May 23, 2023 | Mosaic
The Road to Israel-Saudi Normalization Runs Through Washington
Open ties between the two nations are in everyone’s interest, but it will take serious intent and deft maneuvering from America to get there. Is the administration up to it?
May 23, 2023 | Mosaic
The Road to Israel-Saudi Normalization Runs Through Washington
Open ties between the two nations are in everyone’s interest, but it will take serious intent and deft maneuvering from America to get there. Is the administration up to it?
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince reportedly told senior U.S. officials earlier this month that he is prepared to normalize the kingdom’s relations with Israel as part of a broader reset in relations between Riyadh and Washington. That’s welcome news for a White House scrambling to repair a rupture in U.S.-Saudi ties, as Riyadh appears to be inching toward the exit from its historic relationship with the United States.
For two years, President Joe Biden found every opportunity to distance the U.S. from its decades-long Arab partner in the Gulf. And as a result, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman went shopping for new allies—with China, already his country’s largest trading partner, at the top of the list.
Without a change in course, the United States and Saudi Arabia are headed toward a strategic divorce. Were that to happen, sensitive military and dual-use commercial relationships between Riyadh and Beijing would preclude Washington from sharing certain military hardware, intelligence, and high-tech systems with the kingdom. And as the Chinese-Saudi partnership grows, Israel will also find itself under pressure to keep its distance, although normalization with the Saudis remains a coveted strategic prize for its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Any exposure and vulnerability to China inside Israel’s defense and high-tech sectors inevitably causes problems for U.S.-Israel defense and high-tech cooperation; in effect, were the Saudis to leave the American alliance structure and integrate into China’s, Israel would be forced to choose between its most important benefactor and diplomatic relations with the most significant kingdom in the Arab world.
All of this is great news for China and its most natural ally in the Middle East, Iran. As the U.S. pulls back further from the region and Saudi-Israel normalization gets put on hold, China will fill the vacuum—using its influence on both Iran and on America’s erstwhile Gulf allies to play the kind of global energy politics the U.S. mastered during the cold war. What is now a primarily commercial partnership between Beijing and Riyadh will take on increasing strategic significance, and Saudi Arabia (along with Iran) will become one of several oil-producing friends China can rely upon during moments of confrontation with the United States.
Tehran, for its part, will score a major victory by blocking the development of an integrated U.S.-Israel-Arab security architecture that could contain it, and perhaps even defeat it. Instead, it will use its Palestinian terror proxies to provoke clashes with Israel that stir emotions in the Arabic-language press and refocus Middle Eastern attention on the Israel-Palestinian conflict instead of on its own role in fomenting chaos and bloodshed around the region. For the Saudis, normalization with the Jewish state will lose its appeal, becoming a risky move in support of an alliance with the U.S. that no longer appears worthwhile.
If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known in the Western media as MBS) intended to send Washington a wake-up call by cozying up to Beijing, he succeeded. After nearly a year of inaction, the White House leaned on the Senate to confirm a new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Michael Ratney, who presented his credentials in Riyadh in late April. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited the kingdom in early May, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is planning to follow in June. These are important steps, but healing the relationship’s open wounds and brokering Israeli-Saudi normalization will take more than promises and platitudes; it will require creative reimagination from both capitals and a commitment not merely to maintain, but to upgrade, the alliance.
Since the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States and Saudi Arabia have been through a lot to together—for better and for worse. This relationship has weathered no small number of tensions and crises, despite having no formal agreements or official documents that would give it a binding status. The story begins with Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdulaziz, who fueled the United States to victory over Germany and Japan in World War II. After the war, the kingdom emerged as a major cold-war ally in the Middle East. But the Saudi-led oil embargo of 1973—retaliation for U.S. support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War—sent the American economy into a tailspin.
Yet the relationship recovered from this particular low point. By 1975, Riyadh agreed to make the dollar the standard currency for the global sale of oil—a decision that would help establish the dollar’s primacy in international trade, and thus the primacy of the American financial system. And in the 1980s, Abdulaziz’s son, King Fahd, helped Ronald Reagan win the cold war by covertly funding Afghan mujahideen attacks against the USSR while increasing oil production to drive down prices, thereby drying up resources for an oil revenue-dependent Kremlin.
