Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

U.S.-Saudi Defense Pact: Conditions and Mutual Concerns

The U.S.-Saudi defense pact is expected to foster a renewed strategic alliance between the two countries following periods of strained relations.

U.S.-Saudi Defense Pact
US President Joe Biden (behind) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (front) arrive for the family photo during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) at a hotel in Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022. MANDEL NGAN / POOL / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

The United States and Saudi Arabia, having reached consensus on 90 per cent of the terms of their joint defense pact, are on the brink of finalizing the accord. Once ratified, Riyadh will fall under the protective umbrella of American security, mirroring the defense agreements extended to Japan and South Korea in East Asia.

Nevertheless, the signing is pending, awaiting resolution on certain conditions and mutual concerns. Washington stipulates that the treaty must be part of a broader regional arrangement leading to normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Conversely, Riyadh appears to have secured its demands, particularly regarding sufficient legal assurances within the agreement, compelling the United States to intervene in the Kingdom’s defense against any security threats.

The anticipated signing of this treaty heralds shifts in Middle Eastern political dynamics, impacting both the defense ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and American presence in the region.

It is evident that many regional players, notably Iran, will closely monitor the ramifications of this accord.

The Impact of the Saudi-Israeli Normalization Path

The Biden administration acknowledges the significant interest of the Saudi leadership in reaching an agreement. As a result, it seeks to leverage the deal as a bargaining chip with the Kingdom to facilitate Saudi-Israeli normalization.

Consequently, the United States has publicly tied normalization to the defense pact, presenting it as part of a comprehensive package of “regional understandings.” This linkage, which currently serves as a fundamental condition, is behind the delay in finalizing the agreement.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t outright reject the prospect of normalizing relations with Israel alongside signing the defense treaty with the United States. However, he puts forth certain prerequisites for normalization, including a freeze on West Bank settlements, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and a commitment to establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Given the current political landscape in Tel Aviv, with right-wing extremists in power, implementing these conditions appears unfeasible.

Hence, the Saudi leadership endeavors to convince the U.S. administration to agree to “Plan B,” which entails the option of signing the defense treaty independently should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reject the Kingdom’s normalization conditions.

In the scenario where the two tracks are separated as per “Plan B,” the Saudi leadership assures the Americans that the normalization path will not be abandoned in the future. However, this path remains contingent upon addressing the Palestinian issue.

Possibility of the U.S. Administration Accepting “Plan B”

Currently, most analyses and sources expect that the U.S. will acquiesce to the Saudi proposal, which entails moving forward with “Plan B” and signing the defense agreement before completing Saudi-Israeli normalization should Netanyahu persist in rejecting the Saudi conditions.

However, the U.S. will refrain from announcing whether it will proceed with this option until it exhausts all other available avenues to persuading the Israeli side toward a settlement that paves the way for normalization with Saudi Arabia.

Ultimately, the United States holds a strategic interest in signing the defense agreement with Saudi Arabia. Such an agreement would ensure that the Kingdom remains under the umbrella of American protection in the future, thereby mitigating the divergence of American-Saudi interests.

However, the Biden administration seeks to leverage this step to achieve additional goals concurrently, including the integration of Israel into its Arab surroundings and advancing the American vision based on the two-state solution.

It is crucial to note that the United States has outlined certain non-military conditions for accepting the signing of the defense agreement. This includes the Kingdom’s commitment to pricing and selling oil in dollars in the future and refraining from any agreements that utilize other currencies in oil trade going forward.

In doing so, the U.S. administration aims to preempt the potential ramifications of Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the BRICS group, which seeks to diminish U.S. hegemony over the global financial system.

Saudi Conditions and Concerns

Saudi Arabia has consistently emphasized the paramount importance of credibility and seriousness in the defense agreement negotiations.

The Kingdom has always aimed for a legally binding arrangement that mandates both sides provide urgent assistance to one another in the event of an assault. This stands in contrast to some defense pacts that lack such gravity, often limited to joint training exercises, armament initiatives and maneuvers.

Another aspect of Saudi Arabia’s demands pertains to accessing advanced American weaponry and technology for domestic manufacturing.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia aims to secure recognition as a significant military ally of the United States, distinct from NATO membership, thereby facilitating the hosting of larger quantities of American strategic weapons reserves.

Finally, Saudi Arabia insists that the agreement includes support for its peaceful nuclear program, intended solely for civilian purposes.

This aspect has been particularly sensitive for Washington, mindful of concerns that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may seek nuclear armament akin to Tehran’s ambitions. Consequently, negotiations in the latter stages have focused on delineating the scope and oversight of this program.

American Domestic Political Balances

Not all of the agreement’s details have been disclosed even though both parties have largely finalized its provisions.

Nonetheless, officials from both countries affirm that the defense agreement will meet the Kingdom’s initial requirements for effectiveness and credibility. This denotes its future binding nature for both parties.

Moreover, the agreement will furnish security assurances, ensuring Saudi Arabia’s protection under the American military umbrella against potential regional threats.

Given its binding nature, the Biden administration will need congressional approval for the defense agreement, necessitating a bipartisan majority. Thus, securing approval for the agreement, in its current form, poses a significant challenge for the U.S. administration.

However, for Saudi Arabia, it ensures a firm legal commitment immune to changes in White House administrations or presidents. Notably, passing the agreement in Congress could become more arduous without Israeli-Saudi normalization, particularly if the Netanyahu government expresses reservations.

To circumvent concerns regarding presidential elections, it’s anticipated that the Biden administration will endeavor to finalize the defense agreement before mid-summer of 2024. Failure to do so will compel the Saudi leadership to await the outcome of the elections, as priorities and plans could shift under the next U.S. administration in the event of an electoral victory by Donald Trump.

Influencing Geopolitical Balances in the Region

Signing such a defense agreement will undoubtedly reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region.

A primary consequence will likely be a surge in American military presence in the Middle East, particularly if the agreement mandates the establishment of new U.S. bases within the Kingdom’s borders or amplifies the size of American military assets stationed there.

In addition, this pact is expected to foster a renewed strategic alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States following periods of strained relations.

Predictably, such developments are poised to provoke Tehran, prompting concerns about the agreement’s impact on potential Saudi-Iranian reconciliation efforts.

Conversely, the Kingdom stands to gain direct security coverage from American forces, shielding it from attacks from regional adversaries, exemplified by the recurrent assaults on Saudi oil facilities by the Houthis in recent years.

In essence, by entering into this agreement, bin Salman is wagering on enduring American protection to advance his economic and developmental objectives within the Kingdom.

Nonetheless, this commitment may curtail the flexibility he once enjoyed, constraining Saudi Arabia’s ability to maintain a delicate equilibrium in its relations with Western nations, China and Russia. The deepening collaboration in Saudi-American defense, including military investments, is likely to entail a scaling back of Saudi-Chinese defense cooperation, which has seen significant advancements in recent years.

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