Background Press Call Previewing Day Four of the President’s Trip to the Middle East

Background Press Call Previewing Day Four of the President’s Trip to the Middle East

Via Teleconference

8:14 A.M. AST

MODERATOR:  Thank you, everyone, for joining our call today.  As a reminder of the ground rules, this call is on background with the contents attributable to a “senior administration official,” and the contents are embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

For your awareness but not for your reporting, this morning’s speaker is [senior administration official]. 

[Senior administration official], I’ll kick it over to you for some opening remarks.  And then we can take a few questions.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Okay.  Thanks.  Good morning.  I apologize, my — our time is pretty limited here this morning.  But let me go through where we are here as we are on the final day of the President’s trip to the Middle East. 

And as you heard the President say last night, he came here to Saudi Arabia to meet with the GCC and nine other leaders to discuss the security and strategic priorities of the United States and to demonstrate that we have no intent to leave a vacuum here in the Middle East, particularly for Russia or China to fill, or for that matter, Iran. 

And if you’ve not yet seen this morning, we have (inaudible) a new example of some of the engagements between Russia and Iran that we think is fairly pertinent.  I believe that there’s a story on CNN that ran this morning about this. 

And as Jake mentioned last week, we assess an official Russian delegation recently received a showcase of Iranian attack-capable UAVs.  And we released those satellite imagery that shows this, as it suggests ongoing Russian interest in acquiring Iranian attack-capable UAVs, obviously for use in there or Ukraine. 

And to our knowledge, this is the first time the Russian delegation has visited this airfield for such a showcase.  And we think it’s of interest — I mean, to put it mildly — to what’s happening here in the Middle East.  I mean, Russia is effectively making a bet on Iran, and we are making a bet on a more integrated, more stable, more peaceful and prosperous Middle East region, which is what you’ll hear throughout the summit today. 

So with that, I’ll go over through the schedule for today and some of the outcomes that you can expect. 

So, today, the President will meet in Jeddah with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council — that is Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, together with the Republic of Egypt, Iraq, and the Kingdom of Jordan.  And, you know, here these leaders discuss ways to address global challenges such as confronting new diseases, ensuring food and energy security, and addressing the climate crisis through new partnerships. 

You’ll also hear the President underscore the region’s central role in connecting the Indo-Pacific to Europe, Africa, and the Americas.  I think a theme throughout this visit is that even as we have challenges and priorities elsewhere, the importance of the Middle East, if anything, is only heightened, and we’re demonstrating that throughout the trip and the importance of America’s engagement here in this critical region. 

So in his remarks during the summit, President Biden will set forth really five declaratory principles on the Biden doctrine for this region, as he is the first President to visit the Middle East since the attacks on 9/11, over 20 years ago, really without Americans involved in a major ground war or combat — combat missions.  Principles such as partnership, deterrence, diplomacy, integration, and values that will guide U.S. engagement in the Middle East over the coming decades. 

And if you just think about it, I mean, the objectives that have been pursued here in this region — it’s a theme that was in the President’s op-ed a couple of weeks ago before the visit — very — objectives such as regime change through military force, building nations, changing regime.  Objectives that really were out of America’s reach to deliver and drained our attention and resources and capacity. 

Now that we are focused on what we think is a far more realistic set of objectives — very central to our interests and the interests of our partners — the comparative advantage of the United States to build alliances, to build partnerships, to integrate, to find connections that don’t exist, to strengthen connections that develop is really front and center.  So I think it is an era in which the unique capabilities of the United States can play a really important role here in forging new partnerships and strengthening alliances and coalitions.

In that regard, the President will also announce today that the United States has committed $1 billion in new near- to long-term food security assistance for the Middle East and North Africa region. 

The President will also announce — and this will be in the communiqués that come after the summit — that the GCC leaders are committing $3 billion, over the next two years, in projects that align with the U.S. Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment — PGII.  The goal is to deliver quality, sustainable infrastructure that make a difference in people’s lives around the world, strengthens and diversifies our supply chains, and creates new opportunities for American workers and businesses, and advances our national security. 

And, of course, PGII was rolled out at the G7 Summit, so you know a lot about that, but the GCC will be partnering with us with the $3 billion to advance the PGII. 

