Biden Middle East visit: Why the Arab world needs a new leadership

US President Joe Biden during a meeting at the White House (AFP)

David Hearst

Middle East Eye  /  June 24, 2022

As the American president promises a new dawn with a new ruler of Saudi Arabia, what Arabs need is a leader who can stand up to Israel and unite a people battered by western hegemony.

If you think about it, now is a good time for a young, ambitious Arab leader to emerge. 

America is not “back” as President Joe Biden proclaimed only 18 months ago. Exhausted and clueless after two decades of serial foreign policy failures, the US has just forked out over $50bn for Ukraine and could be about to go into recession.

Biden faces midterm elections in which he is certain to lose control of at least one house in Congress. Long before that happens, Biden has abandoned his signature Middle East Policy – peace with Iran – and is back marching feebly to the orders of an Israeli drill sergeant.

But he, too, is about to go AWOL. 

Whatever the shape and scope of the regional security deal Biden hopes to announce in Riyadh during his upcoming visit in July, the Saudis – for one – would be signing a deal with an empty chair.

Both current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Benny Gantz will soon be out of power. On the other hand, the likes of Bezalel Smotrich or Itamar Ben Gvir can realistically expect to win enough seats in the Knesset to demand important ministries in the next government, which will surely lurch further to the radical right. 

Which Arab leader would want to sign a piece of paper with a future Israeli government which includes fanatics whose supporters regularly shout “Death to Arabs” and mean it?

Iran deterrence

A security pact such as the mooted Middle East Air Defence Alliance would be the equivalent of painting a large T (for target) in red paint on all their oil and gas infrastructure, inviting waves of famously accurate drones and cruise missiles from Iran.

If Iran has established deterrence against a wholesale attack on its nuclear production, it will be against its immediate neighbours, not Israel. It would be interesting to see whether any neighbour of Iran, let alone Saudi Arabia and UAE, will be tempted.  

If they did, they would have to be supremely confident that their air defence umbrella would not be taken away from them. Iran is the only Gulf state that can defend itself without a superpower’s hardware.

The last time their oil terminals were hit, the Emirates refused to point the finger at Iran for the mine attacks on tankers using their port, although the evidence of Iranian agency was overwhelming. 

And to my knowledge, the US has still not been able to identify from which country the drones that temporarily knocked out half of Aramco’s daily production came. One thing is certain. The drones flew into Saudi airspace from the north, not from the south. They were not launched by the Houthis.

Russia’s role in the Middle East is also on hold. Vladimir Putin has bitten off more than he can chew by invading Ukraine. He has had to withdraw units from Syria and redeploy Wagner mercenaries from Libya. The projection of Russia as a regional power in the Middle East has suffered.

Turkey, too, is turning inward. Everything President Recep Tayyip Erdogan now does is geared to a knife-edge election he will face next year, and if that means detente with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, then so be it. Erdogan needs to prove two things to a people battered by hyperinflation – that Turkey is no longer at war with major Arab powers, and that he can bring in the money.

So you have the Russian leader stuck in a deep bog in eastern Ukraine, and US, Turkish and Israeli leaders in panicky electioneering mode.

An open stage

All this leaves the stage wide open to a Sunni Arab leader with “vision” and money.

This week, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been attempting to play this part, in visits to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. 

His regional visits were a dress rehearsal for the big day when Biden and he “will be in the same room”- to use the latest periphrasis to describe the president’s climb-down over the vow he made to treat the killer of Jamal Khashoggi as “a pariah”.

This is a big moment for the future king. Having staged a lightning rise to prominence in Washington under the administration of former President Donald Trump, bin Salman destroyed his image by ordering the murder of Khashoggi.

To restore it, he needs to show not only that he is a leader, but that he is perceived as such in the region.

What happened? He lifted the ban on Saudi tourists to Turkey and announced a $7.7bn investment deal in Egypt.

It is not clear how any of this money will benefit the Egyptians. One agreement signed was for storage of Saudi oil products, another was to generate energy from wind power at a time when Egypt has an energy surplus. A third was an Egyptian investment in Saudi Arabia.

Once again with this prince, mirage triumphed over substance. 

The same is true of a joint statement bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued over Libya. Both countries, with a grievous history of failed intervention in Libya, “stressed the importance of immediately beginning the implementation of the exit of all foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya”.

On the same day Turkey extended its troop deployment in Libya for another 18 months.

Egypt: A broken country

Lack of leadership in the Arab world matters at a time like this. Look at how low Egypt has fallen.

It was once considered the leader of the Arab world. Cairo was once the first port of call for a US president visiting the region. The US relationship with the Saudi kingdom was launched in Egyptian waters in 1945 when Franklin D Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on an American cruiser, the USS Quincy, in the Suez Canal.

Nixon, Carter and Obama all used their trips to Cairo to make overtures to the Arab world.

Today Egypt is a country whose hand is permanently outstretched with the begging bowl. As the Saudi crown prince was about to fly to Cairo, a far more bitter exchange took place between the two countries.

