Much fanfare has been made about President Joe Biden’s visit last week to Israel and Saudi Arabia, particularly the U-turn his administration has taken in re-engaging with the kingdom four years after the notorious murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Amidst various speculations of its main purpose, many observers have seen the trip as a bid by Biden to curb rising energy prices — a result of the international fallout over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — by convincing the Saudis to increase oil production.
Biden, however, has been more cautious on this issue, insisting last month that oil was not the reason for his trip. Energy experts have themselves assessed that even if the Saudis complied, it would not lower prices substantially for Americans and Europeans. French President Emannuel Macron was also reported to have advised Biden that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates do not have the excess capacity to increase supply, even if they wanted to.
This seems to have been confirmed now that the Middle East trip has concluded, and it doesn’t seem that the United States secured any breakthroughs on the energy front. During the Jeddah summit, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said that Saudi Arabia does not have additional oil capacity, but could increase it to 13.4 million barrels by 2027. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir later added that oil production “was not discussed” in the meetings.
So what was the real calculus? We don’t have to speculate — we can just take Biden at his own words. At around the time he made his decision to attend the Jeddah summit, the president clearly stated that Israel was in fact the core issue behind his visit. “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia,” he told reporters. “That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them — for Israelis.”
This startlingly forward remark has a broader context. While the United States has been deeply involved in the Middle East’s affairs since the 1940s, the last decade of this entanglement has been marked by gradual withdrawal. The majority of Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, are tired of endless deployments and forever wars, and are skeptical of foreign entanglements. The question for presidents since the Obama years has been not whether the U.S. should scale back its involvement in the region, but how it should do so.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) saw a temporary reversal of this process, but by 2019, Obama’s successor Donald Trump was again looking to withdraw more troops. Even when a crisis hit — such as the Abqaiq attack on Saudi oil facilities — the Trump administration opted for a single-strike assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and his entourage while they were on Iraqi soil in January 2020, rather than sending new deployments.
The United States was always aware that its disengagement from the region would leave a power vacuum; the question was which party it should empower to manage the aftermath and ensure U.S. interests — that is, to whom should it give the keys?
Today, with the region much changed, Biden’s team appears to have found its vision, crystallized during the Trump era, that sees normalization between Israel and Arab states as the most favorable configuration to do this.
Israel’s leaders and allies seem to have been pushing this agenda for a while. Back in 2020, Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor to the neoconservative, pro-Israel Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in Newsweek that “Biden is looking to fundamentally restructure the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The only way for Riyadh to stop what’s coming might be to normalize relations with Israel right now.”
This proved accurate. In October 2021, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan discussed Israeli normalization with MBS during a Saudi state visit; and last April, Michael Herzog, Israel’s U.S. ambassador, expressed hopes that the United States would mend its relationship with the kingdom. All this unfolded while Israel consolidated its ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco following the Abraham Accords, with Israeli government murmurs that a major Arab state — assumed to be Saudi Arabia — would soon follow suit.
A new Israeli-Saudi authoritarian order
While Biden made fresh declarations of his commitment to his Middle East allies last week, in material terms little will change. These declarations are simply reaffirming what many have come to take for granted — unwavering U.S. support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — precisely because Washington is packing its bags. They are also about placating the relationship with the Gulf states, who have increasingly felt that the United States is no longer a reliable ally against Iran, especially if it comes to a military confrontation.
The title of the next chapter of American Middle East policy is therefore best summarized by Biden’s own words in his rare Washington Post op-ed: “Next week, I will be the first president to visit the Middle East since 9/11 without U.S. troops engaged in a combat mission there. It’s my aim to keep it that way.”
Given all this, it is clear why Biden was able to stomach the humiliation of giving a fist bump to Mohammad Bin Salman, who ordered the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, and despite the president previously pledging to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah.” That is because the United States won’t need to lean on MBS for decades to come; instead, after over 70 years in which the two countries had no formal relations, the Israelis and Saudis can now coordinate directly.
In this sense, the White House is not renewing its vows with Arab oil princes — it is blessing a new marriage to take over after its departure.
How successful will this policy be, and at what cost will it come to the United States’ standing both in the Middle East and globally? Time will tell, but for now it seems clear that the summit did not impact the region’s geopolitical trajectory in any significant way. MBS, on the other hand, is rejuvenated and empowered by the visit, seeing this episode as vindication. Also emboldened are Israel’s leaders, who took this as an endorsement of Trump’s aggressively pro-Israel policies that abandoned the “land for peace” paradigm while leaving the Palestinian question unresolved.
One thing has been missing from all of this, though: the voice of the people of the region. From our view as Arab pro-democracy activists, Biden has set us up for decades of bitter instability by blessing a partnership between an apartheid regime and Arab autocrats. A new authoritarian order is rising upon the Middle East and North Africa; it speaks the language of “peace,” “tolerance,” and “development,” while being predicated on cash, repression, and whitewashing of murderous crimes. It has Jamal Khashoggi’s blood all over it; it has Shireen Abu Akleh’s blood all over it. The Palestinians are at the bottom of this violent order — and it may fall upon them to lead the region’s resistance to it.