Despite the muddling media hubbub surrounding US President Joe Biden’s visit to the city of Jeddah, the outcomes announced officially make Biden’s visit to the Kingdom one of the most important in terms of strategic value.
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Whatever the occasion, popular media is always on the lookout for scoops and sensational stories. A few years ago, the photograph of former President Donald Trump, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi placing their hands over an orb to mark the inauguration of a certain center became the news, instead of the actual opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. Similarly, President Obama’s bowing to receive an honorary collar made headlines, as did the handshake between late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and former President George W. Bush, not to mention the incidents of Biden stumbling on the flight stairs or falling off his bike. And now comes the turn of Biden’s fist bump with the Saudi Crown Prince when the latter greeted him at the door of the Royal Palace, which some in Washington rushed to decry, writing: ‘Why did he not greet him on the tarmac?!’
But when following and assessing such meetings, press scoops are not what counts. What matters here is the agreements reached between the two countries and the political summit that brought together the leaders of the GCC states, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as Biden.
With the exception of those strategic arrangements that may have been agreed upon but not announced, the official statements issued after the meetings constitute, in and of themselves, a significant development in bilateral ties and cooperation. In my opinion, the key aspect is the US return to military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. In fact, it is safe to say that the United States rekindled yesterday its strategic relationship with Riyadh, which had receded significantly for nearly a decade of stalemate, since the presidency of former President Barack Obama, who then chose to reduce cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Arab countries and negotiate with Iran. Then, during President Trump’s term, Congress halted some aspects of military deals and cooperation with Riyadh.
During their meeting on Friday, Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Biden agreed that the US and other peacekeepers and observers would leave the Saudi island of Tiran, located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, by the end of the year. This came at Riyadh's request to transform Tiran from a military base to an economic base now that Egypt ceded sovereignty over the island. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, would exercise its sovereign authority in that strategic region, overseeing international shipping routes that allow the passage of ships, including Israeli ones, as well as Israeli aircraft crossing into Saudi airspace, similarly to other waterways and regional airspaces, as announced two years ago.
More important are the agreements reached by the two governments on military and security dossiers, with Washington announcing the return of military cooperation and military sales, including advanced military defense and technical systems. Washington also pledged to cooperate with the Kingdom in building a system to counter peace-threatening drones and ballistic missiles, i.e., those launched by Iran and its militias in the region, which it did not explicitly name.
According to the outcomes announced officially, the meeting also agreed to establish a combined task force in the Red Sea and another Saudi-led joint group in the Gulf of Oman and North Arabian Sea. It was also agreed that Saudi forces would work with the US Fifth Fleet to leverage modern technology such as unmanned ships and artificial intelligence to protect the maritime field.
We also see the US returning to security cooperation with Riyadh after a period of estrangement. The understanding included two agreements relating to cybersecurity, between the Saudi National Cybersecurity Authority on the one hand and the FBI and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency on the other.
In terms of telecommunications technology, keeping in mind that Saudi Arabia had begun using Chinese 5G technology, we noted in yesterday's announcement of the meeting outcomes that the US signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate in linking Saudi and US technology companies to deploy 5G and 6G technologies, as well as other high-value agreements in the areas of trade cooperation, investment, health, and law.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.