You’ll also hear President Biden welcome Iraq — concluding agreements with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan — to bring affordable energy to Iraq and diversify its supply, and ensure energy resiliency to meet the growing needs of its people. 

And the landmark agreement that was signed just last night in Iraq and the GCC Interconnection Authority — the President mentioned this last night in his remarks — will link Iraq’s electricity grid to the grids in the GCC, thereby providing the Iraqi people with newly diversified sources of electricity over the coming decade.  And it’s important because much of Iraq’s electricity, as of now and for many years, is very much reliant upon gas from Iran.  So diversifying Iraq’s electricity base and generation (inaudible) sources will benefit the Iraqi people, particularly as their demand continues to grow.

And this connection with the GCC — between Iraq and the GCC — has really been talked about for years.  I think the President mentioned yesterday that it was discussed when he was Vice President but it was never able to get done.  But over, you know, the last six months or so when, again, U.S. diplomacy relationships, partnerships, creativity was able to get these important agreements over the line for the first time last night. 

So all of this, of course, builds on some of the Jeddah communiqué that was released last night, and that’s a joint statement between the United States and Saudi Arabia, outlining a strategic partnership between our countries over the coming decades with the aim of advancing a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region.  And I think we put that out and also a pretty detailed factsheet about the number of initiatives and agreements that were reached over the course of many months.  And some of those were finalized just last night. 

So we want to build on that.  It was important for us going forward here in this important region.  And you’ll get more details on all of this as the day unfolds.  And I’m sure we’ll have more to say to all of you afterwards as well. 

I have time just for a couple of questions.  I apologize.  I have to get upstairs to prepare with the boss here for the day. 

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thank you so much [senior administration official].  We’ll go to the line of Aamer Madhani from the Associated Press.

Q    So, just on the point with the new intelligence that was released, to what extent — and you sort of were — sort of brushed on this though — you’re showing — it shows that Russia is making its bet on Iran.  But none of the countries’ representatives at the summit have really sanctioned Russia.  You know, the UAE has been sort of a financial haven for some of the oligarchs.  Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.  How is the President going to make the point, trying to sort of connect that Russia matters to them, using this intelligence?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think the entire GCC and eight or the nine countries around the table today voted in the U.N. General Assembly back in March.  And if you read that resolution, extremely strong condemnation of Russia’s invasion and the importance of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and everything else.  So I think that really spoke for itself.  That was an important statement. 

I think we have heard — I think if you go back to this region, say, I don’t know, 18 months ago, you heard an awful lot of just really significant hedging and, I would say, in many capitals, a real drift towards Russia and even China in many ways.  Really, that has been arrested and, in many instances, very specific instances — not all which I can talk about — reversed. 

So we are — these countries have relationships with Iran [sic].  They have relationships with China.  That is natural.  That is something that will continue.  I’m sorry, relationships with Russia and relations with China is something natural and will continue. 

But when it comes to the partnerships and the partnerships of choice, and particularly in the security realm, but also in the trade, investment, commerce, tech realm, we heard from every capital around this region that their first choice, their priority, is the United States of America.  And that is something that we are very much committed to following up on and finding areas in which we can partner. 

So I think I’ll leave it at that.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have time for one more quick one with [senior administration official].  And then thank you to [senior administration official], who’s available and will take a few more questions right afterwards. 

Tyler Pager from The Washington Post, over to you.

Okay, we’ll go to the hand of —

Q    Hi. 

MODERATOR:  Oh, Tyler is here.  Good. 

Q    Yeah.  Thanks, [senior administration official].  Two quick ones.  There were reports last night that the UAE detained a U.S. citizen, Asim Ghafoor, a former lawyer for Khashoggi.  I’m wondering if the President is aware of this and whether he plans to bring up his case, or figure out what happened, today at the meeting with the GCC.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, we are aware of that.  I will say there’s no indication that it has anything to do with Khashoggi (inaudible) or anything else.  But we are aware of it.  I can’t say whether the President will raise it, just given the facts. 

But we will certainly — I think they have the points on that about the importance of consular access and everything else. 

But yes, to answer your question. 

MODERATOR:  Great.  We’ll go to the line of Barak Ravid. 

And as a reminder to folks to use the “raise hand” feature on Zoom if you have a question. 

