Why a US-Saudi defence pact is off the table for now

Biden MBS
9 min read
08 May, 2024

In a recent interview, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed the idea of the Biden administration moving ahead with a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia without Riyadh normalising diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The integrated vision is a bilateral understanding between the US and Saudi Arabia combined with normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, combined with meaningful steps on behalf of the Palestinian people,” asserted Sullivan. “All of that has to come together...you can’t disentangle one piece from the others.”

Sullivan’s remarks seem to lay to rest the idea of the US agreeing to Saudi Arabia’s proposed ‘Plan B’ based on a less-for-less agreement between Washington and Riyadh.

It appears as though the White House will not succeed in completing a three-way deal that brings Saudi Arabia into a formalised relationship with Israel as part of a grander arrangement that entails a US-Saudi defence treaty.

This comes as a major blow to the White House, which has invested massive amounts of diplomatic energy into this pursuit with the hope of pulling it off before this year’s presidential election.

It is easy to understand why the Biden administration, despite all its efforts, has not been successful on this front. Domestic politics in Saudi Arabia and the US are probably the most important factors in play.

"Saudi Arabia was not going to enter a normalisation deal with Israel amid the Gaza war, which the Kingdom's leadership has started referring to as a 'genocide'"

Pressure in Saudi to resist normalisation

On the Saudi side, Riyadh was not going to enter a normalisation deal with Israel amid the Gaza war, which the Kingdom’s leadership has started referring to as a “genocide”.

Joining the Abraham Accords would be extremely risky and toxic for the Saudi government given where public opinion stands both within the Kingdom and throughout the wider Arab-Islamic world.

“Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, but public opinion matters,” Dave DesRoches, an assistant professor at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, told The New Arab.

“The Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian Authority [(PA)] are not held in high regard among Saudis, but contempt for the corrupt old men who rule the PA is not the same thing as condoning Israeli actions in Gaza. Right now, public opinion in the Gulf strongly supports the Palestinian cause. Given what has happened in the last few months, I can’t see a benefit from Saudi recognition of Israel which would be considered acceptable to any Saudi,” he added.

“There is no way that an Israeli-Saudi deal can happen while a genocide is happening in Gaza. I think that’s the big obstacle,” said Dr Nader Hashemi, director of Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, in a TNA interview.

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Saudi Arabia's image among the US Public

On the American side, it would be difficult to imagine Saudi Arabia’s proposed ‘Plan B’ being politically viable. Probably only a tiny segment of the US public would be in favour of it. Much of this has to do with views of Saudi Arabia held by many lawmakers and US citizens.

Such a defence agreement would be a treaty, which means that ratification would require at least 67 votes in the US Senate. Therefore, the stances of American lawmakers and the views of their constituents are highly relevant.

Over the decades, Washington and Riyadh’s partnership has functioned best in terms of cooperation between elites in the US and Saudi Arabia. The highest-ranking officials in the US government understand this partnership as critical to Washington’s interests throughout the Middle East. However, the average US citizen does not have this appreciation for America’s relationship with the Kingdom.

“The Kingdom’s lack of political participation and dismal human rights record is the first thing that comes to mind when most Americans think of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi rentier economy offends the ingrained Protestant work ethic which most Americans possess even if they are loathe to admit it,” DesRoches told TNA.

Seven months into the Gaza war, the Biden administration's foreign policy in the Middle East remains heavily focused on expanding the scope of the Abraham Accords. [Getty]

“Almost every Congressman would find a treaty that obligated Americans to risk their lives in service of a religion-based monarchy to be indefensible to their constituents. So, if there is a requirement on a vote for Saudi Arabia (as with the [Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act] JASTA vote), it will be incredibly lopsided against the Kingdom,” explained Des Roches.

“So, it is unlikely that the Biden administration can offer anything to the Kingdom that the Kingdom would be impressed by, unless there was a level of Congressional support such as might come with a Saudi recognition of Israel.”

Other experts have similar assessments.

“In terms of a US-Saudi deal, I just don’t think there’s enough support in Congress and in the American public for a deal that only includes Saudi Arabia,” Dr Hashemi told TNA. “This will invoke all of the longstanding concerns that Americans have had about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Jamal Khashoggi, etc.”

In an interview with TNA, Gordon Gray, the former US ambassador to Tunisia, explained that he too believes that such a US-Saudi defence agreement that excludes Saudi-Israel normalisation appears unlikely.

"In terms of a US-Saudi deal, I just don't think there's enough support in Congress and in the American public for a deal that only includes Saudi Arabia"

“From the right, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has said on social media that in such a case ‘there would be very few votes for a mutual defence agreement.’ From the left, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) expressed concerns about Saudi Arabia’s interest in enriching uranium and developing a nuclear weapons program,” noted Gray.

