By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

Saudi Arabia Is On The Way To Becoming The Next Egypt

Will they, or won’t they? That is the question that the Middle East-watching world has been asking for the past few weeks. Will the United States and Saudi Arabia announce the big defense pact-plus deal that officials in both countries have been working on since at least mid-2023?

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Riyadh at the end of April and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s pending visit have injected a sense of urgency and anticipation into the story of a possible agreement. According to reporting, the Saudis and the Biden administration are ready, but “obstacles remain,” which is a nice way of referring to the Israelis.

When the discussions between officials in Washington and Riyadh began, the Biden administration believed that a stand-alone agreement with Saudi Arabia would never garner adequate support on Capitol Hill. A large number of Democrats and a smaller number of Republicans in the Senate—who would need to sign off on any defense pact—would likely balk at committing the United States to the defense of Saudi Arabia. But the White House reasoned that if such a deal was wrapped around the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, congressional support was more likely.

It was an elegant idea in September 2023, but now it seems too cute by half. The price that the Saudis are asking for normalization after seven months of brutal war in Gaza is too much for Israelis, approximately two-thirds of whom oppose the idea. Based on that alone, there is no justification for continuing to pursue a normalization-for-defense-pact deal.

But officials in Washington—and especially Riyadh—should want to remove Israel from the proposed deal anyway. Anything else would inject a trilateral logic into bilateral U.S.-Saudi relations. If U.S.-Egypt ties are any indication, that could distort the relationship between Washington and Riyadh in deeply adverse ways.

It seems like a long time ago that U.S. President Joe Biden declared Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to be essentially persona non grata, and members of the U.S. Congress were demanding that the prince be held accountable for his alleged human rights abuses.

As officials in Riyadh predicted then, there would come a time when the president would need the Saudi leader. They did not wait too long. The upward pressure on gasoline prices during the post-COVID-19 travel surge and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented unique challenges to the White House—challenges that required Saudi help to address. The resulting surge in global energy prices threatened the health of the U.S. economy and, by extension, Biden’s electoral prospects, as Americans grappled with and grumbled loudly about the higher prices of everything. This compelled Biden to dispatch diplomats to Riyadh—and eventually make his own visit in July 2022—hoping to convince Saudi officials to pump more oil to give Americans relief at the gas pump and the president some help with his sagging poll numbers.

And that inflation—which high energy prices partially drove—and Russia’s aggression in Europe came against the backdrop of the White House’s tough approach to China. From the beginning of his administration, Biden made it a priority to outmaneuver Beijing around the globe. As the most influential Arab state, Saudi Arabia was expected to be a critical component of that strategy.

Then there was the Iranian threat. After U.S. officials spent the better part of two years chasing Tehran around to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the nuclear agreement that then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from in 2018—Biden seems to have concluded that Iran does not actually want a new relationship with the United States and its neighbors on the Western side of the Persian Gulf.

Consequently, Washington embarked on an effort to bolster regional security that was aimed at containing and deterring the Iranians—an effort in which the Saudis are anticipated to play an important role. Officials in Riyadh have wised up, however, after the nuclear deal and Trump’s unwillingness to respond to Iran’s attacks on their territory in 2019. As a result, they now want a formal agreement that outlines Washington’s commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security.

A popular Israel was supposed to seal the deal, given Saudi Arabia’s continuing unpopularity on Capitol Hill due to the self-inflicted wounds of 2017 and 2018, culminating in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a onetime loyal servant to the House of Saud and a sometime critic of the crown prince. As well-designed as the idea may be, however, trading normalization for a defense pact presents significant downside risks to a relationship that U.S. and Saudi officials believe to be of the utmost importance.

US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 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.


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