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Breaking Away From Secret Concessions in the Middle East

Saudi Arabia is exploiting great-power competition to obtain security commitments from the U.S. This should be rejected.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, listens as UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, right, speaks at last year’s Negev Summit, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel.,Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

Saudi Arabia is seeking new security guarantees and cooperation on their civilian nuclear program from the United States, as the “price” for formally normalizing relations with Israel. Immediately following this revelation, the news of a brokered deal re-establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran—aided in part by China—captured headlines around the world, with many casting the move as a diplomatic victory for Beijing. Reports now indicate that China is planning a new “Middle East summit,” as Beijing expands its regional footprint.

It is no coincidence that these developments have been coupled together. They are part of an ongoing effort by U.S. partners to manipulate the return of great-power competition in the Middle East and the dominance of the Abraham Accords framework in Washington to pressure the United States into providing major security concessions. The question we should be asking is whether such a security guarantee—or even the Abraham Accords themselves—serves national U.S. interests. The unquestioned pursuit of these accords, and the secret concessions the Trump and now Biden administration have offered up to secure them, first with Morocco, Sudan, the UAE, and now possibly Saudi Arabia, are a reflection of the unprecedented influence of foreign governments and the defense industry in our own democratic system, delivering outcomes that serve them, but not our country.

Emboldening Illiberal Behavior

The potential Saudi-Israel normalization is designed to appeal to those in Washington who have adopted the Abraham Accords framework as the new guiding rod for Middle East policy, including the Biden administration and leading voices on both sides of the political aisle in Congress. But there has been virtually no public discussion about the extension of these accords, nor even a basic inquiry about whether they require U.S. concessions to achieve what Israel and the Arab states already want and could bargain for on their own. There’s been even less transparency about what kind of commitment the unprecedented security guarantees to Saudi Arabia would entail—including potentially U.S. troops—and the circumstances under which Saudi Arabia could demand the U.S. exercise them.

A security commitment to Saudi Arabia or other illiberal actors in the region would formalize and further solidify U.S. support for a top-down, reactionary axis, designed to maintain through fierce repression the regional status quo of autocratic and apartheid governance. Previous normalizations between Israel and other Arab states have been rooted in advancing the strategic interests of political elites within these countries, preserving the prevailing illiberal order that continues to dominate the Middle East, and assuring that the United States remains deeply enmeshed in the region as their security guarantor.

Such a security commitment would also encourage erratic and aggressive foreign policies by these actors, secure in their knowledge that the U.S. would be obliged to come to their defense. The record to date shows that U.S. military, political, and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has not only emboldened, but enabled, their reckless, belligerent behavior, most prominently in their nearly eight-year war in Yemen that has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

U.S. partners in the Middle East have sought to manipulate Washington’s anxiety about losing its position relative to Russia or China through a form of “reverse leverage.”

When U.S. support has been absent, such as in its opposition to the Saudi/Emirati plan to invade Qatar or the lack of response to the likely-Iranian attack on Saudi’s oil facilities in Abqaiq in 2019, it has encouraged peace and reconciliation. New security guarantees would risk new conflicts, effectively sacrificing U.S. lives to preserve the illiberal status quo that dominates the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia has been quite open about its purely mercantile relationship with the United States, willing to oppose the U.S. whenever it serves their interests or the whims of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia refused to support sanctions on Russia or to increase oil output in the wake of spiraling oil prices last fall, despite President Biden’s humiliating journey to Jeddah to kiss his ring and plead his case. Indeed, MBS capped off the insult by hosting President Xi for a lavish, formal state visit immediately after Biden left, and announcing billions in new deals with China. Today, Saudi Arabia continues to pour financial and military resources into supporting allied authoritarian actors engaged in gross abuses, and continues its ham-handed campaigns of transnational repression and surveillance targeting activists and dissidents around the world, including inside the United States.

Meanwhile, domestic repression has reached Kafkaesque new heights. Multiple women have been sentenced to decades in prison for innocuous tweets. A prosecutor is seeking the death penalty against ten former judges for “being too lenient.” MBS even sentenced 72-year-old American-Saudi engineer Saad Almadi to 19 years in prison, also for a few critical tweets, at exactly the same time the crown prince was demanding recognition of immunity in a lawsuit against him for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

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Saudi authorities released Almadi last week, announcing without explanation they had dropped all charges, apparently a chit offered up as they haggle for the security guarantees. But he remains travel-banned in the country. It’s almost as if MBS, even as he doubles down on his lawless, cruel rule, is trying to prove that he can still bring the U.S. to its knees, palms open, eyes looking the other way. This is what our support makes possible.

If the security deal proceeds, the lesson Saudi Arabia and other regional autocrats will learn is that bad behavior is actually rewarded by Washington, paving the way for other regional actors to pressure the United States into providing more formal commitments. So long as the United States continues backing such actors, it will further exacerbate the region’s greatest divide, between long‐​standing autocratic regimes and the people they rule over.

The United States already maintains a vast network of security commitments in Europe and Asia, and extending such guarantees to the Middle East would represent a counterproductive distraction and draining of critical resources. We’ve been told by multiple administrations that the U.S. wants to disengage from the region and its conflicts. Yet here we are actually considering expanding them? It makes no sense.

