Much rides on the upcoming visit to the Middle East. Today, the region stands at a crossroads. The major regional conflict is no longer one between Israel and the Arabs, democracy and autocracy, or even Sunnis and Shias. The biggest conflict today is between two Middle Easts, one envisioned by the emerging Arab-Israeli alliance, and one envisioned by an Iranian-led axis.
Unlike in the past when the US had the initiative in determining the regional power structure, this time the US has to decide whether it is going to follow the initiative of the region or insist on its own plans. Regional allies are waiting for a final American decision in Biden’s upcoming visit—will the US accommodate or confront Iranian ambitions?
In my recent visit to Abu Dhabi, a significant part of my conversations with Saudi figures close to the decision-making circles in the kingdom revolved around normalization with Israel. The question wasn’t whether Saudi Arabia is going to normalize ties with Israel, but when and how. And the answer to the question when was in strikingly short terms rather than long ones.
One of my interlocutors asked if I have been to Riyadh recently. When I told him I haven’t he said, “It’s a two-hour flight. Take a short trip over the weekend. It will be revealing to you.” Sadly, I couldn’t make the trip, but I got the gist of what he wanted me to see: the region is transforming very fast. These are the kinds of conversations happening today in the Arab Gulf—no longer cautious and hesitant, but bold and confident, transcending the interests of any single state.
These conversations are happening without American mediation or sponsorship; they are happening autonomously and locally. Gone are the days when Americans had to bend over backward to get Arabs and Israelis in a room together or when Arab and Israeli diplomats had to sneak from the backdoors into hotels in London and Washington to whisper what they couldn’t say publicly.
As one diplomat said to me, with a discernable hint of disappointment, “Americans are more than welcome to join us. But if American doesn’t want to come to the Middle East, the Middle East will simply go its own way.”
The disappointment is legitimate. In almost all conversations with officials from different US allies in the region, I found myself continuously having to answer the question “what’s wrong with America?”
The reasons my interlocutor was under the impression there’s something wrong with America are many, and I can’t say that I don’t agree with all of them. An Israeli official complained to me, with justified bitterness, that for over a year, the State Department had almost no interest in engaging with the Abraham Accords or implementing them into US policy in the region, not to mention the awkward attempt to avoid using the words. While he recognized there is a clear shift in tone throughout the past few months, including attempts to engage with the Accords, the bitter taste that such behavior left remains.
Arab officials obviously had more to complain about. From the administration’s weird insistence on humiliating Saudi Arabia and its refusal to recognize the country’s major transformations—that Wahabism is no longer the country’s official domestic policy and its lack of response to Iranian aggression against its Gulf allies, which included assaults on our own soil.
“We thought we were best friends. A best friend doesn’t wait for two weeks to pick up the phone and call you to check on you after you had been assaulted in your own home,” one official said.
An aversion to engaging with an unpopular former president’s diplomatic success may be a juvenile behavior from American foreign policy professionals. A scuffle with Saudi Arabia is not the first time the US has shown major concerns over the human rights record of one of its main allies. But to leave the region uncertain about our intentions regarding their most pressing threat, Iran, could prove to be a major foreign policy failure.
This is what is on the table when it comes to US Iran policy and President Biden’s upcoming visit to the region. US allies in the region are keenly aware that if the US goes with a certain paradigm—strong in the Democratic foreign policy establishment since the Obama days and that seeks to accommodate, not confront Iran—it can only be at their expense. For much of the region, this is not an option, especially as they are embarking on a major reorganization of the region following a decade of instability. This project signals the first moment of true cooperation between certain regional actors and includes a landmark Arab recognition and acceptance of Israel into the region—the most definitive regional moment since WWII.
It is bad enough that our regional allies know that the Biden visit is only happening due to the pressure the President is under given the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet, they are all aware that a region with a committed strong American presence is significantly preferable to a region without one. Thus, they are expecting the visit to carry the final American decision on whether the US will support the new Middle East and help it confront Iran—or reach temporary accommodations.
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