By 1990, ties were stronger than ever. President George H.W. Bush ordered more than 500,000 U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to defend the kingdom and drive the forces of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Yet just ten years later, things took another dramatic turn for the worse with the September 11 attacks. Of the nineteen hijackers, fifteen were Saudi nationals. The Saudi government was not behind the attacks—but the episode exposed the royal court’s decades-long strategy of appeasing radical voices within the kingdom at the expense of U.S. national security.
But even this setback did not prove sufficient to break the U.S-Saudi alliance. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both made multiple visits to the kingdom, while the Saudis took a dramatic turn away from their terror- and Islamism-supporting ways. It seems that with each crisis, the strategic paradigm of “oil for security”—that Saudi Arabia would rely on the United States for its physical security while the United States would rely on Saudi Arabia for its energy and economic security—has in the end reasserted itself.
In Riyadh, a generation of leaders whose worldviews were molded by the cold war is being replaced by a younger generation raised in a more interconnected era, with the thirty-seven-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the helm. In Washington, after decades of hard-power presence in the Middle East and an invasion of Iraq that fundamentally altered the region, the United States is pulling back, responding to populist campaign rhetoric, shifting attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific, and ceding great-power influence in the region to China and Russia.
At the same time, the last decade ushered in geopolitical and economic transformations that called into question the doctrine of oil for security. Wounds first opened by President Obama have turned gangrenous under President Biden.
Obama’s perceived abandonment of the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood sent shockwaves through the Arab world—as did Obama’s decision to walk away from a threat to use force against the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Add in the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran—an attempt to rebalance power in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia, an American ally, and Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism—while declaring an American “pivot to Asia,” and the U.S.-Saudi relationship found itself on thin ice.
President Donald Trump’s embrace of MBS and reimposition of tough sanctions on Iran appeared at first to be another iteration of the cycle, with reconciliation again following crisis. In reality, it may have done little more than buy time. Trump treated Saudi Arabia transactionally and talked condescendingly. He spoke often of ending “endless wars” in the Middle East, and his precipitous withdrawal of troops from Syria, which left Kurdish allies unprotected from Turkish air power, and his desperation for a peace agreement with the Taliban, which fundamentally weakened the Afghan government, continued the Obama policy of ceding the region to great-power competitors.
For Riyadh, the question of whether the United States would ever again come to Saudi Arabia’s military aid, as it did during the first Gulf War, was tested in 2019 when Iran launched a drone and cruise-missile strike against Saudi Aramco—immediately taking 5 percent of the global oil supply offline and exposing a catastrophic vulnerability in Saudi air defense. President Trump opted against a military response, fearing that American use of force in retaliation for an attack on foreign interests would meet with a backlash that could upend his maximum-pressure campaign on Iran and spur bipartisan calls to lift sanctions on Tehran. Trump reportedly ordered a cyberattack instead and later sent more U.S. troops and missile-defense assets to the region to placate an outraged Saudi leadership.
While not directly connected to the attack on Aramco, Trump’s decision months later to kill Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite paramilitary Quds Force and architect of regional mayhem and sponsorship of terrorism, demonstrated America’s capacity to be a more valuable, albeit sometimes unreliable, military ally than either China or Russia. So too did Trump’s reported interest in exploring a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But Joe Biden’s decision while running for president to placate pro-Tehran sentiment inside the Democratic party’s progressive base—vowing to make MBS a “pariah” and to return the United States to the nuclear deal—made it all but impossible to slow the erosion of America’s ongoing commitment in Riyadh. Worse still, Biden governed as he campaigned, attempting to weaken Saudi Arabia’s regional power while elevating Iran’s and declaring economic war on oil, the lifeblood of the Saudi economy. Upon assuming office, he removed the Iran-sponsored Yemeni Houthis from the official list of foreign terrorist organizations, prompting an uptick in missile and drone attacks against the kingdom. He followed up with an order to end U.S. military sales and intelligence support that could help Saudi Arabia target the Iran- and Hizballah-trained Houthis inside Yemen—and then withdrew the extra U.S. missile-defense assets Trump had provided. In short, he drove a stake through the heart of oil-for-security.