Reverse Leverage

The parallel news of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered with Chinese assistance, was designed in part to project an image that Beijing is filling a U.S. “void” in the Middle East. This is despite the fact that regional-led efforts to bring together the two countries, primarily by Iraq and Oman, had been ongoing since 2021. Beijing was able to capitalize on this relatively low-hanging fruit.

For Saudi Arabia, the sealing of such an agreement under the veneer of Chinese diplomacy allows Riyadh to further pressure the United States into believing that it is losing regional influence. Saudi officials have themselves admitted this: According to The Wall Street Journal, “in private, Saudi officials said, the crown prince has said he expects that by playing major powers against each other, Saudi Arabia can eventually pressure Washington to concede to its demands for better access to U.S. weapons and nuclear technology.”

As the United States is increasingly drawn to other regional theaters, U.S. partners in the Middle East have sought to manipulate Washington’s anxiety about losing its position relative to Russia or China through a form of “reverse leverage,” designed to keep America deeply engaged in the region as the guarantor of the prevailing status quo.

Such maneuvering has accelerated dramatically following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE clashing repeatedly with Washington over oil prices, sanctions on Moscow, U.N. resolutions condemning the invasion, and more. Over the past year, they have increasingly pushed for a formal, bilateral U.S. security guarantee under the auspices of repairing such relations.

Many in Washington have begun to embrace this narrative and push for greater U.S. regional commitments, lest these ostensible “partners” continue to turn to Moscow or Beijing. As the United States increasingly perceives its interests in the Middle East through the lens of great-power politics and the Abraham Accords framework, so too have regional states sought to exploit such frameworks to advance their own interests.

The foundation for increased U.S. security commitments may already be in motion. In June 2022, former Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz confirmed that Israel is building a U.S.-sponsored regional air defense network called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD). Not much is known about MEAD, but news of the “alliance” comes after reports of high-level cooperation between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt, and there have been efforts to bring in Saudi Arabia as well.

Recently, officials from the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Morocco, and Bahrain convened in Manama, Bahrain, to push forward with the establishment of the Negev Forum, designed to further integrate security cooperation in the region. In January 2023, the Negev Forum was convened again, with the second annual Negev Summit set to be held this spring. Israeli officials told Axios that this is “the beginning of a regional alliance” designed to build off of the foundation established by the Abraham Accords.

While it is unlikely Moscow or Beijing possess the ability or desire to project force in the Middle East, even if Russia or China expanded their regional footprint in the wake of a drawdown by the United States, this would not be detrimental to U.S. strategic interests. As the world enters into a new period of multipolarity, core U.S. interests have shifted away from the Middle East. The only way the Middle East poses a threat to core U.S. interests is if Washington continues to double down on failed policies that have effectively substituted the interests of regional autocrats for our own. Additionally, though some may point to the loss of regional arms sales as a negative ramification, when compared to the costs of maintaining U.S. primacy in the Middle East—estimated to be around $65–$70 billion annually, not to mention the trillions of dollars spent on U.S. wars—such “profits” are dwarfed in comparison. Not to mention the fact that this money only serves to enrich arms manufacturers.

The expanded presence of Russia and China in the Middle East should not trigger knee-jerk panic about lost U.S. primacy, but be seen as an opportunity to do what successive administrations have promised is a priority: withdraw from our military entanglements in the region. A better strategy would consider replacing our military influence with broader economic, education, and cultural investments, while reducing our reliance on fossil fuel to thwart politically motivated squeezes on supply.

A Threat to U.S. Democracy

Least appreciated is how the prospects of such commitments represent a unique threat to U.S. democracy. The Biden administration has pursued discussions about potential security guarantees with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in near-total secrecy, with no transparency or public debate on the risks they would entail, or even why they are necessary for U.S. interests. The lack of such consultation on such a major foreign-policy undertaking significantly undermines our own democratic processes, with results as disastrous as other foreign-policy commitments that did not have congressional approval, like the war in Yemen.

In addition, such a security agreement on the heels of growing evidence of Saudi government and defense industry infiltration in Congress and the executive branch, not only from lobbying influence but from promises of future employment for administration officials, undermines confidence in the integrity of the administration’s decision-making. While it has long been U.S. practice to meddle in the elections and governments of foreign countries, we now face the unprecedented reality of foreign states meddling in our elections and government decision-making, primarily through financial rewards for candidates and former politicians alike.

The Biden administration may see Israel-Saudi normalization as a diplomatic “victory” leading up to the 2024 presidential election. But U.S.-Middle East policy is in desperate need of a fundamental overhaul. Washington’s approach to the region is not rooted in the advancement of U.S. interests or values, but rather the protection of illiberal actors and the enrichment of the defense industry. Enmeshing the country in more security guarantees is ill-advised. It is imperative that the Biden administration change course, and engage openly with Congress and the public about the possibility of further commitments to Middle East autocrats.

Jon Hoffman is the research director at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

Sarah Leah Whitson is the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. Previously, she served as executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division from 2004 to 2020.

Read the original article at Used with the permission. © The American Prospect,, 2023. All rights reserved. 
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