US-Saudi diplomacy on hold

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 28 May 2024

Israel’s war on Gaza has widened the gap between the US and Saudi Arabia regarding a security agreement, reports Haitham Nouri

US-Saudi diplomacy on hold


More and more international media reports are pointing to the potential for a comprehensive security agreement between Saudi Arabia and the US. Statements from officials on both sides have supported this possibility, but obstacles stand in the way of what some see as a long-term alliance.

On the fringe of the World Economic Forum held in Riyadh in late April and early May, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated: “On the bilateral agreements between the kingdom and the US, we are very, very close, and most of the work has already been done. We have the broad outlines of what we think needs to happen on the Palestinian front.”

Similarly, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at the same event, said, “the work that Saudi Arabia and the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion.” This sentiment was reinforced by the visits of several US officials to Saudi Arabia, including National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan, CIA leaders, and Blinken himself.

The relationship between the two countries dates back to the end of World War II, when the world’s largest country came together with the most significant oil producer. They have stood together in the fight against communism, joining forces in Cold War battles against common adversaries. Unlike other Washington allies that experienced changes, such as the regime of former Indonesian president Suharto and that of president Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (currently Democratic Congo), Saudi-US relations have remained steadfast.

The relationship has not been without challenges, most notably the sharp dispute between Riyadh and Washington following the events of September 11, 2001. Despite such challenges, however, strong relations between Saudi Arabia and the US have persisted, particularly in their joint efforts to counter Iran’s influence and its expansion in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as their joint fight against terrorist groups.

For years, Riyadh has been advocating for a comprehensive security agreement with Washington, similar to the agreements the US has with countries like Albania, South Korea, Australia, and the NATO alliance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia seeks recognition of its peaceful nuclear programme with American assistance. On the other hand, Washington aims to “normalise” relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, discourage the purchase of Chinese and Russian weapons by Saudi Arabia, and halt Chinese investments in the kingdom.

However, most reports suggest that Washington is either unwilling or unable to commit to a security agreement at the level demanded by Riyadh. The US offers various levels of security agreements, with the highest being the NATO commitments to countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia. In such cases, the US is legally obligated to provide defence in the event of an attack on those countries. For instance, if South Korea were to face a Chinese attack or Poland were to face a Russian attack, it would effectively engage Beijing or Moscow in a war with the US.

“However, there are lower levels of security agreements, such as the one between the US and Taiwan,” explained Mohamed Abdallah, an expert on Northeast Asia. In such cases, Washington is not bound to defend Taiwan fully, even though Taiwan’s separation from China would be difficult without American protection. Abdallah added that “a lower level of security agreement, similar to the American-Indian relationship, exists.” In this case, the two countries cooperate militarily and in terms of security, but there is no commitment from the US to protect India.

As to whether the US desires mutual defence between Saudi Arabia and itself in the agreement, Abdallah stated that “Riyadh’s participation in American military or security operations could potentially expand, which is something Saudi Arabia is hesitant about.” He pointed out that “the Saudi-US relationship is not straightforward, as the two countries have significant differences, and this has been a major factor in the prolonged negotiations for the security agreement.”

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter, and its stability is of global importance. Additionally, its role as the site of Islamic holy sites, coupled with its economic power, gives it a unique global influence.

Saudi-Russian relations have gained global significance for the stability of energy markets. “Saudi Arabia cannot risk its ties with Moscow if the US demands confrontation, even though this is seen as a remote possibility,” said Abdallah. Moscow and Riyadh lead the OPEC+ oil alliance as the largest global producers, “which has strengthened the position of both countries collectively and individually in their relations with the US,” according to Abdallah.

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, pleasing Riyadh has become a demand from the US, and tensions in the Middle East have pushed Saudi Arabia to forge a stronger relationship with the US while also diversifying its strategic relations through contacts with China. China brokered a reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia and its long-standing rival, Iran. Abdallah says that “without Riyadh’s cooperation, China wouldn’t have secured this diplomatic victory.”

Riyadh’s support for Beijing’s mediation was driven by its desire to send a clear message to Washington to alleviate regional tensions. However, Washington’s insistence on “Saudi-Israeli normalisation” as a precondition for a security agreement with Riyadh presents a dilemma for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s stance against normalisation stems from Israel’s rejection of the Arab peace initiative proposed by then crown prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2002, which advocated for normalisation in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the 4 June 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Saudi Arabia continues to emphasise the connection between normalisation with Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem. According to US State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller, on the Saudi-Israeli security and normalisation agreement “none go forward without the others.”

Saudi Arabia’s rejection of normalisation with Israel has intensified following the Israeli war on Gaza, which resulted in the loss of over 35,000 Palestinian lives, with more than 80,000 sustaining injuries. The devastation caused by the war has left thousands missing, buried under the rubble of their homes, and has led to the displacement of over 80 per cent of Gaza’s population. More than half of the buildings in the Gaza Strip have been either partially damaged or completely destroyed, rendering them uninhabitable.

In exchange for normalisation, Riyadh demands substantial concessions, including a robust security agreement akin to those among Asia-Pacific nations, access to advanced American weaponry like the F-35 aircraft, and acknowledgement of a Saudi peaceful nuclear energy programme with explicit US support. Saudi officials have reiterated their stance on acquiring a nuclear programme should Iran obtain nuclear weapons.

The prospects for Saudi-Israeli relations and the establishment of a Palestinian state have grown more distant in the aftermath of the recent conflict in Gaza. Additionally, the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and globally may undergo significant changes, particularly if Russia makes further advances in the Ukrainian war and the Iranian nuclear issue remains unresolved following the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement.

Abdallah acknowledges the heightened complexity of the situation, stressing that all possibilities remain on the table for everyone involved: “It is more difficult now for everyone involved: all possibilities remain on the table.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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