As Biden reaches out to dictators in the Middle East, his eyes are on China and Russia

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — During his painful encounters with a series of Arab strongmen here in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, President Biden kept coming back to a single reason to renew his relationship with American allies who fall on the wrong side of the struggle he often describes as a battle between “democracy and autocracy”.

“We’re not going to walk away and leave a vacuum for China or Russia or Iran to fill,” Biden said during a Saturday session with nine Arab leaders in a cavernous hotel ballroom. of this ancient Red Sea port. “And we will seek to build on this moment with active, principled American leadership.”

Mr. Biden’s framing of the US mission within a renewed form of superpower competition was telling. For decades, US presidents have widely viewed the Middle East as a hotbed of conflict and instability, a place where the US needed a presence largely to keep oil flowing and eliminate safe havens. terrorists. Now, more than 20 years after a group of Saudis left this country to stage terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and strike the Pentagon, Mr. Biden is driven by a new concern: that his forced dance with dictators, albeit distasteful, is the only choice if its larger goal is to contain Russia and outsmart China.

“We are getting results,” he insisted on Friday evening as he emerged from a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who clearly sees the opportunity to secure diplomatic rehabilitation after Mr. Biden refused to see him for months, accusing him of complicity in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

Mr. Biden’s effort here to negotiate greater oil production — shocking enough for a president who came to power vowing to help wean the world off fossil fuels — is driven by the need to make society pay. Russia a high price for invading Ukraine. So far, that price has been low: Not only do the Russians continue to earn substantial oil and gas revenues, they even supply Saudi Arabia, Reuters reported recently, with fuel for its power plants – at discounted prices. .

Perhaps Mr. Biden’s most notable flurry of announcements with the Saudis was an agreement signed Friday night to cooperate on new technology to build next-generation 5G and 6G telecommunications networks in the country. The main competitor of the United States in this field is China – and Huawei, China’s preferred competitor, which has made significant inroads in the region.

It’s all part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to start pushing Beijing back into parts of the world where for years the Chinese government has made progress without feeling much competition.

Three weeks ago, at the NATO summit meeting, Mr Biden celebrated a new ‘strategic concept’ for the Western alliance that for the first time recognized China as a systemic ‘challenge’ , describing its policies as coercive and its cyber operations around the world as malicious. The doctrine said that with Russia, Beijing was trying to “subvert the rules-based international order,” words similar to those the Biden administration used on this trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

After the summit, European officials said they would focus on reducing China’s influence in Europe and reducing dependence on its electronics, software and other products.

The effort here in Jeddah is similar – to show that the United States will help fend off Chinese and Russian influence. Mr Biden described a five-part “new framework for the Middle East” that included support for economic development, military security and democratic freedoms. “Let me conclude by summing it all up in one sentence,” he said. “The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region in partnership with all of you, and the United States is going nowhere.”

In a room full of unelected autocrats and absolute monarchs, he made a point of nudging them on human rights a day after meeting Prince Mohammed, who the CIA says ordered the operation of 2018 that killed Mr. Khashoggi. Freedom of dissent, he said, would make them stronger, not weaker.

He made no mention of the fact that weighs on Middle Eastern countries’ trade relations with Beijing: They know that China’s investments come without lectures, let alone sanctions, for human rights abuses. . But Mr. Biden tried to argue that freedom and innovation go hand in hand.

“I’ve gotten a lot of criticism over the years. It’s not fun,” he said. “But the ability to speak openly and freely exchange ideas is what unlocks innovation. “

Mr. Biden also sought to reassure Sunni Arab leaders around the table that his efforts to broker a new nuclear deal with their Shia archenemy in Iran would not put them at risk. “As we continue to work closely with many of you to counter the threats posed to the region by Iran, we are also pursuing diplomacy to return the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” Biden said. . “But whatever happens, the United States is committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.”

The session with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the leaders of three other Arab states, came after Mr Biden met separately with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, where tens of thousands political prisoners are locked up and Mr. Sisi leads a relentless crackdown on dissent. Mr Biden made no comment on the matter when reporters were in the room for the first few minutes, but instead thanked Mr Sisi for the ‘incredible help’ in Gaza, where Egypt has pledged to help rebuilding after last year’s brief war between Hamas and Israel. Aides said he would raise human rights in private.

In the competition with China, the United States still maintains close ties throughout the Middle East, with commercial interests flowing in decades after the discovery of oil.

Still, pushing back China’s influence in the region will be an uphill struggle, as many of the president’s advisers acknowledge. China has made considerable progress in recent years.

As America waged wars in the region, China’s “Belt and Road” development initiative progressed across the Gulf, even building a major port in the United Arab Emirates – until work came to a halt in following US warnings to the UAE that Beijing’s real goal was to create a stealth military base.

In January, Chinese officials held a virtual meeting with Saudi officials over the sale of military equipment to the kingdom, an acknowledgment that Chinese weapons are now significantly more technological than they were just a few years ago. (Decades ago, Saudi Arabia purchased giant intercontinental ballistic missiles from China, raising fears that it might explore building nuclear weapons, but that concern hasn’t materialized. )

Huawei has wired the region, quietly setting up its networks on the theory that whichever country controls the flow of electrons through national networks will hold extraordinary control over the region’s infrastructure.

Under the Trump administration, the United States warned its allies that if they signed with Huawei and other major Chinese suppliers, Washington would cut off their access to intelligence reports and limit their participation in military alliances. But it was just stick and no carrot, because there was no alternative American product to offer them.

What Mr. Biden was holding this weekend was a new technology, called “Open-RAN” for Open Radio Access Networks, which largely runs on software and cloud-based information access – all areas where the United States has advantages. Over months of negotiations, US officials have crafted a ‘memorandum of understanding’ in which Saudi Arabia will essentially turn itself into a testbed for using the system on a large scale – even though Huawei has already deployed its networks across the country.

“That’s the thinking of the project,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies. “Build a prototype quickly here in Saudi Arabia, prove it works at scale, and become a model for the region.” She called it a “pragmatic, reality-based project”.

Asked about the US strategy, Saudi officials went to great lengths to say they weren’t trying to cut China out of anything – and that they could adapt to Western and Chinese telecom systems. . The Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, compared the coexistence of technologies to “a Starbucks and a coffee bean” or “a McDonalds and a Burger King”. But networks are much more complex, because they have to work with each other.

Skeptics question whether the Cold War framing of the need to rekindle alliances in the Middle East is more an excuse for oil deals than genuine interest in deep engagement.

“It’s true that China is making inroads,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But these are the natural result of China’s energy needs and oil producers experiencing a windfall due to the invasion of Russia, and the United States under the last three presidents who have refused to retaliate to Iranian attacks on Gulf States.”

“But it’s also the result of the Biden administration’s policy setting up the challenge of China as democracy versus autocracy,” she added, “which puts Saudi Arabia on the Chinese side. of the ledger”.

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Post expires at 4:53pm on Thursday July 21st, 2022