Biden Goes to the Middle East

High expectations: US President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One. Image: The White House

The global energy crisis and tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme loom large as the US president travels to meet Middle Eastern leaders.

US President Joe Biden is about to arrive in the Middle East for his first visit to the region since taking office. He will travel to Jerusalem, the West Bank, and finally to Riyadh, where he is due to meet with Gulf leaders as well as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of Iraq.

Observers are eagerly anticipating what will likely be the most photographed moment of the trip, Biden’s encounter with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS). On the campaign trail back in November 2019, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia ‘pay the price’ for the infamous murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and to treat the Kingdom and its young ruler-in-waiting as ‘the pariah that they are.’ Less than three years later, Biden is heading to Riyadh, and while his host and nominal counterpart is King Salman, he will meet with MBS, who effectively leads the Saudi government.

But while a Biden–MBS handshake could well end up being the grand symbolic moment adorning the frontpages around the world, the agenda for the president’s trip is jam-packed with issues of strategic significance, ranging from the global energy crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine to Iran’s nuclear programme and the future of the regional security order in the Middle East.

The US Still Needs Saudi Oil

Much has been made in recent years of how the US’s newly gained energy self-sufficiency, courtesy of the shale revolution, has finally allowed Washington to turn its back on the Middle East. After decades of intense, and often costly and frustrating, US involvement in the region – with the Iraq War being the most ignominious episode – leaders on both sides of the aisle and throughout the security establishment are eager to focus on other regions and challenges, most obviously the Indo-Pacific and China.

Yet, surging international energy costs, driven by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, have once again illustrated that it is not that simple. The price of oil, including what US consumers ultimately pay at the pump at home, depends not just on the prowess of domestic producers, but on the dynamics of global markets. And there, Saudi Arabia, with its famed spare production capacity, still wields enormous influence.

Thus far, Riyadh has steadfastly resisted calls to significantly ramp up production and has continued to coordinate closely with Russia through the OPEC+ framework, a grouping that accounts for more than half of global oil supplies. This has led to consternation in Washington and European capitals, who feel that Gulf leaders should join the Western consensus against Moscow.

Countries across the region are increasingly worried about the uncertainty and potential for escalation that the complete collapse of international nuclear diplomacy with Iran could entail

As Biden tries to persuade the Saudis to rethink their energy policies and ties with the Kremlin, he may find it more productive to appeal to their self-interest. Over the past month or two, concerns have been growing across the Gulf that Russia is gaining market share in Asia by selling oil its European customers no longer want at a discount. While European oil consumption is set to decline in the coming years, much of Asia remains a growth market in which Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf oil producers cannot afford to lose out. Ultimately, Biden does not need Saudi oil for US consumers – he just needs more Saudi oil on the international market, regardless of whether it ends up in China or India.

Grappling with a Looming Nuclear Iran

But it is not all about the oil. As the Biden administration has to focus on countering Russia’s aggression in Europe and remains committed to bolstering the US’s position vis-à-vis China, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, it must also contend with the increasingly real prospect of a looming crisis in the Middle East over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) have stalled and may well have reached the end of the road. At present, neither Iran nor the Biden administration has an interest in declaring the deal dead, but there are also no signs of a breakthrough anytime soon. In the meantime, the non-proliferation benefits of the agreement are shrinking by the day as Iran continues its enrichment activities, and the dates of the first sunset clauses for various restrictions on Iran set out in the original deal are approaching.

In Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden will visit two countries that were among the most vocal proponents of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. They have also consistently warned against making concessions to Iran since negotiations to return to the deal commenced in 2021. Yet, with the scenario of an expanding Iranian nuclear programme unobserved by any international monitoring mechanisms becoming an ever more realistic possibility, Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries across the region are increasingly worried about the uncertainty and potential for escalation that the complete collapse of international nuclear diplomacy with Iran could entail.

Biden has repeatedly vowed that his government will not allow Iran to attain nuclear weapons. Now, US partners will want to hear from him on how he intends to keep his word without the JCPOA, or how Washington might deal with a nuclear Iran. Leaders in the region and Biden’s own appointees have often insisted that no options should be taken off the table – a euphemism for the possibility of military action. But in reality, no one wants a war with Iran, neither in Washington, nor in capitals across the Middle East.

As they grapple with the challenge Iran poses to the regional order – with or without nuclear weapons – governments across the region are already exploring and forging new security structures. The often-muted idea of an Arab or Middle Eastern NATO is a tired cliché that only evokes unhelpful notions of an imported solution for regional security. But there are real changes afoot, particularly with regard to ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

The US’s Place in a Changing Middle East

Less than two years since their establishment, it is clear that the Abraham Accords are more than a Trump gimmick. The Israel–UAE relationship, in particular, has rapidly expanded and is becoming ever-more strategically relevant for both countries. The Biden administration – and large parts of the Democratic Party – appear to have concluded that, rather than ignoring the Accords just because they are associated with Trump, they should try to build on their foundations.

Regardless of what many Arab, Israeli and Western leaders may want to believe, the issue of Palestine is not going away

Normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia – the greatest prize in Israel–Gulf relations – is still a way off, but Biden will certainly hope to advance that process during his visit. Yet, he and anyone else hoping to support burgeoning Arab-Israeli ties must ensure that there is more to them than building an anti-Iran alliance. To make a meaningful and lasting contribution to a more stable regional security order in the Middle East, the Abraham Accords – or a differently titled framework – must also provide space for dealing with other regional challenges.

Most notably, regardless of what many Arab, Israeli and Western leaders may want to believe, the issue of Palestine is not going away. Instead, as long as it remains unresolved, it will forever be a boon to Iranian and extremist groups’ propaganda and an obstacle to Arab-Israeli normalisation that goes beyond elite relations. Similarly, drivers of instability such as the festering conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, together with the weakness of governance structures across the region struggling to cope with a nightmarish combination of chronic socio-economic crises, outdated and ailing infrastructure systems, and mounting climate change implications, will also continue to wreak havoc if left unaddressed.

Needless to say, Biden cannot be expected to discuss, much less have the solutions to, all these challenges – not on his upcoming trip to the region, nor during the remainder of his administration. But he can and should try to offer an answer to a question that permeates them all: what role is the US still prepared to play in the region – politically, economically and militarily? This may involve some hard truths that may anger or disappoint the US’s long-time Middle Eastern partners (and some at home in Washington as well). But it could help bring an end to the endless debate of whether the US is withdrawing from the region, right-sizing its regional footprint, or still ready to be the dominant arbiter of regional security.

Implications for the UK and Europe

The answer to this question also matters to the UK and Europe. For the past half a century, European leaders have often relied on the US to represent Western interests in the Middle East – or that is certainly how it has been perceived by many in the region. Yet, this cannot be so anymore. London, Berlin, Paris and others hope that Biden will leave Riyadh with some form of Saudi commitment on oil, and ideally a better mutual understanding between Washington and its regional partners about how to deal with Iran. But this does not absolve the Europeans from developing their own serious positions and policies.

The US will remain the most important external power in the Middle East for years to come, but its engagement in the region is likely to continue to become more discretionary. The UK and Europe do not have that luxury. The painful truth of geography means that while decision-makers in Washington eager to focus on the Indo-Pacific can turn their gaze west – at most seeing the Middle East in their peripheral vision – the region will always be Europe’s immediate southern neighbourhood. Even those who want to ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’ – as the UK declares in its Integrated Review – will have to traverse the Middle East to get there.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Tobias Borck

Senior Associate Fellow

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