Q    Hi, thank you for doing this.  Can you give us some more details on the island deal and the overflight deal and some, you know, behind the scenes of how it went down in the last few days before the announcement?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Barak.  I think this is another deal that has been talked about in past administrations and has been tried but never achieved.  And that’s because it’s a complex piece of Middle East diplomacy.  Obviously, Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have relations.  Israel and Egypt are partners from the Camp David Accords, and the U.S. are observers to that arrangement. 

So, basically, what this arrangement does: It allows the peacekeepers at Tiran Island for 40 years to depart.  But we have negotiated between the parties alternative security arrangements that ensure the existing arrangements in place in freedom of navigation and everything else that everybody is very comfortable with this. 

And these islands will now be developed for tourism, recreation, and peaceful pursuits.  So it just is an interesting story not only of (inaudible) Middle East diplomacy and the unique role the United States of America plays.  There’s no other country that can do things like this.

And also, just turning a page, a new chapter in Middle East history, if you know the history of, obviously, (inaudible) in this area, going back to the ‘67 war, which, of course, Barak, you know well.

So I think in the interest of time, I don’t have too much about, you know, the back-and-forth or details on this call.  But happy to talk to you some other time. 

But I thought it was a — it was a good process.  And it’s a good development because it’s something that has been wanting to get done some for some time, and it got done.

And together with another issue that’s been discussed for many years, but the overflight of Saudi airspace for all civilian carriers and including, of course, Israel, which is, we think, quite a breakthrough. 

And part of this theme for a more integrated Middle East region — and that is a theme you’ll hear, I think, from the leaders today at the summit — and a Middle East region that is more interconnected with the world. 

And something I said in, I think, my first background call — and I’ll end with this: There’s been a number of trips in the Middle East with secretaries and presidents when the Middle East was really the source of global — acute global challenges.  And today, we face acute global challenges, to say the least, but the Middle East, right in this moment, is not a primary source of them.  And in fact, countries are coming together to actually try to help address them.  You saw that at the I2U2 Summit in Israel.  You’ve seen that with some of the — again, with some of the breakthroughs, such as opening airspace to planes.  That’s — you might think that’s a simple thing, but it’s never been done. 

And in the summit today with nine leaders talking about food security, talking about investment in global infrastructures to protect all of our supply chains and make sure we’re diversified as we look to the future and position ourselves to the future of 5G, 6G, new technology development, new technology cooperation between these entrepreneurial societies such as UAE (inaudible).

So again, I’d just leave it there.  But I think it’s a — it was a — it’s one example of this unique capacity the United States can bring. 

And given the trends here in the region towards more integration and new partnerships, it’s something where I think we have a real comparative advantage to help.  And so, we’ll (inaudible) because it also is squarely within American interests to do that.  And that will be a theme of the President’s address today. 

Okay, sorry, guys, I got to run, but thank you so much.

MODERATOR:  Yeah, thank you so much, [senior administration official].  And appreciate it. 

Thank you to [senior administration official] who was able to take three to four more questions. 

Just as a reminder to folks who joined us late of the ground rules, this call is held on background with contents attributable to a “senior administration official,” embargoed to the end of this call.

As a reminder to folks, if you have a question, use the “raise hand” feature. 

With that, we’ll go to Alex Ward from Politico.

Q    Thanks so much for doing this and, [senior administration official], for being on the call.  A 30,000-foot question: The President likes to say that the U.S. should lead not by the example of its power, but by the power of its example.  But the example he set here was that, ultimately, the national interest matters more than the promotion and upholding of values.  And so, should we take from this trip that this administration will be a realist administration — one where, you know, values, while mentioned and even strongly so, pale in importance of the cold pursuit of strategic interests?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Alex.  You know, it’s difficult to say that values are going to be a key part of your foreign policy, and human rights matter significantly to us as a nation and certainly as an administration, and then not go overseas and not talk to leaders in candid, forthright ways about those concerns. 

It would be backsliding if the President didn’t come to the region.  It would be backsliding if he didn’t — wasn’t willing to sit and raise human rights concerns with foreign leaders around the world.  And he noted for you last night that it was the very first thing he brought up — Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.  The first thing.  It wasn’t — it wasn’t an “oh, by the way.”  It wasn’t an add-on at the end of the meeting.  It was the first thing he brought up.

