Friday 24, March 2023

Arab world on eve of Biden’s visit

News Desk: THE Arab world seems to be not only making successful attempts at unification, but also seeking to play a more active role on the international arena. And here Russia’s plans to transform the selfish unipolar world into a multipolar one, where the interests of all countries, including the Arab states, would be fully taken into account, are consonant with it. In this context, the numerous state visits and high-level summits to coordinate the positions of Arab leaders ahead of US president Joe Biden’s visit to the region are in harmony with future transformations. Many experts and diplomats now believe that how this visit goes, what the US president, who considers himself the head of the outgoing unipolar world, achieves will in no small measure determine the future of not only the peoples of the Persian Gulf and the entire Middle East, but will also show what path the Arab world will take.

Perhaps the most important and significant in this regard were the just-ended visits of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to several regional capitals, concluded with an official visit to Turkey, incidentally the first in almost four years. He started with Egypt, followed by Jordan, then Cyprus, Greece and Algeria for international coordination, which is likely to happen in July. There is no doubt that the Saudi prince is seriously preparing for his meeting with the US president in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and is trying to enlist the support of many countries in the Arab world. And this is well understood in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, who are now at the helm of many Arab countries.

The visit to Egypt was preceded by a summit hosted by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Sharm el-Sheikh, attended by king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and king Abdullah II of Jordan. An official statement from the summit said the leaders discussed ‘mutual coordination on various issues of common interest, in addition to recent developments in the regional and international arenas and challenges facing the region.’ The leaders also stressed the importance of strengthening ‘fraternal and strategic’ relations between the three countries to achieve common goals and interests. The only reference to Biden’s upcoming visit to Jeddah was that ‘they also welcomed the upcoming summit to be held in Saudi Arabia in July, with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the United States.’ It is clear that el-Sisi in this case was acting in Riyadh’s interests and, above all, in the interests of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, who had much to stake on the future meeting in Jeddah.

It can be assumed that the summit, which took place just two days before Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to Egypt and Jordan, was mainly intended to formulate a unified position on various issues. The issues discussed range from the economic consequences of the war unleashed by the west in Ukraine in terms of energy and food prices to the position on relations with Israel and Iran. The crown prince’s visit to the two Arab countries was completed with a ‘common stance’ stated on almost all of these issues. Many sources in the Gulf have confirmed to the weekly Al-Ahram that any regional issues that may arise at the summit with the US president are closely coordinated between Riyadh and its closest ally Abu Dhabi.

The visit to Turkey can be seen as an important bilateral event between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Prominent commentator Abdul Aziz Alhames told Arab News that the crown prince’s visit to Turkey was ‘a response to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to the kingdom in April this year, and mainly to demonstrate the normalisation of relations.’ In addition, it is quite clear that there was a need to coordinate a common position on regional issues, especially on Iran, before Biden’s visit to the region in July. The essence of the high Saudi guest’s visit to Turkey was clearly defined by political observer Jibril Al-Obaidi, who stated that the visit ‘was an occasion for Turkey to return to its Arab and Islamic surroundings after a period of strained relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbours.’ In other words, given the Turks’ age-old knowledge and experience, a more active Ankara stance in the Arab world can be expected

There are other aspects to Mohammed bin Salman’s tour, mainly economic, including investment commitments and financial assistance to Arab countries in the current difficult circumstances. Such areas may at first glance seem unrelated to preparations for the July summit, but Saudi commentators see it as part of an effort to align political positions with Saudi Arabia’s course when Arab leaders meet with Joe Biden and take a unified, prearranged position. Basically, Riyadh’s huge injections into the economies of the countries visited by the Saudi prince undoubtedly allow him to control the leadership of other countries in some way.

Meanwhile, special attention is paid to Egypt, as the most important and powerful country in the Arab world. During the visit, Egypt and Saudi Arabia signed 14 investment agreements worth $7.7 billion in several areas, including oil, renewable energy, green hydrogen, information technology, e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, infrastructure and cybersecurity. According to a joint Saudi-Egyptian communiqué, Riyadh plans to invest $30 billion in Egypt. The United Arab Emirates, which is working with Saudi Arabia to strengthen Egypt’s economic potential, has announced a $10 billion investment fund, managed by state-owned ADQ, for joint projects with Egypt and Jordan as part of a recently launched industrial partnership initiative.

Total Emirati investment in Egypt, however, is $20 billion and is expected to rise to $35 billion within five years, Jamal Al-Jarwan, secretary general of the UAE International Investors Council, said. According to earlier figures released by the Egyptian ministry of trade and industry, in 2021 trade between Egypt and the UAE exceeded $3.6 billion. During a Riyadh-backed visit by Qatar ruler Tamim bin Hamed Al-Thani, an agreement was confirmed as part of ‘enhanced economic cooperation between the two brotherly countries’ for a $5 billion investment package in Egypt. It is only natural that after such cash injections, at least in Jeddah during the GCC summit, Egyptian president el-Sisi would play for the Saudi side entirely.

Although Biden, after a series of failed attempts, is trying hard to play down his desire to ‘force’ the Gulf states to produce more oil and lower prices for US consumers, it is clear that this is still one of his main objectives. When asked about this recently, Biden said that the visit to the Middle East was mainly about Israel, not oil. But even this response is another one of his not quite successful ‘campaigning ploys.’ Nevertheless, as is well known, gas prices are more important to the American voter than the whole ‘peace in the Middle East’ thing. The pro-Israel lobby in the US may not be strong or big enough to improve the chances of Biden and his Democratic Party in the upcoming mid-term elections to Congress, and he will need at least some success on the foreign policy front.

By and large, the prospects for the Jeddah summit may not be as successful and rosy as they first appear. Abdul Aziz Alhames said he did not expect much from the visit and the summit ‘other than an intensification of the new Arab shift in the region towards a balanced foreign policy driven mainly by national interests.’ Apparently, this is the right definition, and the Saudi prince’s recent visits confirm this thesis.

There is a view that the US will use the summit to form an ‘Israeli-Arab alliance,’ mainly against Iran. Israeli officials are already anticipating this shift, pointing out in every possible way that various achievements are possible. In the first phase, these would include opening up Saudi airspace to Israeli flights. ‘I don’t think there will be any announcement of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. Any development of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv will be separate from these accords. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel will be different, consistent only with Saudi Arabia’s vision,’ Alhames said.

Even the situation with Iran, which is the main concern of the GCC countries, may not be fully and finally resolved. The current administration is not ready for full cooperation with the Arabs in the ‘right direction’ and Biden is only concerned about energy and increased oil and gas production in the Gulf states. The US position on Iran is still unclear, as Arab News noted, but at the same time ‘the time of American leadership has passed. The region now only seeks to cooperate. This applies to us and others, as our national interests demand.’

Many experts both in the region and in the west see two main outcomes of the Jeddah summit. The first is the rehabilitation of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the future king of Saudi Arabia, which few doubt and which is a major turnaround and a reversal of the Biden administration’s previous positions. And then, importantly, the strengthening of the position of the GCC, which, led by Saudi Arabia, will become the head of the Arab world and formalise the departure of Arab foreign policy from the former US hegemony in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East.


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