JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — US President Joe Biden, speaking at a summit of Arab leaders, said Saturday that the United States “will not walk away” from the Middle East as he tries to ensure stability in a volatile corner of the globe and boost the worldwide flow of oil to reverse rising gas prices. “The United States is going to remain an active, engaged partner in the Middle East.”
His remarks, delivered at the Gulf Cooperation Council as he closed out the final leg of a four-day trip, come as the region braces for a potential confrontation with Iran.
“We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said. “We will seek to build on this moment with active, principled, American leadership.”
Biden later departed the country en route to Washington after wrapping up a four day Middle East tour in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. He was seen off at the coastal city airport by Prince Khaled al-Faisal, the governor of Mecca province.
Although US forces continue to target terrorists in the region and remain deployed at bases throughout the Middle East, Biden suggested at the conference that he was turning the page after the country’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Today, I’m proud to be able to say that the eras of land wars in the region, wars that involved huge numbers of American forces, is not underway,” he said.
Biden said the US “will build political, economic, and security connections between US partners wherever possible, while respecting each country’s sovereignty and independent choices. Integration, interconnection — these are the underlying themes of our meeting today.”
While he raised the notion of integration, the president did not mention Israel by name, even though he had said incorporating Israel into the region would be a central goal of his visit to Saudi Arabia.
Biden did bring up Israel on his first day in Jeddah on Friday, when he announced the planned withdrawal of a multinational observer force securing a pair of Red Sea islands in order to advance their transfer to Saudi Arabia, which in turn is taking steps toward normalizing ties with Israel.
While the US president left Israel out of his formal summit remarks, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Qatar Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani brought up the Jewish state in the context of the Palestinian issue. Abdullah warned that there would be no stability in the region without a solution to the conflict, and Sissi called for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Al-Thani offered a similar position before calling on members not to “abandon” the Arab Peace Initiative only because Israel has refused the proposal.
The 2002 proposal offers Israel full normalized relations with all 22 members of the Arab League if Israel agrees to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and with a just resolution for Palestinian refugees.
The position by the Qatar emir appeared to be a swipe at GCC members UAE and Bahrain, who did not wait for a resolution to the Palestinian issue before normalizing ties with Israel in 2020.
Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir also said, in an earlier CNN interview, that his country would follow the initiative’s model and hold off on normalizing ties with Israel, but added that countries that decided to join the Abraham Accords made their own “sovereign decisions.”
After his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on Friday, Biden, for the first time as president, said he also backed the 1967 borders as a framework, while adding that it should also include mutually agreed-upon land swaps. However, he said the “ground is not ripe” for negotiations at present, and he was far more vague about the issue of Jerusalem, saying only that it “must be a city for all its people” with its final boundaries subject to talks between the parties.
In Biden and Abdullah’s separate meeting during the GCC summit, the two leaders “reaffirmed their commitment” to advancing a two-state solution, according to the White House.
Most of the references to the conflict in the US readout included oft-repeated positions on the issue, but the White House notably mentioned that the two leaders “emphasized the importance of including the Palestinians in regional cooperation projects.”
While the US has sought to incorporate the PA in its efforts to advance the Abraham Accords, Ramallah has bitterly opposed the effort, viewing the normalization agreements Israel signed with four regional states in 2020 as an attempt to bypass the Palestinian issue.
During the larger summit, Biden pressed his counterparts, many of which lead repressive governments, to ensure human rights, including women’s rights, and allow their citizens to speak openly.
“The future will be won by the countries that unleash the full potential of their populations,” he said, including allowing people to “question and criticize leaders without fear of reprisal.”
Before the speech, Biden spent the morning meeting individually with the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, some of whom he had never sat down with.
Biden invited Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who became president of the UAE two months ago, to visit the White House this year, saying he looked forward “to another period of strong and growing cooperation” between their countries under the sheik’s leadership.
The Gulf Cooperation Council summit in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah is an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate his commitment to the region after spending most of his presidency focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing influence in Asia.
Hours before the conference began, the White House released satellite imagery that indicates Russian officials have twice recently visited Iran to see weapons-capable drones it is looking to acquire for use in its war in Ukraine.
None of the countries represented at the summit have moved in lockstep with the US to sanction Russia, a key foreign policy priority for the Biden administration. If anything, the UAE has emerged as a sort of financial haven for Russian billionaires and their multimillion-dollar yachts. Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.
The president’s first Middle East trip comes 11 months after the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as Biden aims to reprioritize the US away from the Middle East’s ruinous wars and ongoing conflicts stretching from Libya to Syria.
Energy prices — elevated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — were expected to be high on the agenda. But Biden aides tempered expectations that he would leave with a deal for regional producers to immediately boost supply.
“I suspect you won’t see that for another couple of weeks,” Biden told reporters late Friday.
At the summit, Biden was set to hear concerns about regional stability and security, food security, climate change and the continued threat of terrorism.
Overall, there’s little that the nine Mideast heads of state agree on when it comes to foreign policy. For example, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE are trying to isolate and squeeze Iran over its regional reach and proxies. Oman and Qatar, on the other hand, have solid diplomatic ties with Iran and have acted as intermediaries for talks between Washington and Tehran.
Qatar recently hosted talks between US and Iranian officials as they try to revive Iran’s nuclear accord. Iran not only shares a huge underwater gas field with Qatar in the Persian Gulf, but it also rushed to Qatar’s aid when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off ties and imposed a years-long embargo on Qatar that ended shortly before Biden took office.
However, there is widespread agreement on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and the US and Saudi Arabia signed a joint communique late Friday in which they both stressed the importance of that goal.
Biden’s actions have frustrated some of the leaders. While the US has played an important role in encouraging a months-long ceasefire in Yemen, his decision to reverse a Trump-era move that had listed Yemen’s rebel Houthis as a terrorist group has outraged the Emirati and Saudi leadership.