And so that very much is a powerful example of how he’s placing values in human rights right at the center.  In fact, I’d go so far, literally, to say right at the forefront of our foreign policy. 

And that doesn’t mean when you — when you do that, it certainly doesn’t mean that you are also eschewing opportunities to pursue tangible results.  And [senior administration official] walked you through a lot of the tangible results that we’re going to see again today.

As a matter of fact, what the President believes is that the best way to achieve tangible results is to be known as a straightshooter and to be — and to be unafraid to be as candid and forthcoming with our partners as we can.  That’s where partnerships really begin, and that’s where trust begins — not through disingenuous statements that aren’t backed up, but through actual — the actual delivery of our values overseas, the delivery of statement of our values overseas and being willing to bring those up. 

So I would say it’s not only not — not dissonance from tangibly achieving pragmatic, real politic results, it’s actually part and partial of the ability to do that is critical to the ability to do that.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next, we’ll go to the line of (inaudible) from Asharq Al-Awsat News.

Q    Good morning.  Can you hear me? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, ma’am. 

Q    Good morning, [senior administration official].  Thanks for doing this.  A good question.  Yesterday, the President spoke about responding — or approaching the security needs for Saudi Arabia.  Can you elaborate a little bit about that? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I won’t get into too much detail because we’re obviously still in discussions with Saudi Arabia.  But I would — I do want to — you highlighted something that I do think is worth just another foot stomp, and that’s this idea of integrated air and missile defense.  And you’ll see that coming out of the discussions today, one of the things that the President wants us to continue to pursue.  This is not a new idea; this is something we’ve been working on for a while.

Our allies and partners here in the region, each of them have air and missile defense capabilities.  We are responsible for contributing to much of those capabilities.  And we believe — and in our bilateral discussions with several nations, we believe they believe — that there is great advantage to try and see if we can’t network some of those capabilities together.

And it’s a reflection of — well, I guess of three things. 

One, terrific technological leaps and advances in air and defense capabilities that the United States is and will continue to share in the region.

Two, the growing threat from Iran’s ballistic missile capability, which continues to have nations here in the region increasingly on edge.  We know they’re advancing that capability and at a clip that’s disconcerning — disconcerting, sorry.

And then the third thing, and [senior administration official] sort of touched on this a little bit when he talked about the Russian visit, but it’s the advances in Iranian UAV development.

They have a domestic production capability and an operational doctrine and concept that continues to advance and grow and improve.  And you’re seeing them use UAVs more and more in the maritime environment, certainly on the ground in Iraq and in Syria.  And those drones, as they become of greater range and of greater power and capability, greater payload delivery capability, continue to threaten all our neighbors here in the Gulf region.

And so that’s another reason why we believe a stronger networked integrated air defense system is probably (inaudible) — an integrated air defense capability is the right path forward.

Now, look, we’re also across the defense partnerships we have with nations all throughout the region, and we have robust defense partnerships with Gulf countries.  We’re going to continue to work that bilaterally individually, whether — you know, I talked about air defense a little bit, but it’s not just air defense, it’s in the maritime domain.

As you know, our Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain.  The Saudis are going to be taking command of a task force — Task Force 150 — under the U.S. Central Command’s naval component here in the Gulf.  That’s significant.  They’re going to be leading a taskforce up in the northern Persian Gulf.

So there’s an awful lot going on bilaterally and multilaterally that we’re going to continue to work on.

I don’t have, again, individual, like, arms sales to speak to today.  That wouldn’t be appropriate anyway.  But the takeaway is that all nations here are mindful of the increased threats, particularly posed by Iran, and we’re going to continue to work with them across a range of military capabilities to see if we can’t better net those capabilities together and better help defend not only themselves but each other.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We have time for two more questions.  We’ll go to Andrew Restuccia from the Wall Street Journal.

Q    Thanks.  Just a couple quick things.  On the Yemen ceasefire announcement, can you give us any more specifics — and apologies if this was asked already; I missed the beginning of the call.  Could you give us any more specifics on where that goes from here, when we might see talks resume, and if anyone asked the Houthis about this idea of extending the ceasefire?

And then, also, on the integrated air defense issue, where does it stand in terms of including Israel in that?

And did the Saudis at all commit to a specific number in terms of how much OPEC+ will increase production at the meeting yesterday?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I won’t speak for Saudi Arabia and OPEC.  I will just leave you with what the President said about — you know, that we’re hopeful in coming weeks we’ll see some additional announcements.

On the integrated air missile defense, again, we believe there’s great value in including as many of the capabilities in this region as possible.  And certainly Israel has significant air and missile defense capabilities, as they need to.  And — but we’re having these discussions bilaterally with these nations.  And I don’t want to get ahead of where we are.

But I would just say that if you are — if you truly are trying to seek integrated air and missile defense, the more integrated, the better, the more powerful.  So we’re obviously looking to have it be as robust as possible.

On the ceasefire in Yemen, again, I’m loath to get ahead of the future announcements, but what was noteworthy was that the Saudis committed to wanting to extend it themselves.  So we’re on the 15th week now.  This is the first — we’re on a first extension of a two-month ceasefire.  And we have every indication now that the Saudis are interested in continuing that.  And that was certainly welcome news.

I think I’ll let and be appropriate for me to let the Saudis speak to whatever discussions they’re having with the Houthis or how they’re handling it.  I think it’d be more appropriate for them to speak to that.

But we obviously took as a very positive sign that the Saudi government is interested in pursuing that going forward.  And I think, you know, we’ll — I’ll leave it to them to further characterize it.

I mean, we’ve now seen the longest time of relative peace in Yemen that we have in six, seven years.  And that’s significant because not only are lives being saved every day, but, to your second question on this, you are allowing — you’re building confidence on both sides in each other.  You’re building a little bit of trust.  And you’re buying time and space for the possibility of negotiations to restart.

And as the President has said on numerous occasions, that’s really the only way to end this war, is through a negotiated settlement working through the U.N.  We have not changed our position on the importance of that being the modality, that being the venue.  And, again, the longer we can have relative peace where both sides aren’t shooting at one another, the better chances that we’re going to have to build the kind of — set the kind of conditions for there to be a negotiated settlement.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  And for our final question, we’ll go to Ben Samuels from Haaretz.

Q    Hey, [senior administration official].  Thanks for doing this.  So the Saudi foreign minister essentially said last night that there won’t be full Israel-Saudi normalization until a two-state solution is reached.  I know the administration has tried to sort of temper the timeline in terms of both full normalization and a two-state solution, but I’m wondering if you could clarify whether you think Israel-Saudi normalization is possible without reaching that sort of two-state solution?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, what I would tell you is, you know, issues of norm- — first of all, we obviously support normalization, and we were excited by the announcement on airspace and, of course, the island announcement that [senior administration official] walked you through.  All of those are very positive signs.

But we know that these are sovereign decisions that these two nations have to make.  And we would not want to impose ourselves in that decision-making process or make those decisions for them.

The President said himself the other day, when asked about this, it’s going to take some time; we know that.  You’re talking about issues that are historic in nature and go back many, many, many years.  And so we understand that they’ve got to work this out in their own time.

At the same time, and this was why the President’s visit to Bethlehem was so important, we don’t — well, we don’t want to — we believe that working towards a two-state solution is important in and of itself.  It’s not in congruence with the idea of normalization, of course.  But all by itself, as an issue, a two-state solution still remains top of mind for President Biden when it comes to Middle East peace.

That’s why he wanted to go see President Abbas.  That’s why he wanted to reaffirm his commitment to it.  And that’s why he said, quite frankly, that when it comes to a two-state solution, both sides have to want it as well.  They have to be willing to work towards it.  And if they do, they’ll find no better friend than the United States of America.

Now, we were encouraged when Prime Minister Lapid called President Abbas.  We thought that was a good first step here, and we’d like to see additional steps taken.

But we’re going to stay committed to a two-state solution all by itself, because all by itself, it’s so critical to Middle East peace.

MODERATOR:  Okay, those are all the questions we have time for.  Again, thank you to all for joining this background call today.  As a reminder of the ground rules, it was held on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.”  The embargo on the contents are now lifted.

Thank you, everyone, and have a good day.

8:44 A.M. AST

Source: White House

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