Middle east "reset"?

It’s no surprise. There’s a lot on the line — from political instability to human rights issues, energy supply and regional security. The president plans to start in Israel before traveling to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian leaders. Biden will end the trip in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he’ll participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.

To break down the importance of Biden’s trip, Nightly called the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2017, Joseph Westphal, now a professor at the Lauder Institute at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. This conversation has been edited.

What’s the significance of this trip?

There is the strategic importance of not just Saudi Arabia, but the Gulf states, given the shipping, the energy issues, and the ongoing situation with Iran. So from a strategic security point of view, it’s very important to us. And while we’re not fighting a war anymore, like we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s still quite a bit of trouble in the region, in Syria, Lebanon and other places.

We need partners to support our climate change initiatives. We need partners to support us with respect to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We need to take advantage of trade opportunities, which have declined and have been overcome by Chinese trade in the region. We need to come back to being the major trading partner. These are all things the president can open up and bring to light.

Before we get to Saudi Arabia, which has received the most coverage of the upcoming trip, how important is Biden’s visit to Israel and the West Bank at this moment? 

It’s hugely important. I’m so glad that he chose to go at this time because Israel is going through turmoil, changing government leadership. They have basically an acting prime minister. So this is a time when whatever is discussed with the Israelis in terms of the Palestinian situation, in terms of Middle East in general, will help perhaps encourage people in Israel to transition to a more stable government situation, which is important for us.

The difficulty, of course, will be a discussion about the Palestinian situation. I believe that a Palestinian state is almost an impossibility right now, but that is something that the president believes in. The Saudis certainly believe in it. So there will probably be some discussions about whether that’s even possible in the near future.

Then he’s going on to Saudi Arabia. The hopes are, of course, at some point we’ll see an exchange of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which I think are coming.

There has been a lot of emphasis on human rights concerns, and whether Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia could be seen as letting the country off the hook for its abuses. But you think this trip is worth the blowback he will face on this front? 

Absolutely. Presidents, including Biden, have met with Putin. Putin is committing murder and atrocities in Ukraine. We still have to deal with Putin, so did Trump, and so did Obama. Erdogan has been responsible for quite a bit of human rights violations in Turkey. Xi in China, and so on. We can continue to press human rights issues and continue to advocate as much as possible and use our influence, but we cannot shut the door on important partnerships and strategic initiatives that we need to advance.

When you’re in one of those meetings, how do you balance moving forward to redefine a relationship while also addressing such thorny issues? 

Biden is a really experienced negotiator. My sense is that, like President Obama and other presidents, he will put on the table some of the difficult issues that you need to put there, whether it’s human rights, whether it’s Yemen. But more importantly, what I think he will do is say, “We need to move forward now. What was said in the past, how we got to this place, is not good for either of our countries, and we need to reset our relationship.” That doesn’t mean we are not going to be concerned about human rights, or concerned about other issues associated with the values that we espouse.

Now, Biden still doesn’t have an ambassador there. And it took Trump two years to name an ambassador after I left. That’s not good. That’s not how you relate to a country, because your ambassador is your most important vehicle for advancing your policies.

With what you know about Biden, do you think he will directly address the Khashoggi murder? 

I think everything that he feels needs to be said, has been said. They have heard it, and they have reacted to it. After Biden was elected, the kingdom reacted to that in an unhappy fashion because of the comments Biden has made. So that’s already been said, you don’t need to go back over that. What you need to do is just say, how do we move forward? How do we advance a policy in the future that restores our trust in you, your trust in us and our ability to work together on important issues? He wouldn’t be taking this trip unless he thinks that’s important.

A lot of people think he’s going to get them to raise oil production to lower prices. I don’t think so. It’s not that simple. I think we need to have a restructured partnership. We also need a security agreement among the Gulf states. It’s important to create some kind of a unified way of addressing the strategic challenges that the region faces by a united group of Gulf countries, on everything from missile defense, to cybersecurity, to energy, shipping.

Do you expect the president to address Saudi Arabia’s alliance with Russia on oil? 

I think he will mention it. I would be surprised if he doesn’t try to make the argument that Saudi Arabia is much better off strengthening the partnership with the United States than committing to a relationship with Russia. He can point out that the partnership with us is much longer-standing, much more stable and much more important to the Saudis than anything they can do with Russia.

You could potentially have a situation where if the discussion goes really, really well, Mohammed bin Salman — he doesn’t have a legislature he has to worry about — he could certainly make some announcement at the end of the meeting, that they will work to increase the supply of oil to try to attempt to reduce prices. But that’s not necessarily going to reduce our price at the pump because that’s based on all those things that you hear about in the economy that have nothing to do with the supply of oil, like refining capacity and trucking.

Another tough subject for Biden on this trip is Iran, especially amid stalled nuclear negotiations with Tehran after Trump pulled out of the deal with the country. 

The Saudis definitely supported President Obama’s efforts with Vice President Biden to secure an agreement with Iran. What they did not like was that the agreement, which would eventually phase off some of the sanctions, did not come with negotiations over how the Iranians were going to stop arming the Houthis in Yemen, stop arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and stop attacking in Syria and Iraq. All these other activities that Iran carried out were not part of those negotiations, solely the nuclear piece. They would like to see Biden push hard to have Iran reduce their subversive activities in these other countries before the U.S. relieves sanctions. I’m sure that will be brought up.

Fuente: Politico