The Politics and Society Institute (PSI), in cooperation with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung – Amman office (FES), held a closed virtual session on July 5th, 2022. The session titled “President Biden’s visit to the Middle East: Setting the Stage for a Renewed Partnership?” has focused on the upcoming first /visit of president Biden to the region. The sessions were attended by Jordanian and foreign politicians, experts, and academics.
The session was the first of a series of virtual sessions that PSI and FES have planned to conduct over the next few months focusing on Jordanian foreign policy, under the title “نقطة تحول – How Jordan and its partners can successfully navigate through uncertainty?”.
Under the Chatham House Rule, participants engaged in discussing President Biden’s visit to the region, the future of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Jordanian-American relations, Jordan’s role in the region, as well as the Jordanian state’s perception of the American role and the degree to which it serves Jordanian interests. Moreover, participants have debated whether the Biden administration is genuinely considering restoring its regional role and revitalizing its diplomacy in building alliances and coalitions in the region, which was abandoned by the last former presidents of the US. Based on the profound discussions, PSI has published this position paper.
Preface: President Biden’s visit… A Quest to Curb Gas Prices
Since Biden’s election campaign, which referenced the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticized the war in Yemen, relations between the United States and a number of the countries in the region, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have grown noticeably colder. This state of mistrust had culminated in President Biden’s decision not to provide Saudi Arabia with offensive weapons, and leaking information on the murder of Khashoggi, hinting at the Saudi crown prince’s involvement. In light of the oil revolution in the United States and the emergence of the country as an oil exporter, this attitude enhanced the American administration’s confidence in the diminishing significance of Middle Eastern oil.
Nonetheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine reshuffled the cards in the Middle East. Although the conflict originally disclosed more evidence about the undeclared crisis between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the present administration of the United States, it pushed the US administration to reconsider its attitude. As Mr. Biden realized, the oil from the Gulf is vital because it comprises a major market force capable of increasing or decreasing prices. In addition, US partners in Europe are in dire need of Arab oil and gas, especially given their efforts to lessen their reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies. Therefore, the declared objective of President Biden’s mission to Saudi Arabia is to encourage the Saudi crown prince and the leaders of the Gulf states to increase their oil supply. Moreover, the posture of the UAE, which voted twice as neutral at the United Nations on the position on the Russian war, and the Saudi flirting and rapprochement with China have sounded dangerous and have pushed the president toward containing the Saudis and the Emiratis.
Regional contexts of the visit
US President Joseph Biden arrives in Riyadh with a pragmatic political philosophy, neglecting human rights statements and criticisms related to democracy and public freedoms in the region, as well as turning the page on the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Thus he aims from his visit and consequent measures to limit the damage to American and Western interests caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent increase in fuel and energy prices, as well as a general rise in inflation. In order to limit the economic consequences of the war and to serve his countries’ and its allies’ interests, the US president has been attempting to urge the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to increase their oil production to fulfill market demand and stem the rise in oil prices.
On the other hand, despite the resignation of the Israeli government and the instability of the Israeli government over the past two years, the US president intends to resume the Arab-Israeli normalisation agreements, which, according to Israel, will remain incomplete until relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are normalized. This would indicate a continuation of the ambition of former US President Donald Trump in the Middle East through Jared Kushner, who just secured a two-billion-dollar Saudi investment in one of his businesses.
In addition, Israel is attempting to urge the United States to lead discussions for the formation of a military alliance in the region against Iran. This may indicate that the current democratic administration’s inclination is not to reverse the decisions of the previous administration on Jerusalem and the Palestinian issue, but rather to freeze the American position until the stabilization of the Israeli government.
The US withdrawal from the region and the nuclear deal
Observers of the development of political rallies in the Middle East after the inauguration of President Joe Biden may see the decrease of the United States’ involvement in the region over the last two years, leaving little space for question regarding the United States’ withdrawal from the region. Thus, it may be inferred that the current visit of the American president to the Middle East is not a consequence of U.S. interest in the region or an effort to rearrange regional affairs, but rather a response to issues that are of critical concern to the U.S. The effects of this withdrawal at the regional level have been apparent, whether concerning the Palestinian arena, which has flared up several times without any significant American moves regarding it nor the various crises in the region, from Yemen to Iraq to Lebanon, Syria and other issues in the Middle East that the United States used to play a role in managing, directing, and resolving in a manner that served its interests, which indicates that the United States no longer sees that it does have any major interests in the region.
