The Jeddah summit, requested by the US, should have been Joe Biden’s show. After all, he famously declared: “America is back.” Instead, it was a spectacle that showed America as a spent force desperately trying to stay relevant. Biden’s arrival to the region was probably comparable to Biden’s departure from Afghanistan.
No one has managed to expose the US superpower fallacy more than Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And no one described that fallacy better than China’s Mao Zedong who described the US as a “paper tiger” decades ago.
MBS Welcomes Biden With Public Humiliation
Until now, no one has managed to demonstrate that fallacy more evidently than Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the seemingly irreplaceable heir to the Saudi throne. MBS sat rejoicing at his incarnation as a statesman leading a real nation, negotiating with his defeated US nemesis across the table. As if this wasn’t enough, an American reporter shouted at Biden, who sat in stone silence, asking whether the Saudi is still a pariah. There’s no way of knowing whether that loud dagger was plunged and twisted into Biden by MBS himself. Knowing the crown prince, it might as well have been.
Worse still, the leader of the superpower and his delegation were forced to listen, in obvious shock, to the young prince sitting across the table, who loudly refused to increase oil output beyond 13 million barrels per day. This was galling because the key reason that brought Biden to Saudi Arabia was to get MBS to increase oil production. Why MBS had to wait until Biden sat across the table to deal such a humiliating blow is open to speculation. To say the least, the body language among the American delegation was telling. Even before MBS dealt this blow, his father King Salman, disappeared after a quick handshake with Biden, giving a clear message: You deal with my son, or you don’t deal with us at all.
Making Sense of Vladimir Putin’s Long Game
Earlier, MBS received the US leader at the palace. This was in sharp contrast to precedent. Before Biden, MBS has warmly welcomed all visiting leaders at the airport. Whether that was another intended slight or accidental breach of protocol shouldn’t matter anymore. Biden would have been better served staying at home. Trump must be relishing the spectacle and comparing it to his own welcome, complete with Saudi folk dances and a $110 billion arms deal.
Clearly, Biden’s declaration that America is back found no welcoming audience.
Nothing could be more personally humiliating for a sitting US president to eat his words by a political operator more than 50 years his junior. MBS’s humiliation of Biden exposes the superpower fallacy more clearly than ever. No superpower worth its name should be brought to its knees in such fashion by a dependent power. For MBS, increasing revenues thanks to rising oil prices should be enough. It is increasingly that the crown prince wants more. He wants to rub the noses of his critics in the dust. Before Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson came calling on MBS. The disgraced and soon-to-go Tory politician did not achieve much. Tellingly, MBS left for China immediately after Johnson’s Saudi visit. Biden has had it worse than Johnson. The beating has been public.
Hubris Leads to Humiliation
Biden could have avoided this humiliation. The “emperor” could have stayed away from Saudi Arabia and retained the illusion that he had clothes on. The superpower fallacy could have continued for a little long. Instead, the US and its NATO allies were intoxicated by past impunity when they bullied weak states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Vietnam, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
Perhaps the West should have limited its colonial offensive to weak states that couldn’t retaliate. Then, Western nations could have gotten away with their offensive imperial operations. By taking on Russia, the West bit off more than it could chew. Perhaps they should have listened to Russian leaders—Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Putin—and to some of their best political strategists—John Mearsheimer, George Kennan and Jack Matlock—who have been repeatedly warning for 30 years not to cross Russian red lines by expanding NATO eastward to Russia’s borders.
No – Not just Russian Imperialism Has Triggered War in Ukraine
These voices reminded the US how John F Kennedy reacted to Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to station Soviet missiles in neighboring Cuba, nearly driving the world to nuclear war. The crisis only ended when the Soviet Union and the US decided to remove their missiles from Cuba and Turkey respectively. Russia has neither forgotten nor forgiven the US for expanding NATO when it was going through economic turmoil in the 1990s.
This time, the US has taken on a still-powerful Russia and leverage-holding Saudi Arabia. This has meant tragedy for Ukraine and resulted in the mother of all humiliations for the US itself. Biden had to visit MBS hat in hand after vowing to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state. Far from getting an increase in oil production, Biden has left the kingdom with egg in his face.
Uncle Sam Is No Longer Top Dog in the Middle East
It is important to note that Biden did not visit the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Not too long before Biden’s Saudi visit, his Russian and Chinese counterparts were given warm welcomes fit for reigning emperors. The UAE is consistently demonstrating a cunning ability to play not only world powers but also regional ones to its advantage. It has reconciled with Turkey while retaining strong economic relations with Iran. Balancing the two competing regional powers is key to the UAE balancing act. Worryingly for the US, MBS is starting to emulate the UAE.
Saudi King Salman, His Sons and Airbus
Arguably, not everything went badly for Biden during his visit to the region. In Israel, he managed to hold the first virtual summit with leaders of Israel, India and the UAE. This new quartet included the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) who had earlier walked away from the F35 deal with the US. MBZ was not pleased to discover that the UAE was being given a technologically compromised plane that ensured Israel’s air superiority in the region. Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has warned the US not to interfere with India’s sovereign decisions about its relationships with Russia. The fact that MBZ and Modi were at the summit could be construed as a success for Biden.
Before the visit, I expected the opposite. I surmised that the Saudis would welcome America’s re-entry into our region and seek an offensive against Iran. We didn’t hear that language from MBS and his spokespersons. Instead, we heard language that highlighted America’s weakness and unreliability as an ally and indicated a regional desire to find solutions with Iran. Saudi political commentators, who never speak without their government’s approval, portrayed America as a spent force whose time is up. The region has changed, evolved and moved on. And it can do without America. Whether that vacuum will be filled by Arabs themselves, by Iran or by America’s heirs in Tel Aviv is the question that will keep us busy in the months ahead. But America’s previous hegemony in the region is clearly a thing of the past.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.