In the News
August 4, 2023

The Limits of the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

Ryan Bohl
Senior Middle East and North Africa Analyst at RANE

The Biden administration aims for something like a Middle Eastern NATO, a bulwark of friendly states to keep America in, Russia and China out, and Iran down -- and anchored by an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel. To that end, the White House has dispatched numerous officials to bring about normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel while pushing for a region-wide integrated air defense network. But in Riyadh, there is little appetite to participate in such a grand scheme unless the U.S. offers Saudi Arabia major security guarantees: a defense pact and U.S. support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program.

The problem is that, as the years have passed, the United States and Saudi Arabia have come to need one another a little less. The ties that bind have frayed, worn away by historical events like the Arab Spring, the American shale revolution, the rise of Iran, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the growing economic development – and independence – of both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The relationship may not be broken but it is bent, riven by mutual distrust but pulled back together by brute realities. In tense meetings between heads of state and foreign ministers, spotting the mismatch in priorities is easy.

Most recently, American efforts to convince Saudi Arabia to normalize with Israel (the two have never been formally at war) have run aground on Saudi demands for the U.S. to offer Riyadh a defense pact and cooperation with developing a civilian – that is, a non-weapon producing – nuclear program. Saudi Arabia and Israel already share sizable covert ties (including a tacit understanding that should Israel ever bomb Iran’s nuclear program it could do so through Saudi airspace). But Riyadh, and most importantly the 87-year-old King Salman opposes full-scale normalization short of a Palestinian state – and while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman typically calls the shots, here the Old Guard still holds the upper hand, in part because their position is also popular with the Saudi public and the wider Arab world. A Palestinian state is becoming a pipe dream under the rapid expansionism of the far-right-leaning government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As Israeli annexations in the West Bank loom, public and official opinion in Saudi Arabia has hardened against a near-term diplomatic breakthrough with Israel.

That is, unless such a breakthrough comes with notable strategic gains for Saudi Arabia. One offer is reportedly on the way: according to the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, the Biden White House began a major push for Saudi-Israeli normalization last month. If this push were to accede to major demands of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh might endure the inevitable public backlash on such a policy reversal. At the top of Saudi Arabia’s mind: security. Though often described as “allies,” in reality, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have no formal treaty relationship – the oil-for-defense relationship has always been implicit. Moreover, the United States has demurred multiple times, over multiple presidential administrations, to conventionally retaliate against attacks on Saudi Arabia, such as the 2019 Iranian attack on Abqaiq or the numerous major Houthi attacks on Saudi cities. A formal defense pact akin to what the U.S. has with Japan would tie the U.S. permanently to Saudi Arabia’s security – and potentially deter rivals like Iran and the Houthis, who have used the strategic ambiguity in the U.S.-Saudi relationship to their advantage to threaten Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the matter of a Saudi civilian nuclear program. Such a thing would hardly be an outlier in the region: the neighboring United Arab Emirates has a nuclear program, while NATO-ally Turkey just opened a nuclear power plant built by Russia’s energy giant Rostam. But there is little concern that either country wants a nuclear weapon: the UAE has signed up to the so-called nuclear ‘gold standard’ of a 123 Agreement under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, making it virtually impossible to develop a weapon, while Turkey remains under America’s nuclear umbrella, with some 50 U.S. nukes still stationed on Turkish soil.

Still, these demands might not be such a tall order were the U.S. and Saudi Arabia more aligned on broader issues.

The U.S. is war-weary, and focused heavily on Russia, China, and to a lesser extent Iran; a new defense pact with a country actively involved militarily in places like Yemen is political poison in Washington. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record remains a significant concern and fuels American distrust in providing it with nuclear know-how, with some worried that without the correct safeguards, Saudi Arabia might develop a nuclear weapon and spark a regional arms race. And Saudi Arabia has shown multiple times that even with U.S. support it won’t necessarily align with Washington’s worldview: Riyadh coordinates with Russia to balance the energy market, is now the largest supplier of oil to China, and takes plenty of investment from Beijing. In Washington, few believe that Saudi Arabia would reduce or cut ties with these American rivals in exchange for a defense pact or a nuclear program.

That’s in large part because Saudi Arabia sees more and more of the world through the lens of the Crown Prince's Vision 2030, an ambitious post-oil economic diversification strategy that, ironically given its post-oil goals, needs elevated oil prices to finance its non-oil sector until it’s sustainable. Thus Riyadh coordinates with Russia on oil price stability, even if that pinches its American friends at the pump. The urgency to succeed is only growing too, as Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, have also raced towards post-oil diversification in a way that directly competes with Saudi Arabia. To outbid them with projects designed to lure tourists, talent, investment, and business, Riyadh’s treasury must have profitable oil prices. This lens helps explain why Saudi has turned from hawk to dove in the region, reaching out to former rivals like Turkey and Iran as it seeks both investment and, with Iran, tries to end the barrage of rockets, drones, and missiles that puncture the placid reputation the Kingdom needs for Vision 2030. Further afield, there is little risk to Vision 2030 from Russia’s war in Ukraine, or for that matter with China’s rise and possible future invasion of Taiwan. Who controls Ukraine or Taiwan is the American hegemon’s problem, not Saudi Arabia’s.

And yet both sides remain bound by the defense ties between them. Saudi Arabia’s military is heavily dependent on U.S. hardware and supplies, from tanks to jets to small arms, and replacing those with new foreign equipment will take years if not decades. In any event, neither China nor Russia can become Saudi Arabia’s security guarantor; their friendships with Iran (now actively supporting fighting in Ukraine alongside Russia) further diminishes interest. Both Riyadh, and Washington know there is no replacement for American military aid and counterterrorism support should al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, or another new terror group emerge to challenge the monarchy. And even as Saudi Arabia tries detente with Iran, should Tehran decide to race for a much-feared nuclear weapon, any military effort to stop it would inevitably involve U.S. and Israeli forces operating from or through Saudi Arabia.

This leaves the relationship in a place of strain but not strife – with a lean towards more significant gaps in the future. Riyadh will take no sides if China ever invades Taiwan even as it faces intense U.S. pressure to do so. The U.S. will need Saudi oil less and less as its energy transition takes place, making Washington more confident in criticizing the Saudi political system and in particular its Crown Prince. If Saudi Arabia does normalize with Israel, it will be because of something Israel, rather than the U.S., offers (and which will likely have to wait until the current right-wing government of Israel is replaced by something more moderate). Both Washington and Riyadh still signal discomfort with this trajectory. But there will be increasingly little they can do to arrest it.

Read the article by RANE's Senior Middle East and North Africa Analyst Ryan Bohl in Time here.