JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — President Joe Biden was using a summit of Arab nations on Saturday to lay out his strategy for the Middle East as he closes the final leg of a four-day trip meant to bolster U.S. relationships in a region bracing for confrontation with Iran.
The president 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, which is being held 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 U.S. 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.
Release satellite imagery that shows Russian officials visited Kashan Airfield on June 8 and July 15 to look at the drones could help the administration better tie the war’s relevance to many Arab nations’ own concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, missile program and support for militants in the region.
A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters before the summit, said Moscow’s efforts to acquire drones from Tehran show that Russia is “effectively making a bet on Iran.”
Biden’s attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit followed his Friday meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto ruler and heir to the throne currently held by his father, King Salman.
The president had initially shunned Prince Mohammed over human rights abuses, particularly the killing of U.S.-based writer Jamal Khashoggi, which U.S. intelligence officials believe was likely approved by the crown prince.
But Biden decided he needed to repair the longstanding relationship between the two countries to address rising gas prices and foster stability in the volatile region.
Biden and Prince Mohammed greeted each other with a fist bump when the president arrived at the royal palace in Jeddah, a gesture that was swiftly criticized. Biden later said he did not shy away from discussing Khashoggi’s killing during their meeting.
The topic created a “frosty” start to the discussion, according to a U.S. official familiar with the private conversations.
However, the atmosphere eventually became more relaxed, the official said, as they spoke about energy security, expanding high-speed internet access in the Middle East and other issues. Biden even tried to inject some humor into the conversation by the end of the meeting, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity discuss a private meeting.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news network, citing an unnamed Saudi source, reported that Prince Mohammed responded to Biden’s mention of Khashoggi by saying that attempts to impose a set of values can backfire. He also said the U.S. had committed mistakes at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where detainees were tortured, and pressed Biden on the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during a recent Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Jenin.
Adel Al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s minister of state for foreign affairs, called the visit a “great success” and brushed off questions about friction between the two countries. .
“Maybe the skeptics are people looking for theatrics or drama. The reality, however, is that this relationship is very solid,” he told Arab News, a Saudi news organization.
Biden, when he addresses the Gulf Cooperation Council, will offer his most fulsome vision yet for the region and the U.S. role there, the White House said. The Biden administration is also expected to announce $1 billion in food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa.
The president’s first Middle East trip comes 11 months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as Biden aims to reprioritize the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, it 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.
Biden’s actions have frustrated some of the leaders. While the U.S. 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.
As for U.S. concerns over China’s expanding reach, China appears willing to provide Saudi Arabia with missile and nuclear technologies that the U.S. is more hesitant to do. China is also the biggest buyer of Saudi oil.
For Iraq, which has the deepest and strongest links to Iran of all the Arab countries, its presence at the meeting reflects Saudi efforts — supported by the U.S. — to bring Iraq closer to Arab positions and the so-called Arab fold. Iraq has hosted several rounds of direct talks between Saudi and Iranian officials since Biden took office, though the talks have produced little results.
Before the summit, Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Khadhimi, who survived an assassination attempt with armed drones in November, wrote in Foreign Policy that Iraq faces many problems, but is working “to solve Iraqi problems with Iraqi solutions”.
“When U.S. President Joe Biden comes to the Middle East this week, he will be arriving in a region facing numerous challenges, from terrorism to food insecurity and climate change,” he wrote. “But the Middle East is also a region that is increasingly facing those challenges together under a group of leaders pursuing positive change.”