Biden appointed Robert Malley—a veteran left-wing think tanker and former Obama administration official known for his advocacy of warmer American relations with Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas—special envoy for Iran with a mandate to loosen enforcement of U.S. sanctions while pleading with Tehran to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. And then, making good on his pledge to isolate MBS, Biden made him persona non grata in the White House and declassified an intelligence assessment about the crown prince’s involvement in the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi—an assessment that added no new information to existing public reporting but which was evidently intended to cause the crown prince personal embarrassment.
Then reality set in. Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine sent oil prices skyrocketing. Biden scrambled. Washington called Saudi Arabia to help stabilize the market. But MBS was in no mood to do Biden any favors—the higher price of oil, after all, would help finance his massive economic development program, dubbed Vision 2030.
Suspecting MBS was merely playing “hard to get,” Biden reluctantly scheduled a visit to Saudi Arabia under cover of a multilateral forum and agreed to meet the crown prince on one condition: no shaking hands. It was the height of disrespect on MBS’s home turf—and the last straw. MBS welcomed the president and began to shop around for new patrons. Hedging against the U.S., and betting on the emergence of a multipolar world, he pursued several security partnerships simultaneously. He reportedly also put a price on normalization with Israel: NATO-like security guarantees from the United States, a vast expansion of U.S. arm sales, domestic defense production, and a civilian nuclear program that included uranium enrichment on Saudi soil.
Sensing an opening, China’s President Xi Jinping wasted little time in offering Riyadh an alternative strategic framework. China, already Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, could offer MBS something new: political and economic influence over Tehran in exchange for expanding relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). MBS welcomed Xi to Saudi Arabia in December for a China-GCC summit that ended with a joint communique committing Beijing to the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the rest of the GCC—explicitly pledging to pursue a regional framework that would address Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, missile proliferation, and nuclear ambitions.
By March, a deal was hatched. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic ties and to end all direct or indirect attempts to inflict harm on one another. Saudi Arabia—for a price still unknown—bought a period of relative calm along its borders, aiming to halt Iran-sponsored missile and drone attacks that threaten Vision 2030. Iran, facing a collapsing currency, hyperinflation, and domestic unrest, struck back at U.S.-led efforts to isolate it—while increasing its military support to Russia, launching a multi-front attack on Israel, and racing toward the nuclear threshold.
The Saudis claim they had nothing to lose and plenty to gain. Iran, they argue, is the weaker party, suing for peace in Yemen to conserve its resources. If China can use its influence to advance Saudi security interests at a time the United States either cannot or will not, so be it. The door is still open to discuss the terms of an upgraded U.S.-Saudi partnership, but Saudi Arabia will do what it must to defend its interests in the meantime.
Washington should hold no illusions. Should China prove itself a more reliable powerbroker than the United States, a more permanent Saudi-China strategic partnership will likely ensue—one that could include military, nuclear, and other elements that threaten American interests. Indeed, Riyadh has already announced it will apply to become a “dialogue partner” (a status beneath both “member” and “observer”) in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Sino-Russian attempt at a counterweight to the U.S.-led order in Europe and Asia.
The looming threat of losing Saudi Arabia entirely to its main international rivals should focus Washington’s attention. This is more than the latest rough patch in what might seem like a never-ending series of highs and lows that is the U.S.-Saudi relationship. The fact is that the oil-for-security paradigm no longer makes sense in the 21st century, at least not in its historic form, and restoring the alliance will entail rethinking its underlying assumptions.
From social media to artificial intelligence to environmental concerns to new military technologies to the Abraham Accords, the world today is profoundly different than the one discussed by President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz aboard the USS Quincy in 1945. The Saudi Arabia of MBS is lightyears apart from the desert kingdom of his grandfather. Attempts to create an innovation economy, the government-led campaign against Islamic extremism, the extension of new rights to millions of Saudi women, the open discussion of normalizing relations with Israel, and the liberalization of sports and entertainment amount to the beginning of a new era.