That such a US-Saudi defence arrangement would be linked to Riyadh normalising with Tel Aviv says much about how the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can use its influence in Washington to undermine Saudi security interests.

“The discussion of a bilateral security arrangement between Saudi Arabia and the Biden Administration without agreement on Saudi-Israeli normalisation is significant, not for its potential advancement - it won’t - but for the frustration it voices with the Netanyahu government,” Dr Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told TNA.

“In truth, Prime Minister Netanyahu can torpedo this in so many ways: through political means in the US Congress, or through military means in Rafah. The Israelis now hold Saudi interests hostage much as the Saudi leadership once complained the Palestinians do,” she added.

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Replicating the South Korea model?

Beyond the domestic politics of both countries, there are other issues worth considering.

What the Saudis have wanted from Washington is a US commitment to defending the Kingdom that is short of the NATO mutual defence clause but looks somewhat similar to Washington’s defence pact with South Korea. However, the arrangement which Washington and Seoul have would not serve as a model for any US-Saudi defence pact, according to some analysts.

“The US-[Republic of Korea] Mutual Defence Pact was ratified in 1953, at the height of the Cold War and in the wake of joint US-Korean operations against the Chinese and a Soviet-emplaced North Korean regime - the Koreans were viewed as uniquely threatened, virtuous, and capable of self-sacrifice in a mutual fight against totalitarian aggression. The Saudis do not enjoy this reputational benefit, and the threats faced by the Kingdom are not viewed by Americans as on a par with the threat faced by the Koreans in 1953,” explained DesRoches.

“Anything less than a treaty is unlikely to impress the Saudis, who already have a close security and defence relationship with the US and benefit from numerous arrangements which are very tangible and beneficial, but are not treaty obligations. The Saudis already have just about every gold star we can give them: The only upgrade is a treaty, which they won’t get,” he added.

“In the case of South Korea, that arrangement was much broader and much more nuanced. It merged and developed into a much broader economic and cultural relationship between the United States and South Korea that doesn’t exist in the Saudi case,” Dr Hashemi told TNA.

Joining the Abraham Accords would be extremely risky for the Saudi government given where public opinion stands both within the Kingdom and throughout the wider Arab-Islamic world on Israel's brutal war. [Getty]

State of US foreign policy in the Middle East

Seven months into the Gaza war, the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East remains heavily focused on expanding the scope of the Abraham Accords, giving Israel ironclad support with seemingly no consideration of the moral and strategic costs, and trying to counter China and Russia’s influence in the region.

The extent to which the White House has put so much energy into trying to bring Saudi Arabia into a normalisation deal with Israel despite how extremely unpopular such a diplomatic agreement would be among the Kingdom’s population says much about the Biden administration’s priorities.

“The Biden administration’s focus on Saudi-Israel normalisation and its unconditional support for Israel are key reasons why the region is currently locked in a downward spiral of conflict and why the administration is in a constant state of damage control,” Dr Anna Jacobs, the senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group, told TNA.

"The Biden administration's narrative is that such a deal would pave the way for a two-state solution, but this is clearly a farce given that most senior Israeli policymakers completely oppose any move towards Palestinian statehood"

“Instead of addressing the core source of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the Israeli occupation, the administration thinks they can contain the conflict through a US-Saudi-Israel deal that would offer nothing serious in terms of changes on the ground for Palestinians. The Biden administration’s narrative is that such a deal would pave the way for a two-state solution, but this is clearly a farce given that most senior Israeli policymakers completely oppose any move towards Palestinian statehood,” she added.

Ultimately, bringing Saudi Arabia and Israel into a diplomatic deal will not bring lasting peace to the Middle East as proponents of the Abraham Accords constantly assert. Long-term security for Israelis will be realisable once the Palestinian issue is resolved in a just manner that takes into consideration the human rights, self-determination, and basic dignity of the Palestinian people.

“The fact that Saudi-Israel normalisation is a central pillar of Biden's Middle East policy shows they have no serious interest in addressing the root causes of the current Gaza war and much of the instability resulting from it. Saudi-Israel normalisation will not help tackle the Israeli occupation or support Palestinian statehood in a serious way,” said Dr Jacobs.

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Leveraging US-China competition

This US-Saudi defence agreement is not set to move forward. Nonetheless, officials in Riyadh recognise that challenging China’s influence in the Middle East will remain a high priority for Washington irrespective of who is in the Oval Office and which party controls Congress.

The ‘China card’ is one which the Kingdom will continue to play in seeking to obtain more concessions from the US. These dynamics will continue shaping the US-Saudi relationship regardless of the Saudi-Israeli normalisation question.

“US great power competition with China in the Gulf and the Kingdom’s very real need for security guarantees will continue to animate their search for closer ties,” explained Dr Diwan.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero