Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman toured some regional capitals this week, ending with an official visit to Turkey, the first in almost four years. He started with Egypt, followed by Jordan. Saudi sources say the prince will visit Cyprus, Greece and Algeria probably in late July.
The visit to Egypt was preceded by a summit hosted by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Sharm El-Sheikh and attended by Bahraini King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa and Jordanian King Abdullah II.
Official statements from the summit said the leaders discussed “mutual coordination towards various issues of common concern in addition to the latest developments on the regional and international arenas and the challenges facing the region”. The leaders also stressed the importance of bolstering up the “brotherly and strategic” relationship between the three countries to achieve common goals and interests. The only reference to Biden’s visit was that “they also welcomed the upcoming summit to be hosted by Saudi Arabia in July, comprising leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the US.”
Some analysts note that the summit, which occurred just two days before Bin Salman’s visit to Egypt and Jordan, was mainly meant to formulate a somehow unified position on different issues – ranging from the economic fallout of the Ukraine war, especially on energy and food prices, to the stance on relations with Israel and Iran. The Saudi crown-prince’s visit to the two Arab countries would conclude a “shared position” on almost all these issues. One commentator noted that Riyadh is taking the lead “with the UAE backstage for now”. But many Gulf sources confirmed to Al-Ahram Weekly that all regional issues that might arise in the summit with the American president are coordinated between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
The visit to Turkey may be a bilateral event between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told the Weekly that the crown-prince’s visit to Turkey is “in return for Erdogan’s visit to the Kingdom [in April this year], and mainly to show normalisation of relations. Also, there is a need to coordinate on regional issues, especially on Iran, to reach a coherent stance before Biden’s visit to the region. The visit aims also to push the rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt.”
There are other aspects to Bin Salman’s tour, mainly economic, including investment pledges and financial assistance under such dire circumstances in accordance with Saudi sources. Such areas might appear unrelated to preparation for the July summit, but commentators see it as part of the effort to bring political positions closer to the Saudi stance when the leaders meet US President Joe Biden in Jeddah next month.
Though Biden tried to downplay his eagerness to get the Gulf countries to produce more oil and lower prices for consumers in the US, many in the region believe it is still one of his primary goals. When asked about that recently, Biden said his Middle East visit is mainly about Israel, not oil. But even that, as many American commentators say, is another “electioneering ploy”. Yet gas prices at the pump are more important for the American voter than “peace in the Middle East”. A pro-Israel lobby in the US might not be enough to improve Biden’s and his Democratic Party’s chances in the upcoming mid-term elections for the Congress.
By and large, the outlook of the Jeddah summit might not be that very bright. Abdul-Aziz Alkhames said that he is not expecting much to come out of the visit and the summit, “other than reinforcing the new shift in the region towards a ‘balanced’ foreign policy mandated mainly by national interests”.
There was a notion propagated by some parties within the region that the US will use the summit to form an “Israeli-Arab alliance”, mainly against Iran. Israeli officials downplayed that, mentioning that only token achievements like opening Saudi airspace to Israeli flights are possible. “I don’t think there will be any announcement on Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. Any development in relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv will be separate from these accords. Saudi relations with Israel will be different, fitting with the Saudi vision only,” Alkhames said.
Even Iran, which is the main issue of concern to GCC countries, might not be addressed in a fully conclusive way. “This administration is not ready for full cooperation in the right way. Biden is only concerned about energy and a few other issues. The American position on Iran is not clear,” according to Alkhames. “The time for American leadership is past,” he concluded. “The region now seeks cooperation only. That applies to US and others as national interests dictate.”
Many in the West echo the same view especially that Biden is going to be in “a different Middle east”. Some question the American goal of upending the GCC and Arab closeness to Russia and China.
A veteran Western diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly of what he described as “double-hesitancy” that might not help achieve the goals of the visit: “On one hand, the Biden administration has no strategy for a coherent Middle East policy. On the other hand, Gulf and Arab stances on almost all regional issues are not the same – to say the least.”
The lack of a solid strategy is replaced by the kind of “tactical policy” that has become a norm in Biden’s administration – both on internal issues and foreign policy. Leaders in the region understand this as they note opinion polls showing this administration’s popularity declining day by day.
“If Biden is trying to achieve a foreign policy mark that might help his administration and party internally, he might be frustrated. In fact, the hosts are aware of the situation he is in and might not be enthusiastic to help. As for regional players, matters close to home are more important and they no longer buy the grand rhetoric of ‘global coalition’ or American-led free world,” the diplomat added.
Many in the region and in the West see two main outcomes of the summit: rehabilitation of the Saudi crown-prince, which is a big U-turn for Biden’s administration; and reinforcing the GCC and Arab foreign policy shift away from American hegemony.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.