Reinvigorating U.S.-Saudi relations must begin with a re-evaluation of what the United States needs from Saudi Arabia and what Saudi Arabia needs from the United States. For the United States, the role of oil in the relationship remains critical in two ways. First, despite the dramatic growth in American energy production in the last decade, Saudi Arabia still has unparalleled influence over the global petroleum trade. Thus in 2011 and 2012, Riyadh helped Washington stabilize the oil market when Congress enacted sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran. Washington asked for help again when, in both 2018 and 2019, President Trump reimposed sanctions on Iranian oil and worked to bring Tehran’s revenues to near-zero. Riyadh again complied. And as last year’s oil price spike reminded the White House, the American economy pays a steep price when Riyadh is alienated and refuses to help.
But Saudi Arabia’s ability to contribute to American economic security goes beyond its ability to stabilize oil markets. U.S. economic supremacy depends in part on the kingdom continuing to trade oil in dollars. The primacy of the dollar as a global currency benefits Riyadh as well, since U.S. sanctions—the very same sanctions that weakened Iran’s economy and enabled Saudi Arabia’s recent de-escalation agreement—rely heavily on the dominance of the American financial system.
Important as such assistance is, there is more that Saudi Arabia can do to help the United States—and that the United States is within its rights to ask for. More than twenty years after the September 11 attacks, America has learned a few things. One of the most important: the U.S. military can accomplish much, but it cannot win a war against a religious ideology. For that, Washington must support independent nations whose interests and aspirations align with its own and that have the means and will to counter extremism in the Middle East and around the world. No country is better positioned to do that than Saudi Arabia, which has an unrivaled status in the Muslim world as the birthplace of Islam and home of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The crown prince’s commitment to combating radical Islam should form a core pillar of a U.S.-Saudi framework—a combination of Saudi soft power with American hard power—alongside continued intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation.
In the same vein, long-term regional security and stability will only arrive when the United States and its allies build an integrated political, economic, and security architecture. That is, American allies in the Middle East should, with U.S. leadership, take responsibility in a systematic and reliable way for maintaining some semblance of regional order. Such an architecture would demoralize common enemies—isolating the Islamic Republic of Iran and drying up resources and support for its regional proxies. It would of course entail cooperation among the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt—and Israel. So long as its neighbors continue to shun the Jewish state, this sort of regional comity will remain impossible. The steps taken by the UAE and Bahrain following the Abraham Accords are historic and rightly celebrated, but only Saudi Arabia can complete the process of normalization.
A Middle East security partnership led jointly by Israel and Saudi Arabia, and backed by the United States, would enable multinational military exercises in or near the Gulf, regional integrated air defenses to counter Iranian missile threats, and enhanced intelligence cooperation to combat Iran-backed terrorist groups. Over time, these and similar arrangements will reduce the demand for U.S. defense resources that are sorely needed in the Indo-Pacific as American military planners prepare for a possible war with China.
For Israel, normalization with Saudi Arabia will bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and create a domino effect of diplomatic ties with Muslim countries throughout the world, dramatically undermining the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (BDS). New markets will open to Israeli firms and new security partnerships will be formed. And the ideological impact on a generation of young Muslims that will grow up seeing Israel as just another Middle Eastern country will pay dividends for decades to come.
Saudi-Israel normalization is in the kingdom’s interest, too. Some believe Riyadh already reaps the benefits of diplomatic relations with Israel without risking a backlash from its own people or from the Arab and Muslim worlds. After all, Israel already maintains clandestine security ties with the kingdom and Israelis with dual passports increasingly fly back and forth for business. What more would Saudi Arabia get by making these ties public and thus risking instability inside its borders?
Quite a lot, in fact. While it’s true that Riyadh already enjoys many of the security and intelligence benefits of normalization at minimal political cost, the kind of real-time coordination and military technology transfers that come with normalization would be a game-changer for Saudi Arabia’s defense posture. Whatever Saudi Arabia thinks it’s getting from Israel in the security domain is a highly diluted version of what it would get from full, public, and friendly diplomatic relations.
Perhaps more importantly, however, MBS knows that the success of his Vision 2030 economic program hinges on the kingdom establishing itself as high-tech hub—and no matter how many American, Asian, or European executives visit, he is unlikely to achieve the vision’s lofty goals without integration into Tel Aviv’s high-tech ecosystem. Normalization would unlock the “start-up nation” to Saudi entrepreneurs and investors, providing the injection of dynamism and innovation that MBS needs to establish his own start-up kingdom.
