AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
In the Negev Desert of southern Israel on Monday, a gathering occurred which would have been a sign of hell freezing over five years ago. The Foreign Ministers of Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco gathered for the first of what promises to be an annual series of security summits. According to an Arab diplomat present at the summit, the greatest miracle was “simply that it took place,” which the Times of Israel described as “unimaginable before the previous U.S. administration brokered normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco known as the Abraham Accords.”
Nonetheless, despite the optimism of the occasion the transition between administrations hung over the gathering like Banquo’s ghost. Secretary of State Blinken’s attendance was seen as key to allowing Arab leaders to attend, but Blinken twice cancelled on Israel, forcing a postponement of the summit. The reception he received provides an indication of why he may not have been so eager to attend.
To an outside observer, it would have seemed Blinken was in the Negev not as a host or facilitator, but as a defendant taking the stand to defend President Joe Biden. Arranged against him were the foreign ministers of America’s erstwhile allies, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt. The charges? More than a year of policies by the Biden administration which seemed designed to antagonize, isolate, or undermine America’s friends and appease its enemies in the region. If the summit was an opportunity for unity among the attendees, that unity came in the form of a desire to air their grievances to Blinken, and demand better in the future.
While every attendee is a nominal ally of the United States, and the conference could not have happened without the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, virtually every country present had a bone to pick with the Biden administration. Blinken found himself on the defensive from the start on Iran, facing a grilling from the Israelis over Biden’s determination to drop sanctions on Iran. Israel, however, stood united with its Arab neighbors. The U.S. is reportedly on the verge of the removing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp from Washington’s list of terrorist organizations at a time when the group is launching attacks on Saudi and UAE forces in Yemen, firing missiles into Iraq, and training guerrillas to threaten Morocco from Algeria.
That was hardly the only source of disputes. The Biden administration has had a tortured relationship with the UAE, whose leader refused Biden’s calls earlier this month when Biden tried to convince the Emirates to increase oil production. This spat emerged after a year in which the Biden administration, far from treating the UAE as an ally against Iran, treated it as the aggressor in Yemen. Channeling the arguments of many on the left and in academia that the Iranian Houthi-backed rebels in Yemen, far from being terrorists, are freedom fighters struggling against Saudi/UAE bombardments of civilians, the Biden administration froze military aid to both countries and began pressuring them to withdraw. The result was not peace in Yemen, but that the Houthis began firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and at Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, during a visit by Israel’s President. This may explain why the UAE was hardly willing to come to Biden’s rescue over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Moroccans had aggrievements of their own. The case of the Houthis was not the only example of Biden’s State Department attempting to turn the preoccupations of left-wing international relations courses in U.S. universities into policy, this time regarding the Western Sahara. As part of the Abraham Accords in which Morocco recognized Israel Donald Trump recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a largely arid region which Portugal had ceded in 1975. Morocco, one of the few Arab states with multiparty elections and a protected Jewish population, had faced insurgencies in the region, first Marxist, more recently Iranian and Algerian backed, which had received sympathy from the American left despite being geopolitical tools of efforts by America’s foes to oust the government in Rabat. Before Biden was sworn into office, Senators pressured him to reverse the decision as did Foreign Policy magazine and Bloomberg. Although the Biden State Department finally unveiled a map of Morocco showing Western Sahara as part of the country in January of 2022, for more than a year the United States had isolated one of its historic allies.
There are some signs that the Biden Administration realizes the errors it has made and is making an attempt to quietly return to Trump’s policies. The formal recognition of Moroccan control of the Western Sahara is one. Biden’s belated efforts to contact the Gulf leaders is another. Blinken’s decision to travel to the Negev, having cancelled twice before, is perhaps the best evidence that with Russia and Ukraine at war, and global energy and food markets disrupted, even the Biden team realizes they don’t have the luxury of antagonizing everyone.
It remains to be seen whether this shift will move from words into deeds where it matters most, though: Iran. The renewed Iran deal was negotiated by a Russian diplomat, and Russia is demanding that the deal must include methods for Russia itself to evade sanctions. The behavior of Iran in the region, including firing missiles at the U.S. consulate in Iraq last week, shows that neither Moscow nor Tehran are acting in good faith. Yet the Biden Administration seems myopically dedicated to reviving the deal.
They should beware: the Negev powers have other options. The UAE already chose to acquire Chinese jets after Biden cut off military aid. Next year, it might not be Blinken in the dock. Xi Jinping could be the guest of honor at the 2023 Negev Security Conference.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.