Today, the Middle East team around President Biden has reduced significantly, since the largest share of Biden’s advisory team comprises experts in East Asian affairs, in addition to experts in epidemiology and climatology. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated a fundamental shift in U.S. foreign policy over the nation’s international interests, which was exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Today, the US administration sees its interest in three principal regions: Asia-Pacific, Europe, and the Americas, towards which the United States is heading today to give priority in its attempts to contain the Chinese and Russian rise.
In spite of this, the nuclear agreement with Iran may be the only exception to American policy towards the Middle East. As the United States appears determined to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran as soon as possible and to try repeatedly to resume negotiations after they stalled in order to reach a final and practical solution to the Iranian nuclear program and other contentious issues relating to Irani-supported movements in the region. The significance of the nuclear agreement, according to the participants, rests in its ability to allow the United States to further diminish its presence in the Middle East since the Iranian case remains the most significant source of concern and threat to US partners in the region.
Today, however, the search for alternative scenarios devoid of a nuclear agreement is on the table due to the high likelihood of failure of the nuclear agreement negotiations and the impending midterm elections, where the Democratic Party is not anticipated to succeed. As a result, normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel became a viable option, especially in light of discussions about forming a regional defensive military alliance. This would be the best option for containing Iran in the region, as well as discouraging Iran and its allies from launching missile strikes against the countries in this alliance.
Additionally, this course of action will result in a personal gain for the American president, who understands that while lowering oil prices will help him in the short term (the midterm elections), the American voter will quickly forget about these efforts as was the case during Donald Trump’s term, when his efforts to keep oil prices low for the majority of his term failed to secure him a second term. As a result, normalization and the creation of a military alliance in the region will be Biden’s major prize and achievement, which could form one of the mainstays of his campaign in the upcoming presidential elections regarding his foreign policy.
Jordan, the Kushner Project, and the question of the regional role
There is a general perception nowadays that Jordanian-American relations are experiencing a honeymoon today, with the departure of the former administration of Donald Trump and the severe pressure it was exerting on Jordan and its clear plan to liquidate the Palestinian cause and weaken the Palestinian Authority. Also, the rise in US aid to Jordan in recent years, and the increase in military cooperation between the two parties in light of regional crises and the security threat to American interests in the region, make Jordan a major pillar of American cooperation in the Middle East.
However, there are great concerns and doubts among Jordanian politicians about the decline of the Jordanian regional role in recent periods. This is related to a noticeable change in the Israeli strategy on the one hand and attempts to marginalize the Palestinian issue on the other hand. These attempts are linked to the Arab-Israeli normalization project, based on placing the so-called “Iranian threat” first on the list of regional risks and considering Israel as a strategic ally. This means for Jordan the ending of the centralization of the Palestinian issue, which will have a negative impact on Jordan’s strategic interests and national security,
Hence, a careful reading of Biden’s visit to the region reflects a turning point in the position of the US administration. In exchange for normalization with Israel and for Israel to advance further along the Gulf-Israeli normalization path, Saudi Arabia will get more stability and security for the country and its regime. That means Jordan losing the distinguishing feature of the Jordanian regional role, which was established during the previous decades on the importance of its strategic position as a major country in the ring and as an operations room in Arab-American relations and negotiation with Israel.
Biden’s visit restores or breathes new life into the Kushner project in the region. The man who has not left since President Trump’s administration’s departure is still working hard to normalize Arab-Israeli relations and carrying out secret missions to conclude regional agreements on this basis, which reshapes the project. The Trump administration that Jordan has endured, and maybe what is more worrisome is that the Republicans and Trump supporters will win the midterm elections, which implies a further demarcation of a new regional order based on Kushner’s prior views, ideas that Jordan cannot accept or engage with for many strategic reasons, including its national security, the Palestinian cause, and the domestic equation.