Likewise, there is much that Saudi Arabia will want from the United States in order to achieve its own national priorities. Riyadh desires a stable and secure Middle East as much, if not more, than Washington does. It, too, wants energy security, including the defense of its energy infrastructure as well as of the sea lanes in and around the Gulf. The kingdom wants attacks from Iran and its proxies to stop. And it wants the offensive and defensive military capabilities to defeat active threats to its national security.
All those objectives are in line with U.S. national interests—as detailed at length last July in the U.S.-Saudi “Jeddah Communique”—though Riyadh might conclude that such objectives fall in line with Beijing’s interests as well. What sets Washington apart, however, aside from its superior military technology, is that only the United States is an enemy of Saudi Arabia’s primary antagonist, the Islamic Republic of Iran. America may not be consistent in its use of military force, but it is the only great power that might ever use it against Tehran. China and Russia, by contrast, are both deepening their investments in Iran. While there’s no guarantee the United States will attack Iran, there is a guarantee that China and Russia never will. Rather than drive the U.S. military away with closer Chinese relations, MBS should consider what an upgraded defense arrangement with the United States could offer.
A recent report from Brad Bowman, Orde Kittrie, and Ryan Brobst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies outlines a range of options for such an enhancement with two notably topping the list: designating Saudi Arabia a major defense partner—a designation currently only given to India—and adding the kingdom to the list of major non-NATO allies. Both would be within the president’s authority to approve and would provide such tangible benefits as domestic defense production and forward-stationed arms depots.
Beyond security and defense guarantees, the kingdom also wants its Vision 2030 economic program to succeed. The American private sector is already lined up to take part in the investment bonanza, but the White House could bring the public sector along by establishing a Vision 2030 cabinet-level working group to provide technical assistance. Vision 2030 focuses on issues like housing, healthcare, education, sustainability, art, cultural diversity, and women’s empowerment—all of which the Biden administration should naturally support. The plan is intrinsically linked to Saudi Arabia’s continued progress on social liberalization and countering extremism. It should be a cornerstone of any strategic partnership.
Finally, Saudi officials say that in a world increasingly pressing for an oil-free future, the kingdom needs to diversify its energy production—including by tapping into Saudi uranium as part of a domestic nuclear-energy program. The crown prince, however, reportedly wants to enrich that uranium on Saudi soil rather than importing already-enriched nuclear fuel from outside the country—the latter being the gold standard of American nonproliferation policy adopted by other partners like the UAE and the former raising concerns that Saudi Arabia wants to build a nuclear-weapons capability in response to Iran’s.
Under U.S. law, transfers of nuclear technology require a written “123 agreement” detailing how such technology will be used. That agreement must be submitted to Congress for review. To the extent Saudi Arabia can find proven uranium deposits, the U.S. could consider support for joint exploration, mining, milling, and even exporting Saudi uranium. That would elevate Saudi stature as a uranium supplier on the world stage.
But any administration, Democratic or Republican, will be hard-pressed to approve the sale of nuclear technology without an express commitment to forego domestic enrichment—not least because other countries, including the UAE, would immediately demand their own enrichment programs. The Saudis, of course, have an easy retort to a Biden administration that still supports the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which legitimizes an Iranian enrichment program born out of illicit nuclear weapons-related activities. “How,” the Saudis would rightly ask, “can you approve domestic enrichment under the nuclear deal for an enemy like Iran, and not approve domestic enrichment for a strategic partner like us?”
For the majority of the U.S. Congress that opposed the Iran deal, the answer is easy: we absolutely reject Iran having any enrichment program. Even for those who support the deal, it amounts only to tolerating temporarily an illicit program. Riyadh shouldn’t want a nuclear program viewed as illicit, suspect, or merely tolerated—casting a shadow over the rest of Vision 2030 and potentially threatening investment.
Meanwhile, there is a decision point coming for the Biden administration this fall when a UN missile embargo on Iran is scheduled to expire unless the original parties to the nuclear deal “snap back” sanctions and restrictions on Iran. The snapback would not only keep the missile embargo and restore a conventional arms embargo that expired in 2020, it would also restore the international standard of zero enrichment for Iran. Trading the snapback for a Saudi commitment to forgo enrichment would be the most obvious way to cut what could otherwise become a Gordian knot preventing not only an upgraded U.S.-Saudi alliance but normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, too.
