June 18, 2024

IntelBrief: U.S.-Saudi Pact in Flux as Israel Remains Engaged in Gaza

Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP

Bottom Line Up Front

  • A “grand bargain” linking U.S. pledges to secure Saudi Arabia’s normalization of relations with Israel would help the U.S. contain Iran, limit the influence of China and Russia, and assuage the Kingdom’s doubts about the U.S. commitment to the region.
  • Negotiations on the U.S.-Saudi pact have been mostly completed, but the agreement’s linkage to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is complicating finalization.
  • U.S. officials are resisting suggestions from the Saudi leadership that the U.S.-Saudi agreement be “de-linked” from Israeli-Palestinian issues and formulated as a separate, bilateral pact.
  • Some oppose a binding U.S.-Saudi defense agreement as an unprecedented commitment to an authoritarian state with unpredictable leadership.

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israel caused a wide range of regional and global diplomats and experts to dismiss the potential for the United States and Saudi Arabia to finalize a long-discussed pact that would firmly commit the United States to defend the Kingdom in exchange for Saudi normalization of relations with Israel. However, instead of halting talks with Saudi leaders on the proposed agreement, U.S. officials redoubled their efforts to reach an accord as a means of incentivizing Israel to wind down its ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the prospect that normal relations with Saudi Arabia would complete Israel’s integration into the region, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continues to oppose a core Saudi and broader Arab demand to accede to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet, U.S.-Saudi negotiations on a strategic agreement have continued to progress nonetheless.

The U.S.-Saudi pact under discussion serves both countries’ interests, explaining why talks to finalize it have survived the ongoing Mideast crisis and Israeli opposition to concessions. Drafting of the U.S.-Saudi treaty was nearly finalized in May when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other senior U.S. officials met in May with Saudi Crown Prince and de-facto leader of the Kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), with conceptual agreement achieved on most provisions, according to U.S. officials. The agreement would give the Kingdom the security assurances it has long sought, particularly against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and would elevate Saudi Arabia’s regional standing.

Saudi leaders have been questioning the U.S. commitment to the Kingdom’s security since a September 2019 unprovoked Iranian drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and other locations that halved Saudi oil production for several weeks. U.S. leaders surprised Saudi officials by declining to retaliate against Iran for that attack, or for missile and drone strikes on the Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen. The U.S. refusal to respond to those attacks reinforced Saudi and UAE doubts about the U.S. commitment to remain the ultimate guarantor of Gulf security, amid statements by U.S. leaders that Washington needed to “pivot” to East Asia due to the gathering security threat posed by China. On the other hand, critics predict the deal will not enhance Saudi or U.S. security but rather increase tensions with Iran and perhaps drive the Islamic Republic to expand its nuclear program from a threshold nuclear weapons capability to developing working nuclear bombs.

For the United States, in exchange for the U.S. commitment to help defend Saudi Arabia if it were attacked, the accord reportedly gives U.S. forces access to Saudi territory and airspace to protect U.S. interests and regional partners. The agreement will limit Saudi Arabia’s strategic outreach to China and Russia, including prohibiting China from building military bases in the Kingdom. A parallel Defense Cooperation Agreement, which can be enacted by executive order, is also being drafted to boost weapons sales, intelligence sharing, and strategic planning on joint threats, including terrorism and Iran. A third component of the deal would involve loosening U.S. export controls to Saudi Arabia of computer chips used in artificial intelligence (AI) development tools, a key element in Saudi aspirations to become the hi-tech hub for the region. This provision could be expected to significantly increase sales of high-technology equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The specifics of the U.S.-Saudi agreement are certain to cause controversy in Washington because they convey a number of key U.S. commitments to a country that, as recently as 2021, President Biden referred to as a “pariah.” Yet, the agreement is modeled on Washington’s mutual security pact with a close and longstanding ally and fellow democracy, Japan, whose partnership with the United States enjoys near universal support among the American public. The provisions of the overall pact most likely to cause consternation in the U.S. Congress – assuming the pact is presented as a treaty requiring ratification by a two-thirds affirmative vote in the Senate – are those promising U.S. civilian nuclear cooperation with the Kingdom. In particular, according to some accounts, U.S. officials will agree to provide nuclear technology to the Kingdom without specifically prohibiting the Saudis from enriching uranium – a process that could potentially be used to develop a nuclear weapon. Other accounts say the pact will only allow Riyadh to build a conversion plant for turning refined uranium powder into a gas, but without being allowed initially to enrich uranium gas on its own territory.

U.S. officials have always linked the U.S.-Saudi “Strategic Alliance Agreement” to Saudi agreement to normalize relations with Israel. Doing so would enhance the pact’s support in the U.S. Congress and among the public by adding cohesion to the regional coalition containing and potentially confronting Iran. Yet, the October 7 Hamas attack and the Israeli offensive in Gaza complicated negotiations by causing Saudi leaders to insist that the U.S.-Saudi security agreement become a “grand bargain” that also includes a clear roadmap to the formation of an independent Palestinian state. In the absence of a ceasefire in Gaza and in the face of Netanyahu’s adamant resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state, Saudi officials reportedly are pushing for a less sweeping version of the U.S.-Saudi pact that would not be linked to a Saudi commitment to forge formal relations with Israel.

Separating the U.S.-Saudi security agreement from Israeli-Palestinian issues is sure to attract vehement criticism, particularly in a U.S. presidential election, and does not have the support of senior U.S. leaders. U.S. officials assess that, whether submitted as a formal treaty or forged as a political agreement, critics will attack the agreement as an undeserved reward for what critics say is reckless behavior by MBS. Opposition to the pact, in and outside Congress, is certain to focus on the Kingdom’s poor human rights record, including the 2018 murder in Istanbul of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in which MBS was found by U.S. intelligence to have been complicit.

Others argue MBS has destabilized the Middle East with his disastrous military intervention in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi movement; the temporary detention of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri; and the 2017-2021 blockade, in concert with the UAE, against U.S.-allied fellow Gulf state Qatar. In addition, some of the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attack by Al Qaeda on the United States continue to argue in court and elsewhere that the terrorist operation had Saudi official complicity. The absence of evidence of Saudi official involvement has not led to the closure of the issue in some media outlets, and some in Congress are sure to raise this argument as part of their opposition to a U.S.-Saudi security agreement.

Appearing to rule out the possibility of divorcing the U.S.-Saudi agreement from Israel-Palestinian issues, in remarks in Riyadh in late April, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued to link the deal to Saudi-Israeli normalization and progress towards a Palestinian state. He stated at the World Economic Forum in Riyadh: “The work that Saudi Arabia, the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion.” He added: “But then in order to move forward with normalization, two things will be required: calm in Gaza and a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.”

On the other hand, some argue that a U.S.-Saudi security pact would mark a significant enough achievement in the furtherance of containing Iran and marginalizing Russia and China in the region that it should be considered on its own. Some U.S. officials believe that argument can persuade voters, in a U.S. presidential election year, that President Joseph Biden’s foreign policy has been effective, and support pushing to complete the U.S.-Saudi pact even without Israeli cooperation.