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Two days after the United States Congress passed a bill increasing the American military budget by $840 billion, Biden set off on a diplomatic trip to the Middle East earlier this month. Perhaps by no coincidence, he visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, two states whose armed forces have murdered American journalists, Shireen Abu Akleh and Jamal Khashoggi respectively, despite being close American allies.
This trip comes as China’s economic influence expands in the Middle East and Putin visits Iran in a rare but foreboding trip abroad. At the same time, the Biden administration, and national governments around the world, are grappling with the domestic and global inflation sparked by the invasion of Ukraine. Specifically, sanctions on Russian oil and gas following the invasion of Ukraine have left many countries scrambling to find other sources. The U.S. and the European Union (E.U.) have turned to Israeli gas l as an alternative to meet the global market’s demand for increased energy supply. This comes after American oil and gas companies refused to increase domestic production to make major profits during this period of inflation to offset minor dips in revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Resecuring renewed oil flow from Saudi Arabia into global markets suffering from inflation was also amongst the president’s explicit goals of his visit to the Middle East as per his op-ed for the Washington Post “Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia.”
Not only do these geopolitical maneuvers reflect shifting diplomatic and economic dynamics in the Middle East, but they threaten escalating militarism in an already volatile region.
Escalating Militarism against Iran
Landing in Israel on July 13, the president spoke at Ben Gurion Airport, proclaiming that “with this visit, we’re strengthening our connections even further.” Accompanied by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden’s stop to Israel saw him visit Jerusalem, whose eastern pre-dominantly Palestinian half has been illegally occupied by the Israeli Defence Force since 1967. An additional 16,000 police officers in an already heavily policed city were deployed to facilitate the president’s visit.
Biden’s visit to Israel saw him and Lapid sign the “Jerusalem Declaration”, which affirmed the U.S.’s pledge to “the unbreakable bonds between our two countries and the enduring commitment of the United States to Israel’s security” and to “never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome.” The latter statement is an escalation of the anti-Iran sentiment that former president Donald Trump worked to build up.
Following his stay in Jerusalem, Biden made a short 45-minute pitstop in Bethelem in the Occupied West Bank to briefly meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, where no notable commitments or pledges between the two were reported. The president had nothing to say of Israel’s murder of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh only a few months prior in May.
While the U.S. has long given Israel impunity for its illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories since 1967, having vetoed at least 53 UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel in the past five decades, this recent decision to absolve Israel of Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder comes at a key time for the US and EU to foster economic relations with not only Israel but its allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia.
Absolving Saudi Arabia in the Pursuit of Oil
On the second leg of his tour, Biden similarly appeased another Middle Eastern ally with an American journalist’s blood on its hands in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The two met prior to the regional summit the kingdom hosted, the Jeddah Security and Development Summit.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Biden Administration simmered over the past year after the president vowed to make the kingdom a “pariah” following bin Salman’s order to murder Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE denied Biden’s request for increased oil supply to meet the inflation faced after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In his opening remarks at the summit, the day after his meeting with the president, bin Salman stated that he hoped the event would “establish a new era of joint cooperation to deepen the strategic partnership between our countries and the United States of America.” The crown prince lamented international pressure to develop “unrealistic policies to reduce emissions,” claiming that pursuing sustainable energy sources would lead to “unprecedented inflation” and that the region’s “geopolitical situation” would be unable to afford such a shift. This outcry was likely a jab at Iran, which has secured several energy deals with Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in recent years.
Surrounded by the U.S.’s authoritarian allies in the region, Biden declared at the summit “we will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.” The summit saw the U.S. and Saudi governments sign 18 partnership agreements in energy, communications, space, and healthcare sectors, including most notably deals with infamous defense firms Boeing and Raytheon, fresh from making record profits from the recently ended war in Afghanistan.
