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How did MBS shrug off 'pariah status' and put the US on the back foot?

How did MBS shrug off 'pariah status' and put the US on the back foot?

Biden officials are now talking about what they can give Riyadh — including nuke tech and security — for closer ties with Israel.

Analysis | Middle East

In a speech last week to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, “The United States has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” But what is that interest? Blinken did not say. Nor has the Biden administration provided such an explanation on any other occasion.

In fact, an upgrading of the current Saudi-Israeli relationship to include full diplomatic relations would advance no identifiable U.S. national interest. Whatever benefit to the United States is to be gotten from Saudi-Israeli cooperation can be had from the extensive cooperation, including on security matters, that already exists between those two countries, without any exchange of ambassadors and embassies. That cooperation has gone as far as including Saudi and Israeli participation in an airborne military exercise that also included a U.S. Air Force bomber.

Saudi-Israeli normalization would not be a “peace” agreement, given that Saudi Arabia and Israel are not at war. Israel would treat such a move, as it has treated earlier normalization with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as cementing an anti-Iran military alliance — which, far from making the region more peaceful, sharpens lines of conflict and heightens tensions. Normalization would also reduce further any Israeli incentive to resolve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Not making peace with the Palestinians is one of the main points of normalization for Israel.

The Netanyahu government strongly wants full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, as it did earlier with Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, as a demonstration that it can enjoy relationships with regional states while continuing the occupation and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory. The symbolism of this have-cake-and-eat-it concession to Israel would be the principal significance of normalization of relations with Riyadh.

Far from having a positive interest in any of this, the United States has a negative interest in perpetuation of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of that conflict’s continuing and recently escalating violence and contribution to regional instability and because of how the close U.S.-Israeli relationship associates the United States in the eyes of the world with the suppression of Palestinian rights. And yet, the Biden administration has, for reasons it will not explain publicly, adopted Saudi-Israeli normalization as a goal and seems prepared to pay an up-front price to attain it.

The earlier normalization between Israel and some other Arab states did not reflect any regional kumbaya, as demonstrated by how the Trump administration needed side-payments to the Arab governments involved to make the normalization happen. Those side-payments had costs in the form of exacerbating rather than relieving regional tensions. The payment to the UAE was a sale of F-35 aircraft, which encourages a further arms race in the Persian Gulf and increases the military reach of a country that already has intervened with air power as far away from its own territory as Libya. The payment to Morocco was the Trump administration’s breaking with previous U.S. policy and the international consensus regarding the Western Sahara dispute by supporting Morocco’s claim to the territory — an abandonment of neutrality that exacerbated tensions between Morocco and Algeria and complicated international efforts to resolve the dispute.

Now Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is demanding his own side-payments, in the form of more unrestricted arms transfers, U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, and assistance in building a Saudi nuclear program. It would be bad enough to give MbS concessions of any sort in pursuit not of U.S. interests but instead something that another foreign regime wants. As Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut aptly put it, “If we’re going to enter into a relationship with the Saudis where we’re doing more significant arms sales, it should be in exchange for better behavior toward the United States, not just better behavior toward Israel.” It is even worse when MbS’s demands have additional problems of their own.

The demand regarding a Saudi nuclear program carries a major downside in increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East. MbS has explicitly raised the possibility of Saudi Arabia making a nuclear weapon. He tied that possibility to whether Iran makes a nuclear weapon, and Iran currently is not doing so.

But the significant expansion of Iran’s nuclear program following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the multilateral agreement that had severely restricted that program raises the prospect, if Saudi Arabia builds its own nuclear program, of mutual suspicions leading to a race in nuclear capabilities that could easily get out of control. This would be a version of a security dilemma, with each side of this Persian Gulf rivalry reading, or misreading, the other side’s moves in erecting an ostensibly civilian nuclear program as signaling a decision to build a bomb.

Saudi Arabia has so far refused to sign what is known as a 123 Agreement, a formula that has permitted U.S. assistance to civilian nuclear power programs in other countries but keeps uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication out of those countries to avoid risk of the program being diverted to military purposes. Saudi officials have talked instead about a “nuclear Aramco,” referring to how the oil enterprise with that name began as a joint venture between the kingdom and several U.S. oil companies. But once it got the technology and infrastructure it seeks, including the technology of uranium enrichment, nothing would stop Riyadh from turning a nuclear Aramco — just as happened to the oil Aramco — into a wholly Saudi operation.

It is unclear exactly what kind of security guarantees the Saudis have in mind as another demand they are placing on the United States, but it is difficult to envision any formula that would serve U.S. interests and would not instead raise the risk of the United States being dragged into someone else’s quarrels. This already happened with the highly destructive Saudi air war against Yemen, which was carried out with U.S. assistance.

Added U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia would carry the moral hazard of leading MbS to feel freer to engage in additional Yemen-like violent mischief.

A silver lining of the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019 — claimed by Yemeni Houthis, but widely blamed on Iran — was that the absence of any U.S. rush to assist Saudi Arabia encouraged the Saudis to conclude that their security requires rapprochement with regional rivals rather than continued confrontation. This led eventually to the Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which the Biden administration, to its credit, welcomed. Giving MbS a security guarantee that might encourage renewed confrontation would undo much of the relaxation in regional tensions and would heighten the risk of new wars.

Saudi Arabia clearly is an important regional state. The United States needs to have extensive relations with it and to find ways to work with it on specific matters where the interests of the two countries run parallel. But there is no reason for the United States to side automatically or even semi-automatically with the Saudis in whatever regional contests or quarrels they engage in. Saudi Arabia shares almost no fundamental values with the United States. It has a thuggish, autocratic political system that is the least democratic in the Middle East, it is religiously intolerant and has fostered violent religious extremism, and it is a gross human rights violator — including in ways that have touched the United States, such as the state-sanctioned murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

No amount of cozying up to MbS will build a special relationship leading him to defer to U.S. wishes and U.S. interests. President Biden should have learned this when his friendly fist bump with MbS amid hopes of Saudi cooperation with Western oil needs was followed by the hopes going unrealized. Saudi Arabia continues to work with its fellow oil producer Russia through OPEC+ and makes decisions about oil production levels that maximize revenues for both Saudi Arabia and Russia — Western economies be damned. The Saudi-Russian relationship has entailed a Saudi policy of neutrality toward Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Riyadh’s recent welcoming of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro was another indication of Saudi willingness to have positive relationships with U.S. foes.

MbS almost certainly sees himself as being in a strong bargaining position relative to the Biden administration. A U.S. president who before coming into office had said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” has not only dropped that posture but is having U.S. diplomats talk about what benefits can be bestowed on MbS’s regime. That regime also has just scored one of its biggest victories in the sportswashing of its sordid international image, with the PGA Tour of professional golf having caved to the challenge from the Saudi-financed LIV tour and agreed to a merger. If that merger is ultimately finalized, the chairman of the organization that will now oversee all of men’s competitive professional golf in the United States and Europe will be the governor of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

Interpreting charitably the Biden administration’s motives for its otherwise unexplained push for Saudi-Israeli normalization — that is, overlooking the obvious domestic political motives involved — perhaps the administration wants to try to recover some of the Middle Eastern diplomatic prominence that the Chinese acquired with their role in the Saudi-Iranian normalization. But if it really wants to compete with China diplomatically in the region, it will not be able to do so with the usual American posture of dividing the area rigidly into foes and friends and dealing constructively only with the latter. It needs instead to emulate China in practicing active diplomacy with everyone in the region — which is why China was able to accomplish the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and the United States was not.

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