US should focus on economic diplomacy in the Middle East

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

While geopolitical, military and security issues are critical pillars of foreign policy, the Biden administration could also enhance its Middle Eastern policy by putting more emphasis on economic development and relationships with its allies.
There has been a considerable amount of criticism of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy by the US Congress. These criticisms are mostly anchored in security, military and geopolitical matters. For example, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in March delivered remarks on the Senate floor regarding US foreign policy, claiming that President Joe Biden’s “clumsy attempts to cut and run from the Middle East have reduced our presence,” adding that “letting key friendships languish erodes our partnerships.” McConnell said that this has undermined confidence in the US and is a “recipe for less American influence, less national security, and a vacuum that Russia and China would be delighted to fill.”
The historic China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was announced in March was also seen by some experts, scholars and policy analysts as a sign of declining US influence in the Middle East. The agreement was a key development not only in terms of restoring ties between the Iranian government and Saudi Arabia, but also in reducing tensions and enhancing peace and security in the region. Improved ties between Tehran and Riyadh could have a significant impact on the region’s geopolitical and economic landscapes.
There has also been criticism of the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some people viewed the August 2021 withdrawal as being poorly planned, as the Taliban swiftly took over the country and military equipment worth billions of dollars, paid for by US taxpayers, was left behind. Additionally, when it comes to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration has failed to score a political victory, as several rounds of negotiations ended without any concrete progress toward a permanent resolution. But the Biden administration still has the time and opportunity to score political victories with respect to its Middle East policy if it concentrates more on economic developments.
The US has a long history of employing economic diplomacy in different parts of the world, including in Europe and Latin America, with great success. The State Department states that it places economics and market forces “at the center of US foreign policy. Economic diplomacy means both harnessing global economic forces to advance America’s foreign policy and employing the tools of foreign policy to shore up our economic strength.” Such a pragmatic approach and a shift toward economic growth between the US and Middle Eastern nations would likely serve the US national interest, as well as enhance peace, security and stability in the region.
There are several areas that the US can focus on. Trade and long-term investments in some Middle Eastern nations’ infrastructure and technology are vital. Positive partnerships can also be found in other areas, including climate change, renewables and the solar industry. Biden has frequently made much of his environmental intentions. If we recall, in his initial flurry of executive orders on taking office, a return to the Paris Agreement on climate change was one of his most prominent decisions. The president clearly sees placing climate change high on the agenda as a vote winner, especially among younger, more liberal-minded voters. Meanwhile, some countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, are leading the way on this issue. Climate change is an obvious choice for shared economic development between the US and Gulf nations. One of the reasons for China’s increasing role in the Middle East is its emphasis on economic development rather than military landscapes. As Andrew Bacevich – a retired army officer, professor of international relations and history at Boston University and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington – has pointed out: “What is it, do we think, that China is intent on doing in the Middle East? Do we think that they will create a large network of military bases? I’m guessing no. I think they have two bases in the whole world outside of China. Are they active in terms of investment and economic development? You bet they are. Is that an arena in which we should compete? I would say yes. We want to define competition in military terms. I think that the Chinese define competition in terms of trade and investment.”
China has strong trade and economic relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries beyond its oil imports. Beijing has also committed itself to a significant investment in Iran. In 2021, China and the Iranian government signed a 25-year strategic partnership deal, which is now in the early stages of implementation. In this era of globalization, economic developments appear to have become more important than military strength when it comes to promoting peace and playing a key role on the world stage.
In a nutshell, the Biden administration ought to focus more on economic developments in the Middle East, including investments in infrastructure, technological fields and renewable energy. This will not only serve the US’ national interests, but also promote security, stability and peace in the region. And as the US ratchets up its economic developments in the Middle East, this will likely increase its diplomatic engagements and its role in the region as a result.