Jordanian concern will be exacerbated as the Israeli political spectrum shifts to the right day by day, endangering Jordan’s position based on the two-state solution and planning day-by-day solutions that may be at Jordan’s expense. As a result, Jordan regards normalization and the establishment of any bloc in the region, including right-wing Israel, as a threat to Jordan that cannot be tolerated, nor can the Kingdom be a part of it before achieving a final just solution to the Palestinian question.
European, Chinese, and regional powers’ role in the Middle East:
Despite the emergence of multiple European visions towards the region and European concern over the results of American policies, especially with the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation in Syria and Iraq, and the nuclear agreement with Iran, and despite the emergence of larger European roles in North Africa, there are no indications in the near term of the possibility of the emergence of a European role that carries an independent and different vision representing a different path from the American one, and therefore, relying on a pivotal European role in the region in the next stage may be unrealistic.
At the level of Jordanian-European relations, they have witnessed a remarkable development during the past years, especially during the era of former US President Donald Trump. German and British aid to Jordan increased during the last period, and the European view of Jordan has become based on strengthening stability, cooperation, and support.
However, the European role in the region remains timid, especially today after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which redirected the European Union and its member states to direct their efforts and resources towards dealing with Russia, leaving the Middle East case to the United States to deal with it as a representative of the West, especially with regard to the oil and energy case.
On the other hand, international and regional powers view the vacuum that will be left by the decline of the American presence in the region as an opportunity for economic and political expansion, and this is what China is aware of today, thirsty for influence at the international level, as it seeks to build partnerships with the countries of the region and enhance its economic influence, especially with what the region means geographically for the Belt and Road project and what It is shaped by Arab oil imports for the Chinese industry, but the Chinese presence in the region remains focused on the economic side, without having any clear military or political form.
Regionally, the last decade witnessed the race of regional powers (Iran, Turkey, and Israel) to expand their influence in the region, in an attempt to exploit the absence of a policeman and a rhythm regulator in the region through the tendency of each of them to use different methods and approaches to form a network of regional allies. This regional polarization has led to the division of the region into camps that prefer estrangement between them over dialogue and rapprochement in a way that may lead in the future to the formation of an (Iron Curtain) similar to the Iron Curtain that cut Europe to divide it into eastern and western blocs during the Cold War.
Jordan’s Domestic Front: Democracy and Human Rights
In light of external challenges and changes in the international and regional environment, the presence of a strong internal Jordanian front based on strengthening the space for political participation and drying up the sources of internal crises, as well as building on the reforms undertaken to modernize the political system in order to reduce the trust gap between citizens and the state, and the integration of political forces and youth, is critical today.
1-The Middle East today is no longer a priority for the United States, which, a decade ago, pursued a withdrawal policy in the region and which today returns to specific goals that are summarized in:
A.-Containing the rise in oil prices resulting from the Russian-Ukrainian war and containing the ensuing inflation.
B.-Rearranging regional affairs through leading talks for the formation of a regional military bloc to deter and contain Iran, which cannot be established without the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations.
C-Searching for gains for the US president in light of the approaching midterm elections, which threaten to lose the Democratic Party’s majority in Congress, according to opinion polls, if the US administration is unable to achieve quick gains to reverse the odds.
2-Reaching a nuclear agreement is still a priority for the United States, but the confidence of the American administration in the possibility of reaching understandings that lead to the revival of the agreement is low, which pushes the US today to search for alternatives.
3-The project of former US President Donald Trump still exists in the region through his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, who is still able to make effective moves to reshape the project again.
4-The freeze of democracy and human rights in the Middle East in return for the revival of the Abrahamic accords accompanies Biden’s trip to the region.
5-Biden will not be able and does not want to reverse Trump’s decisions related to the Palestinian issue and prefers to freeze the issue, especially with the democratic administration’s lack of vision to advance the peace process.
6-In light of the normalization process, Jordan is concerned about the deterioration of its regional significance and the threat to its interests posed by overcoming and neglecting its historical role and interests.
7-Jordan cannot and does not accept to be part of the Trump and Kushner project due to internal, security, and historical considerations.
8-As a result of the American withdrawal from the region, the regional powers have become the main controllers of the stage and are dealing with policies that threaten to polarize to the point of estrangement and war between the various regional blocs.