In the dragon’s shadow: US peace-dealing and wheeling in the Middle East

US attempts to curb Chinese power by cooking up yet another Arab normalisation deal with Israel could backfire spectacularly.  

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Joe Biden with a fist bump after his arrival at Al-Salam palace in Jeddah on July 15, 2022 [File: Handout via AP/Bandar Aljaloud]

Over the past few months, the administration of US President Joe Biden has gone into overdrive, trying to secure a tripartite agreement between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The proposed deal would involve Saudi Arabia recognising the state of Israel in exchange for massive security guarantees from the US government and some assurances on the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Although Washington has framed it as a quest for Middle East peace, stability and prosperity, a pact of this kind is more likely to lead to greater polarisation in the region, proxy conflicts and more suffering for its people.

Keen American observers have already criticised the Biden administration for this pursuit, questioning the wisdom and worthiness of a deal “with two of the world’s least trustworthy leaders” that would “make the world safer for Israeli apartheid”. If indeed normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would not make a difference for the US, then why is the Biden administration getting involved in what appears to be a costly, shady and risky deal that is sure to draw it back into the Middle East quagmire?

The short answer: China, geopolitics and, well, the 2024 elections.

Strategically, the Biden administration is anxious about China’s growing geopolitical influence in West Asia and especially the oil-rich Gulf region, and is angry with both Saudi Arabia and Israel for facilitating this expansion. Riyadh’s elaborate reception of Chinese President Xi Jinping late last year and the Israeli government’s whispers about rapprochement with China have been particularly irritating to Washington.

Biden has reconsidered his earlier inclination for tactical tit for tat with the two Middle East clients in favour of a more strategic approach to entice both Saudi Arabia and Israel to fall in line with US geopolitical interests and distance themselves from China and Russia, notably in the realm of hi-tech, defence and energy. 

Washington has been trying to convince Saudi Arabia to limit its economic and strategic cooperation with Beijing, block potential Saudi oil sales in Chinese renminbi that could undermine the US dollar, and end Saudi coordination with Russia to keep oil prices high.

This is in line with its undeclared policy of de facto forcing its partners around the world to choose between America and China (and its ally, Russia).

Saudi Arabia, in return, has demanded NATO-like security guarantees, highly sophisticated arms purchases, and the establishment of an elaborate civilian nuclear programme.

But such a deal with Riyadh would be hard to pass through a hostile US Congress, as its reputation and credibility in Washington have suffered greatly in recent years, following its war in Yemen and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

Enter Israel and its powerful lobby. The Biden administration’s packaging of the deal with Saudi Arabia as a normalisation of relations agreement with Israel ensures its passage through Congress, which is known for its servitude to Israel on both the Democrat and Republican sides of the aisle. Bipartisan political support for such a foreign policy initiative would be considered a major political achievement for the Biden presidency.

But the deal must first pass in the Knesset, which is highly unlikely in light of Saudi demands for “concessions” on Palestine. According to The Wall Street Journal, Riyadh is in no hurry to fully normalise relations and demands that Israel make “a significant offer that advances efforts to create an independent Palestinian state”. Although the demand is ambiguous and rather symbolic, it would be still difficult to get through the Israeli parliament dominated by extremist parties.

If the Biden administration, like its predecessors, can muster the diplomatic – read ambiguous – language that satisfies both sides, while also offering Israel far-reaching rewards, a deal may eventually be reached, which, of course, would be at the expense of the Palestinian people.

For Biden, this would be an important achievement as it would bolster his standing ahead of the 2024 US presidential elections, which according to the polls, may see him running neck and neck in a rematch with former President Donald Trump.

How much his re-election campaign benefits from a deal with Saudi Arabia and Israel largely depends on his ability to sell it to Congress and the American electorate as indispensable to US national security interests vis-a-vis the strategic nemeses China, Russia and Iran. Biden must convince them the deal would curtail China’s influence in West Asia and limit its access to vital energy sources, would further isolate Russia and Iran, and would restore US influence while advancing a new type of Pax Americana in the Middle East.

It is a tall order, indeed, but one whose presumed merits will allow Biden and his Saudi and Israeli counterparts to bask in the limelight and boast of their historic achievements, at least until the election. Or until reality exposes the inherent risks of the unpeaceful “peace deal” and it all blows up in America’s face once again.

It is delusional to presume that assertive and powerful China would sit on its hands as the US curtails its influence and controls its energy supplies. Or, that Chinese allies, Russia and Iran, would simply allow it to impoverish and isolate them in their immediate spheres of influence.

The idea of the Middle East as a laboratory for a post-American world is gaining momentum in Beijing, which sees the regional crises as an opportunity to further expand its relationships at the expense of Washington.

Make no mistake, all three powers see themselves as victims of Western imperialism and will consider any American scheming, regardless of its benevolent framing as a “peace deal”, to be a hostile overreach – an aggression against their vital interests. They will pull closer together and respond accordingly, which would certainly polarise the region and lead to further conflict and chaos.

Thankfully there is still time to change course – late is better than never.

Supporting the Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran does not hurt US national security, but undermining it could lead to regional conflict that necessitates US military involvement, which would break Biden’s promise to end the forever wars.

It is indeed foolish to assume that after America’s long, costly and disastrous involvement in the Middle East, more American intervention will serve the interests of either side. Indeed, if history is any guide, the two sides are, strategically speaking, better off apart than together. It is high time for decoupling and de-risking.

Likewise, allowing China full access to its energy sources and export markets does not pose a major threat to the US. It is rather intrinsic to its much-celebrated fair competition and free trade principles. However, hampering China’s access to Middle East oil and markets is not only unfair but dangerous; it would certainly lead to blowback, threatening US security and international stability. China is ready for a world of disorder, as one Western scholar has pointed out, and America is not.

In the words of the inimitable Shakespeare, come not between the dragon and his wrath.