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Breakthroughs elude Biden on tense Middle East tour

#Breakthroughs #elude #Biden #tense #Middle #East #tour

US President Joe Biden attempted to use his first Middle East trip in office to reassert Washington’s influence, but came out without a single diplomatic breakthrough, a result that analysts said came as no surprise.

On issues such as energy prices, human rights and Israel’s role in the region, after four tumultuous days of meetings and speeches, Biden had little – if any – gains to report.

As Air Force One flew back to Washington Saturday night, Biden’s Saudi hosts downplayed one of the trip’s few concrete announcements: the lifting of airspace restrictions on flights to and from Israel, which Biden himself had previously hailed as a “big act”.

There is no question that the moves announced during Biden’s trip were “modest,” as Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute in Washington put it, although he added that some “are positive signs that perhaps something bigger is to come.”

“They will not transform the region overnight and stakeholders in the region have so much work to do to realize the full potential of these first steps,” Katulis said.

Far harsher criticism has come from human rights activists, who have been appalled by Biden’s latest stop in Saudi Arabia, a country he once vowed to make a “pariah” for abuses such as the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

– No oil boost –

Saudi Arabia has always been the tightest part of the itinerary, but Biden came under intense pressure to take Riyadh to court after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove up energy costs.

Washington has been eager for the kingdom, the world’s largest crude oil exporter, to help stem soaring gasoline prices that are threatening Democrats’ chances in November’s US midterm elections.

Following his bilateral meetings with Saudi leaders on Friday, Biden said he was doing “everything I can” to increase oil supplies, but added that concrete results would not be seen “for a couple of weeks” — and it was unclear , which could be .

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also dampened expectations, telling reporters that any action will be taken “in the context of OPEC+,” the export bloc.

The following day, at a summit of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, oil was “not really an issue,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said at a news conference.

The promise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to increase production capacity to 13 million barrels per day was actually only announced in May and is not expected to materialize until 2027.

-Israel Walkback-

On the issue of strengthening ties between Israel and Arab countries, Riyadh appeared to hand Biden a victory — at least initially.

Despite growing behind-the-scenes business and security contacts, the Kingdom has never recognized Israel and refused to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, which allowed Israel to normalize relations with neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

But early Friday, the Saudi aviation authority announced that it would lift overflight restrictions for “all airlines,” paving the way for Israeli planes to use Saudi airspace.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, claimed it was “the first official step toward normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

However, Prince Faisal dismissed the idea on Saturday, saying the move had “nothing to do” with Israel and was “in no way a precursor to further steps”.

During Biden’s previous stay in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, there was no progress at all in the protracted peace negotiations, leaving Biden to focus instead on economic measures including 4G internet for the Palestinians.

– Right ‘kickback’ –

Biden and Lapid have signed a new security pact that obliges the US to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

But the pact didn’t hide the differences in approach between the two. Lapid specifically said the use of force must be an option as diplomacy and talks are insufficient, while Biden reiterated he still wants to give diplomacy a chance, calling force a “last resort.”

The harshest setback Biden has suffered so far during the trip comes from his meeting with Prince Mohammed, who concluded that US intelligence had “approved” the operation that led to Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment.

Friday’s fist punch between Biden and Prince Mohammed, often referred to by his initials MBS, graced the front page of The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributing columnist and whose CEO called it “shameful.”

“The greeting between President Biden and MBS is painful as a visual representation of our inability to be accountable,” said Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“This is a major setback,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, a US-based government critic whose father, a prominent cleric, has been held since 2017 in what critics call a sweeping crackdown on dissent.

But as with other issues, immediate concessions from the Saudis on human rights issues have always been unlikely, and some experts said that in itself does not make the trip a failure.

“The visit itself is a success, especially for the Saudis and especially for MBS,” said analyst Hussein Ibish.

For Biden, he added, the visit aims to mend personal and political ties between his government and the Saudis.

“That seems to have been achieved,” said Ibisch.

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