As Biden Reaches Out to Mideast Dictators, His Eyes Are on China and Russia

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – In his harrowing encounter with a bunch of Arab strongmen here in Saudi Arabia this weekend, President Biden keeps coming back with a single reason to renew his relationship with America’s allies who have gone wrong to the left of a struggle he often describes as the battle between “democracy and autocracy”.

“We are not going to walk away and leave the void to be filled by China, Russia or Iran,” Biden said during a session on Saturday with nine Arab leaders in a hotel ballroom. in this ancient port on the Red Sea. “And we will try to build on this moment with dynamic, principled American leadership.”

Biden’s framing of America’s mission as part of a new form of superpower competition has been revealed. For decades, American presidents have largely viewed the Middle East as a flashpoint of conflict and instability, a place where the United States needs a large presence to keep oil flowing and eliminate terrorist havens. Now, more than 20 years after a group of Saudis left the country to carry out terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and attack the Pentagon, Mr. Biden is getting a boost. by a new concern: It is his forced dance with dictators that, while disgusting, is the only option if his larger goal is to contain Russia and far beyond China.

“We are getting results,” he insisted Friday night as he appeared after a meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, who clearly saw an opportunity for diplomatic rehabilitation after he Biden refused to meet him for months, accusing him of complicity in The murder of Jamal KhashoggiSaudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.

Mr. Biden’s effort here to negotiate greater oil output – jarring enough for an inaugural president vowing to help the world phase out fossil fuels – is driven by a need that costs Russia dearly. during the invasion of Ukraine. So far, that price is still very low: Not only do the Russians continue to generate significant revenue from oil and gas, they are even fueling the country’s power plants at a discounted price. discount.

Perhaps the most remarkable of Mr. Biden’s repeated statements to Saudi Arabia was an agreement signed Friday night to work together on a new technology to build the world’s 5G and 6G telecommunications networks. next generation in the country. The main US competitor in that area is China – and Huawei, China’s favorite state rival, has made significant inroads in the region.

It’s all part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to start pushing back against Beijing in parts of the world where the Chinese government has made a lot of progress over the years without feeling much competition. .

Three weeks ago, at the NATO summit, Mr. Biden celebrated a new “strategic concept” for the Western alliance, recognizing China for the first time as a systemic “challenge”, describing its policies as coercive and oppressive. Their network activity around the world is malicious. The doctrine that along with Russia, Beijing is trying to “disrupt the rules-based international order”, words similar to those used by the Biden administration during its trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia- this youngest.

After that summit, European officials said they would focus on pushing back China’s influence in Europe and reducing reliance on the country’s electronics, software and other products. this.

The effort here in Jeddah is similar—to show that the United States will help push back against Chinese and Russian influence. Mr. Biden outlined a “new framework for the Middle East” consisting of five parts including support for economic development, military security and democratic freedoms. “Let me conclude by summarizing all of this in one sentence,” he said. “The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region with the cooperation of all of you, and the United States is not going anywhere.”

In a room full of autocrats and absolute unelected monarchs, he made a point of promoting them on human rights a day after meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed, the CIA man who ordered the war. The 2018 epidemic killed Mr. Khashoggi. Freedom of dissent will make them stronger, not weaker, he said.

He did not mention the obscure reality of Middle Eastern countries’ trade deals with Beijing: They know that Chinese investments come without lectures, much less punitive, because human rights violations. But Mr. Biden has tried to make the case that freedom and innovation go hand in hand.

“I have received a lot of criticism over the years. It’s not fun,” he said. “But the ability to talk openly and exchange ideas freely is what opens the door to innovation.”

Mr. Biden also tried to reassure Sunni Arab leaders around the table that his efforts to negotiate a new nuclear deal with their arch-enemies in Iran would not put them in danger. . “As we continue to work closely with many of you to counter the threats posed by Iran to the region, we are also pursuing the diplomacy of returning restrictions to the region. Iran’s nuclear program,” Biden said. “But no matter what, the United States is committed to ensuring that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.”

The session with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, along with the leaders of three other Arab countries, comes after Biden met privately with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, where tens of thousands of political prisoners are locked up and Mr. Sisi waged a relentless crackdown on dissidents. Mr Biden made no comment on that when reporters were in the room for the first few minutes, but instead thanked Mr Sisi for his “incredible support” in Gaza, where Egypt had promised. will help rebuild after last year’s brief war between Hamas and Israel. Aides said he would promote human rights privately.

In competition with China, the United States still has close ties across the Middle East, with business interests flowing for decades after the discovery of oil.

But pushing back China’s influence in the region will be an uphill struggle, as many of the president’s advisers admit. China has made far-reaching progress in recent years.

While the US is engaged in war in the region, China’s “Belt and Road” development initiative is progressing across the Gulf, even building a major port in the United Arab Emirates. – until work stops following US warnings to the UAE that Beijing’s real aim is to create a stealth military base.

In January, Chinese officials held a virtual meeting with Saudi officials about the sale of military equipment to the kingdom, a recognition that Chinese weapons now have the technology significantly higher than it was a few years ago. (Decades ago, Saudi Arabia bought some huge intercontinental ballistic missiles from China, sparking concern that it might be exploring building nuclear weapons, but that concern has since not come true.)

Huawei has been developing the region, quietly installing its networks on the theory that the country that controls the flow of electrons on national networks will gain special control over the region’s infrastructure.

During the Trump administration, the United States has warned allies that if they contract with Huawei and other major Chinese suppliers, Washington will cut off their access to intelligence reports and limit their their participation in military alliances. But all are sticks and no carrots, as there is no American substitute to offer them.

What Mr. Biden introduced this weekend is a new technology, called “Open-RAN” for the Open Radio Access Network, which runs largely on software and access to information in the cloud – all areas in which the United States holds an advantage. Through months of negotiations, US officials drew up a “Memorandum of Understanding” in which Saudi Arabia would essentially make itself a testbed for using the system on a large scale – albeit although Huawei has deployed its network across the country.

“That’s the mindset of the project,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies. “Let’s quickly build a prototype in Saudi Arabia, prove it works on a large scale, and become a role model for the region.” She calls it a “pragmatic, fact-based project.”

When asked about US strategy, Saudi officials have said at length that they are not trying to eliminate China – and that they can accommodate both Western and Chinese telecommunications systems. Country. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States, Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, compared having technologies co-exist to having “one Starbucks and one Coffee Bean” or “one McDonalds and one Burger King.” “. But networks are much more complex, because they need to work with each other.

Skeptics wonder whether the Cold War posed the need to revive alliances in the Middle East as more of an excuse for oil deals than a genuine interest in far-reaching engagement.

“It is true that China is making inroads,” said Kori Schake, director of defense and foreign affairs studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But it’s a natural result of China’s energy needs and oil producers struggling because of Russian aggression, and the United States under the last three presidents refusing to retaliate against the attacks.” Iran’s attack on the Gulf states.”

“But it’s also a result of the Biden administration’s policy that the challenge to China is democratic and autocratic, which puts Saudi Arabia on China’s side in the ledger,” she added.

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