President Biden and his counterparts in Europe are afraid of triggering the snapback for fear Tehran would retaliate by enriching uranium at weapons-grade levels. That makes a compromise harder to reach, but not impossible. Earlier this year, John Hannah of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs claimed that MBS had another solution in mind: establishing an Arabian American Nuclear Company to oversee and safeguard enrichment, on the model of the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco.
This sort of partnership sounds appealing at first. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerated the U.S. government’s push to diversify its own nuclear-fuel supply. In 2021, America imported 14 percent of its nuclear fuel from Russia, and a bill banning such imports is moving through Congress. The prospects for Saudi Arabia to contribute to a Western-oriented nuclear fuel supply chain should be fully explored.
The Aramco model, however, has its limitations. Saudi Arabia eventually took control of Aramco; such a move in the nuclear case would eliminate U.S. oversight of Saudi enrichment. The White House would need to find an arrangement under permanent U.S. control, potentially in cooperation with a close European nuclear power, secured on a U.S. military base with only American or authorized European personnel. And even then, the plan would prove a hard sell to skeptics in Washington and Jerusalem, which has its own longstanding policy of denying its neighbors potential pathways to nuclear weapons. Far better would be to keep enrichment off the table and explore other avenues of advanced nuclear-energy research and development involving the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia that could establish the kingdom as a global leader in the civil nuclear arena.
Still, when reviewing the list of mutual needs in totality, one thing becomes clear: a relationship based on oil for security no longer makes sense for the United States and Saudi Arabia. Instead, this must be a security-for-security framework—diplomatic security, military security, economic security, energy security—and an alliance based not only on mutual respect and historic ties, but on the defense of vital interests. A closer relationship, rather than a separation, serves the interests of both countries. Anything that drives them apart will undermine those interests.
China, of course, will loom large over any such negotiation. The Saudi royal court has made expanding international partnerships a strategic priority. That’s understandable for a rising mid-sized power. Changes are taking place rapidly in the kingdom and interested investors are lining up from every corner of the earth. But Riyadh should also consider the difference between trade partnerships and security architectures.
China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. But the United States remains heavily dependent on China for imports, too, and oftentimes relies on Saudi Arabia to sell more oil to China to prevent U.S. oil sanctions from throwing off the market. While the U.S. is taking steps to reduce its dependency on China when it comes to critical supply chains, unwinding all trade is not under discussion.
Although Washington does not seek conflict, it must take Beijing at its word and deed and prepare for potential clashes in the years ahead. That means the question to all allies of the United States—from Great Britain to Israel to Saudi Arabia—is what kind of ties with China can and cannot coexist in the context of the emerging great-power competition. In the case of U.S.-Saudi relations, given China’s close ties to Iran, defending against the transfer of sensitive technology and information not only protects U.S. national security but Saudi Arabis’s, too.
Washington’s goal vis-à-vis Beijing is not to limit Riyadh’s diplomatic relations or wide range of economic interests; it is to ensure that the United States can confidently open the keys to its own proverbial kingdom without letting China’s top military adversary inside the gates. This is a conversation that can be conducted thoughtfully, respectfully, and quietly—as it already has with a wide range of U.S. allies.
Two parties that wish to form an upgraded alliance based on mutual vital interests can conclude an agreement relatively quickly. The question is whether they want that or not. The Biden administration will need to persuade MBS that it recognizes its own missteps, and make clear that it believes that U.S. national security is stronger when it is allied with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, because power attracts power, and to make the American alliance more attractive than its Chinese rival, the United States will need to project a renewed self-confidence in its conduct in the region. For his part, MBS will need to persuade Washington that Saudi Arabia’s move toward China can be walked back, and that in the coming hour of decision that every such nation will face, Saudi Arabia’s trade and bilateral cooperation with China will not hamper a U.S.-Saudi security architecture. Both countries have much to gain, and perhaps even more to lose if they miss the opportunity. If they find a way forward, normalization with Israel won’t be a Saudi concession, but a prize.
Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer. Follow Rich on Twitter @rich_goldberg. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.