Sunday, December 3, 2023

Middle East: Biden scores small diplomatic successes

Joe Biden is the first American president in history to fly directly to Saudi Arabia from Israeli territory on Friday. The Jeddah summit organized this weekend was to give rise to a series of announcements which will leave an overall impression of success for this first trip to the Middle East of the Democratic president. Struggling on his home flank, he is looking to refresh his international stature.

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It is certainly not a formal resumption of diplomatic relations between Riayd and Tel Aviv, because Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and de facto leader of the Wahhabi kingdom, is not ready to shake up public opinion of 35 million inhabitants, mostly hostile to the Jewish state. But pragmatic and sectoral agreements will accelerate regional economic integration, initiated by the Abraham agreements which normalized relations with a group of Sunni countries led by the United Arab Emirates, in the summer of 2020.

Opening of Saudi airspace

Thus, the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli civilian aircraft is a historic step forward. It is conceded in one of those diplomatic contortions to which the Arab States are now accustomed, when out of realism, they have to come to terms with the historical enemy. The text of the announcement does not explicitly mention Israel, but the end of the discrimination of devices according to their origin.

Retrocession of two islands

The statement on the opening of airspace was issued hours after the Israeli delegation confirmed the conclusion of an agreement to return two Egyptian-administered islands to Saudi Arabia. This territorial dispute had been a diplomatic sea snake since 1979. The peace treaty that ended the Israeli-Egyptian war provided for Tiran and Sanafir to be demilitarized, to house a multinational observation force to guarantee freedom of navigation in the strait. of Tiran.

Two small desert territories, of high strategic importance for all the countries bordering the Red Sea, since they control the northern access, located in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Riyadh, which claims sovereignty, has always opposed the presence of international observers, who should soon be transferred somewhere else in the Sinai. With the Israeli seal, and the American guarantee, the agreement can finally be implemented.

· Meeting with the Palestinian President

As for Joe Biden, he advanced, albeit discreetly, on the Palestinian question, which critics of the Abraham Accords believe is the blind spot of this new regional architecture. After a visit to the West Bank, in the indifference of the Palestinian street, he met President Mahmoud Abbas this Friday morning.

The list of demands is long: removal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from the list of terrorist organizations, restoration of its diplomatic mission in Washington, restoration of financial aid, reopening of a consulate in East Jerusalem… For now, demands unlikely to be met as the tension rose around the Easter holidays, until the attack in the heart of Tel Aviv in early April, and the usual reprisals.

4G project in the Palestinian territories

If the Americans are ready to put pressure on Israel with media outlets that do not cost much, it is on an economic level that they mark their return to the file. With a 4G project in the West Bank and especially in Gaza, as well as humanitarian aid packages.

Whether these efforts can really bear fruit remains to be seen. Mired in the energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine, the Western camp expected the occupant of the White House to convince Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production quotas. The Emirates and Qatar very early positioned themselves as allies and supporters on the energy issue. But for lack of having invested in their infrastructures, the Saudis, the first exporters of black gold in the world (for an income which would exceed 300 billion dollars in 2022, according to the French Treasury), could soon be at the maximum of their extraction capabilities. If they’re not already there.

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