Putin.
Third, and more generally, the United States and the West are slowly but surely adjusting to global realities surrounding the rise of China, which is increasingly seen as a nefarious actor under the authoritarian regime of President Xi Jinping. China is actively engaged in building relationships across the Middle East and North Africa, particularly focusing on Iran and Saudi Arabia. In parallel with the US-led efforts to create an anti-Putin global coalition, the US is raising alarms around the world about China. For example, it succeeded in convincing NATO members to identify China as a growing threat in the alliance’s latest 10-year strategic plan. While not as important as the previously referenced short-term issues, the United States needs the support of regional states in countering the rise of China’s global and regional influence.
Implications for regional powers
Biden will arrive in a politically transformed Middle East, in which regional states have moved into the power vacuum created by America’s defeat in Iraq. The United States is no longer seen as the arbiter of regional security – despite inhabiting military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and despite being the region’s preferred provider of advanced military hardware.
The region today is a microcosm of what political scientists would describe as “multipolar”, in which there are a variety of overlapping centers of political power that traverse Riyadh, Tehran, Jerusalem, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Ankara. Regional camps are divided, depending on the issue. Iran, Iraq, and Syria are facing off against the US-engineered Abraham Accords grouping of Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, with Saudi Arabia as an informal partner. Another regional grouping features Turkey in rivalry and cooperation with various states in northern Iraq and Syria. A confused mix of these states are facing off against one another in Libya. Interestingly, all these participants have opened informal and formal dialogues with one another to address sources of tension and to identify areas where they can cooperate.
Clearly, the Abraham Accords group sees an opportunity to leverage its position during Biden’s visit. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia can be expected to use their differing sources of relative strength to extract things of value from the United States. Israel’s strength comes from its strong domestic political support in the US. Israel typically uses these visits as an opportunity to slake its never-ending thirst for more money and more advanced military hardware. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, possesses different sources of leverage that come from wielding most of the world’s excess oil production capacity. As card-carrying members of the anti-Iran block, both countries will want to hear US thinking about the all-but-collapsed Iran nuclear deal. As usual, both countries will demand strong US actions while also minimizing their own potential costs of a US-Iran political and military confrontation. It must be said that this is a time-honored regional practice: to convince Washington to shoulder their regional burdens and problems, offering as little as possible in return. The upcoming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program stands at the top of this list for both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The outlier in these regional actors must be the Palestinian Authority. It is frankly unclear what implications the visit holds for the Palestinians. Lacking strategic leverage or significant domestic political clout in the United States, it is unclear what, if any, benefits will accrue to the Palestinians. Other than to provide a public sounding board to repeat the long litany of justifiable Palestinian complaints, it is hard to see any long-term positive impact from the Biden visit that would change circumstances in the occupied territories.
Objectives for US strategy and policy
Biden’s main objective surely must be to repair the frayed US-Saudi partnership. By any measure (outside Tehran), Saudi Arabia constitutes the region’s the most important center of political and military gravity. While candidate Biden voiced support for a recast US-Saudi relationship, the visit signifies a return to the realist-oriented approach, which has dominated the US-Saudi relationship since King Abdul Aziz al-Saud awarded the oil exploration concession in the Eastern Provinces to the Standard Oil Company of California in 1933. Placed in this context, Biden is simply treading a well-worn path between Riyadh and Washington, taken by many of his oval office predecessors.
The guess here, however, is that there is no silver bullet or one-shot fix to the relationship. Today, both countries maintain different strategic outlooks, based on different interests and priorities. Saudi Arabia does not share America’s alarm at China’s growing ascendance. Instead, it sees China as a viable long-term market for energy with political leaders that have limitless credit and that are unlikely ever to adopt the sermonizing tone of US politicians. In addition, Saudi Arabia may never support the jingoistic rhetoric currently coming out of Washington, which increasingly divides the world between democracies (good) and autocracies (bad). The assessment here is that the Biden visit will have to be followed up with sustained diplomacy to restore any semblance of open communications and trust in Riyadh.
It is unclear what other concrete objectives can be achieved with this visit. Clearly, there will be direct conversations in Jerusalem and Riyadh about the slow-motion collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia ever supported the agreement and predicted its collapse ever since it was signed in 2015. More interesting is trying to understand the Biden Administration’s mysterious motivations for this self-inflicted wound through its refusal to simply rejoin the agreement without pre-conditions, as had been suggested during the campaign. In short, the Biden Administration has badly bungled the situation and must now address a problem largely of its own making.
With collapse of the agreement now looking inevitable, the real question for all parties is what happens next? Israel will almost certainly push Biden to honor America’s oft stated (and ill-considered) assertions that it will not allow Iran to build its own nuclear weapon. These commitments notwithstanding, Biden has little interest in starting yet another expensive, fruitless Middle Eastern war that has no prospect of success with a war-weary military, which is already overstretched by commitments in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. As was the case before the nuclear agreement was signed in 2015, Iran today has all the pre-requisites it needs to build a nuclear weapon should its political leadership decide to do so: money, a source of fissile material, and the human and physical resources to build a weapon. These could not be bombed out of existence in 2015 and they cannot be bombed out of existence today.
Topping the head-scratching part of this trip, however, is the visit to the West Bank. With no new “peace plan” in his hip pocket, no promise and no desire to “pressure” the Israelis to reach an agreement on statehood, and little else to offer, it is unclear what, if anything, can be achieved other than a symbolic photo op of a president on land that is militarily occupied – apparently indefinitely, by America’s erstwhile ally. Israel’s reprehensible occupation is enabled by limitless US military, political, and monetary support. It remains unclear why President Biden wants to symbolically reinforce this sordid reality to the Palestinians and the international community.
One is reminded of a turn of phrase that seems appropriate in the context of President Biden’s visit: “You might not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you!” This essay argues that the timeless realities of geopolitics are driving President Biden to the region, particularly the need to repair the US-Saudi partnership. Whether the relationship can be fixed remains to be seen, but there is no way around the reality that Saudi Arabia is an important player in global affairs. The United States needs Saudi cooperation and active support on a variety of important issues. The situation between Saudi Arabia and the United States also highlights another important truism in international politics: states should not serendipitously jettison partners and allies – a truism that certainly applies to the United States and its relationships across the region with its Sunni-state partners. Over the last quarter century, these countries have allowed access to their military facilities for US operations with barely a hint of complaint, the most recent of which was the air campaign against ISIS.
Like Mowgli in Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the idea of defying the underlying rules of the forest might have seemed attractive – but it was ultimately untenable for Biden. Mowgli would not have survived on his own in the jungle – as Baloo reminded him. President Biden’s trip to the Middle East is a reminder that while the underlying characteristics of the international system might be objectionable, they cannot be necessarily altered to conform to the world as we might want it to be.
 According to one press report, both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed and the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed refused to take a phone call from Biden in March 2022, in which he was going to request political support against Russia and help with skyrocketing oil prices. See Dion Messenbaum, Stephen Kalin and David S. Cloud, “Saudi, Emirati Leaders Decline Calls with Biden During Ukraine Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2022. The White House subsequently denied reports that there was a “rebuffed” call.