The alarm was sounded by an Egyptian journalist, Imad al-Din Adeeb, who has close connections to the regime. He wrote that as a result of the Ukraine war, the increase in costs of energy, grain, crops and basic food commodities had added $25bn to the Egyptian budget.

As the world’s biggest importer of wheat, importing 12 million tons a year, the cost of a ton of wheat had risen by 80 percent. He said that if Egypt did not get this extra $25bn by early next year at the latest, Egypt could face civil unrest worse than the Arab Spring in 2011.

In that case, according to this writer, “the nightmare of grand terrestrial displacement across the borders with Libya, Palestine and Sudan will begin. The nightmare scenario of the emigration of millions across the Mediterranean to Europe and across the Red Sea to the Gulf states will begin.”

Adeeb’s brother, a well-known TV anchor, repeated the same message on air, so there can be no doubt that the threat to start sending millions of Egyptians across the Red Sea and the Mediterranean was officially sanctioned.

Egypt’s finance minister, Mohamed Maait, was even more explicit. He revealed that more than 90 percent of foreign investment in domestic debt instruments actually exited Egypt during recent months, after the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis and the start of a stricter monetary policy in the United States.

Maait added that every one percent rise in interest rates on debt cost Egypt 3bn Egyptian pounds ($160m). He warned that if the current crisis continues, it will develop into famines as a result of the inability to provide food and drink, calling on countries to work on resolving the current situation before it is too late.

When Yehia Hamed, Egypt’s former minister of investment under the government of Mohamed Morsi, warned three years ago in a Foreign Policy article that Egypt’s economy was collapsing, the Egyptian establishment responded with fury.

Now they are all saying the same thing.

These threats met with a cool response from the Saudis. A secular writer, Turki al-Hamad, tweeted: “This writer should have asked: Why can’t his country (Egypt) solve its chronic crises on its own instead of becoming dependent on this and that? It is a fact that he insults Egypt when he makes it search for a Gulf, Iranian or Turkish “sponsor”, instead of being the sponsor, as it was in the past, since it does not lack anything of what Turkey, Iran and the Gulf have.”

In another tweet he described Egypt as a “broken” country.

Sisi’s economic mismanagement

Hamad has a point. In the words of Sisi himself, Egypt has consumed over $500bn of Gulf money and it is now a country “facing mass famine” – his words again. Why should Saudis pour money literally into the pockets of the Egyptian army or Sisi’s own vanity projects – like the widening of the Suez Canal or a new capital for Egypt.

And why indeed should Saudi Arabia come to the rescue, when the same man who warned about mass famine has spent $12.4bn on arms purchases from EU countries between 2013 and 2020, according to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT).

Egypt became in this period the second-largest importer of French arms, signing deals for 24 Rafale fighters, a naval frigate and missiles. Last year, Egypt signed up for another 30 jets, all deals financed by loans from the French government and French banks.

Nor has the spike in the price of food prevented Egypt from buying arms. Egypt is about to pay Italy an advance of $500m for 24 Typhoon fighters worth $3bn.

Why indeed is Egypt now a country that cannot feed its own people? Incidentally, the EU has just given Egypt £100m ($106m) in response to the food crisis. That amounts to one euro per Egyptian.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may indeed have tipped Egypt’s finances over the edge, the cause is economic mismanagement and corruption on a grotesque scale lasting for over a decade.

Sisi has run Egypt into the ground.

For all of that time, Sisi felt the money he was getting from the Gulf was his by right. “They have money like rice,” he once told his chief of staff Abbas Kamel in leaked tapes which were later certified to be genuine. 

“It is not like it was before,” said one seasoned Gulf source. “The Emiratis are not happy, the Saudis are not interested. The Egyptians have this unrealistic sense of entitlement to money and support from the Gulf. They regard this money as their right.”

Ten years on, the plight of Egyptians is far more dangerous to the stability of the region than it was in 2011 when economic hardship triggered a regional uprising. 

In search of a leader

Since then, whole countries have been destroyed in civil war: Yemen, Syria, and Libya no longer exist as united nations. 

Jordan is on its knees economically. Biden will turn up in the Middle East in a few weeks’ time and consciously- or not- promise a new dawn with a new ruler of Saudi Arabia who has a track record for recklessness, ruthlessness and vainglorious projects.

In a short time, he has become the worst ruler in the history of the kingdom. As a regional leader, he spells disaster for the Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general.

The Arabs need a leader that can stand up to Israel and unite a people battered by western hegemony. They need to stop looking west and north for solutions. Europe in decline will give them none. 

But for their dealings with the US, they need to create a lobby powerful enough to make key decisions of foreign policy that affect the region a question of domestic survival for many members of the US Congress, just as Israel has done.

The Arab nations have the money, the people, and talent to do that. What is lacking is will and self-belief. Deep down the current Arab elite despises and fears their people. It has imported and subsumed the deep current of colonial racism that the West has shown to the Middle East over the last century.

A leader worthy of the name would be proud of his people, not frightened of them. And if the only way such a leader emerges is through revolt then so be it. It’s the only thing despots understand. 

When the region explodes once again in their faces, as it surely will do again, the one thing none of us should be is surprised.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye