A U.S.-Saudi Defense Pact Is a Terrible Idea

6 minute read
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at The Spectator.

Whether it's managing an increasingly tense relationship with China or trying to sustain Western military support for Ukraine, the U.S. has its hands full. The Biden Administration, however, has nonetheless chosen to devote a significant amount of diplomatic capital trying to advance a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of its longstanding partners in the Middle East.

There’s no question the Biden Administration views such a deal as a seismic win in a part of the world often associated with conflict and diplomatic logjams. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the prospects of such an accord “a transformative event.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan commented this month that while the negotiations weren’t close to being finalized, the sides have settled on a “broad understanding of many of the key elements.” President Biden will no doubt speak about the diplomacy with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The question, however, isn’t whether an Israel-Saudi normalization agreement would be a good thing for the U.S.—it’s how high a price Washington is willing to pay to get the deal across the finish line. It’s imperative for the White House to ensure that its desire for a major diplomatic accomplishment doesn’t blind itself to the risks of giving away too much.

Read More: The Limits of the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) recognizes that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. foreign policy priority in the Middle East. Even so, it’s deeply unpopular in Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab world absent concessions from Israel such as reaffirming Muslim rights at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute or, at the very least, greater Palestinian Authority control in the occupied West Bank. MBS has no intention of signing onto the dotted line for free given the likely blowback and the fact that his father, King Salman, is very much invested in supporting the Palestinians’ cause for an independent state.

For these reasons, MBS is using the prospect of a normalization accord in order to extract a series of U.S. concessions for Riyadh. At the top of the list is a U.S. security guarantee for the kingdom, which would reportedly compel the U.S. to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense in the event of an external attack like the one that occurred in September 2019, when a volley of cruise missiles hit two major Saudi oil facilities. (Yemen's Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack. However, U.S. and Saudi officials have pointed the finger at Iran, with Reuters reporting in November of that year that Iran's leadership approved the operation, according to several Iranian officials the outlet spoke to. Tehran has strongly denied any involvement.)

If this is indeed on offer, the U.S. should have the common sense to walk out of the room right now before it’s too late. A U.S. security guarantee to Saudi Arabia should be avoided at all costs because the downsides are so numerous.

First, there would be nothing mutual about a so-called mutual defense clause with the Saudis. The kingdom has not shown itself to be a strong partner during past U.S. requests for assistance. When the Islamic State was at its peak in 2014 and 2015, controlling vast stretches of territory in Syria and Iraq, the Saudis were relative bystanders in the counter-IS coalition. Whereas the United Arab Emirates and Jordan contributed combat aircraft to the mission and conducted airstrikes against the group, the Saudi contribution largely centered on allowing the U.S. to use its territory to train anti-IS fighters.

Second, granting the kingdom a security guarantee would in effect turn U.S. soldiers, sailors, fighter pilots, and marines into security guards for the Saudi royal family running the kingdom. While this would no doubt serve the interests of the Saudis, who have proven to be incompetent warfighters in Yemen despite tens of billions of dollars in U.S. defense sales, it wouldn’t be in the best interest of the U.S., which should be downsizing its presence in the region in order to better resource its shift toward Asia. It should be noted that, ceasefire talks with the Houthis notwithstanding, the Saudi military is still very much engaged in an eight-year war in Yemen. Would a resumption of Houthi missile attacks into the kingdom compel U.S. forces to get involved in Yemen militarily? Right now, this is a hypothetical question. But it becomes a matter of urgency for U.S. policymakers if Washington and Riyadh have an active defense agreement or, more significantly, a defense alliance. 

Lastly, MBS has made major missteps in recent years, exposing him as an unreliable partner with poor judgment. By the U.S. intelligence community’s own assessment, he approved the killing of former Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which hurt the kingdom’s reputation in the West and for a time degraded its image on Capitol Hill. His government also allegedly kidnapped former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced him to resign on television because he was insufficiently hawkish on Hezbollah (although Hariri later withdrew his resignation after he returned to Lebanon). And, in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, MBS helped orchestrate a land and sea blockade against Qatar in an attempt to coerce Doha into altering its foreign policy to Riyadh’s liking. That policy failed to elicit the policy reforms the Saudis demanded, even as it divided the Gulf Cooperation Council and pushed Qatar closer to Iran.

MBS has been a more pliable figure lately stressing conciliation rather than confrontation. The Saudis have since mended ties with Qatar and have normalized relations with Iran, not to mention its ongoing ceasefire talks with the Houthis. But nobody can say with confidence that this transformation is permanent, and there is a risk that a U.S. security guarantee could push MBS to revert to his previous ways. 

The bottom line is that the Biden Administration needs to be extremely cautious as it tries to play peacemaker between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Otherwise it could find itself fleeced in the process.

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