Biden achieved his goals of opening the floodgates of Gulf oil into the global free market and securing American interests in the region against an encroaching China and Iran. Following the summit, the White House released a statement that announced the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC+) commitment to “increas[ing] supply over the course of July and August”. Additionally, Saudi Arabia announced that it would link the electricity networks of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Iraq, which relies heavily on electricity from Iran, and would open commercial flights to Israel, an unprecedented move bringing the monarchical state closer to a UAE-style peace deal with the U.S.’s staunchest ally in the region.
However, behind these diplomatic talks concerning economic partnerships and cooperation is bubbling militarism that threatens to spill over as these forming alliances further strain relations with Iran and, by extension, China and Russia.
The Dangerous Potential of a Middle Eastern NATO
While Biden’s visit to Israel and attendance at the Saudi-led summit received much media attention, an undisclosed US-led military summit last month in Egypt between these same regional powers in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan flew under the radar. The meeting concerned the potential joint military mobilization against Iran and was overseen by Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command.
This near-explicit military cooperation between Arab states and Israel is unprecedented and signifies the growing polarization of the Middle East against Iranian and Chinese influence making headways in the region under American guidance.
Iran particularly has worked to upset American interests in the Middle East, providing Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon with security and energy alternatives to the U.S.-backed Gulf. In recent years, this economic contention has threatened to spill over into armed conflict.
In 2019, drones struck two oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia. The attacks were claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen whom the Saudi government is waging war against. However, the United Nations found no conclusive evidence that the Houthis manned the drones, with Saudi Arabia accusing Iran of direct intervention.
Most recently, in June 2022, the Iran-allied Lebanese political party Hezbollah, considered one of the most militarily powerful non-state actors in the world, challenged Israel’s extraction of gas from the disputed maritime boundary of Karish. Previously, in March 2020, Hezbollah had sent three Iranian-manufactured drones to an Israeli offshore rig on a reconnaissance mission intercepted by the IDF.
This escalating tension in recent years between Iran and the American-led bloc in the Middle East has brought Israel and its Arab neighbors closer economically, with the precedent of the Abraham Accords emblematic of it. This growing polarization is fueled by American tension regarding the trade war with China, which purchases oil from Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions and has conducted joint military drills alongside Russia. Hezbollah and other pro-Iran factions have also welcomed Chinese influence in the region.
While the warming of economic ties between Arab states and Israel has slowly established itself as the necessary regional economics over the years, culminating in the explicit economic partnerships of the post-Accords UAE, a brazen military alliance appears to similarly slowly normalizing itself in the discourse surrounding the geopolitics of the region despite Israel’s continued — and expanding — illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
On June 24, King Abdullah II of Jordan, who attended the Jeddah summit, remarked in an interview with CNBC that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” Neighboring Israel, Jordan particularly plays an underrated role in the delicate (im)balance of American interests in the region, with the State Department describing the kingdom as a “vital US partner on a wide range of regional security issues.” The Jordanian monarch’s angling for a formal militaristic alliance signals a potential regional move toward a “Middle Eastern NATO”, especially in the face of the economic challenges the U.S.
The Region Pays the Price
It appears then that the global commitment to oil goes beyond a disregard for the environment, but for human rights and freedom of expression as well. The disregard for Shireen Abu Akleh and Mohammad Khashoggi is a result of these geopolitical and economic plays that ultimately stand only to benefit the profits of oil and gas companies, with the switch to renewable energy sources not reliant on oppressive regimes such as Russia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia not even considered.
American foreign policy in the Middle East doesn’t just trample over environmental and human rights concerns – it pulls strings and pits regional powers against each other, hoping to create a greater conflict to secure financial interests.
Biden’s foreign policy approach in the Middle East reflects how geopolitics plays a heavy role in environmental policy-making domestically and internationally in the Global North. Therefore, it is crucial that the citizens of these democratic countries that push for environmental reform also include criticism of the exploitative nature of American – and other nations’ – foreign policy in the perpetuation of climate change in their demands to tackle the issue effectively.