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Integrated Vision

The military protection of Saudi Arabia has been the centrepiece of US power in the region. The US has also committed itself to the protection/support of Israel. America has managed this balancing act without trouble, but it has posed problems.

Muhammad bin Salmān, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, heir apparent to the Saudi Arabian throne, and currently Crown Prince and Prime Minister. (2019),Wikipedia

The military protection of Saudi Arabia has been the centrepiece of US power in the world’s major hydrocarbon-producing region for decades. For most of that time the US has also committed itself to the protection and support of Israel. American strategic planners have usually managed this balancing act without trouble, but on occasion it has posed problems.

In June 1948, the US ambassador to the kingdom, James Rives Childs, warned that support for Israel might provoke ‘vigorous counteraction’ from Saudi Arabia, including threats to the Aramco concession, then owned by American oil companies. During the Six Day War in 1967, King Faisal deployed Saudi troops in Jordan. In 1973, the Yom Kippur War precipitated the Opec oil embargo.

Israel’s current attack on Gaza has not prompted a return to the mood of 1973. The Houthis in Yemen have targeted US ships in the Red Sea, but neither Saudi Arabia nor any other major regional state has altered its policy towards the US because of the part the US has played in helping Israel kill of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

On the contrary, Saudi Arabia continues to seek a more formal affirmation of American protection. In 2019, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was perturbed by what he saw as the muted US response to major drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. During the 2020 US election campaign, Joe Biden made more than MBS had expected of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Biden no longer voices many criticisms of MBS. The demands of global competition with China have convinced US leaders they need to reinforce their position in the Persian Gulf. Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Riyadh in December 2022 was a warning. The deal that Saudi Arabia made with Iran in March 2023 to re-establish diplomatic relations, brokered by China, was probably the decisive turning point. It wasn’t, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had claimed, an ‘end to US hegemony in the region’. But it was embarrassing to American pride.

The Saudi strategy has been to use the threat of China to provoke the US into reaffirming its commitment to the Saudi monarchy, and it has worked. In April 2023, the commander of CENTCOM, General Michael Kurilla, admitted the US was ‘worried that we have to integrate the region before China can penetrate the region’. In September 2023, MBS gave a public interview in which he stressed that the US ‘alliance’ with Saudi Arabia strengthened the US globally. A more formal agreement, he said, would ‘save effort from the Saudi side of not switching to other places’.

For the US, the prospect of a formal pact presented an image-management problem. If it was to be a treaty, how to ensure it passed Congress, and how to prevent it looking like a climb-down from past rhetoric about ‘bone saw’ MBS?

The answer from the National Security Council was that a military pact with Saudi Arabia could be packaged into a ‘deal’ under which Saudi Arabia would make its de facto normalisation of relations with Israel official. Rather than a climb-down it was, according to the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, ‘an integrated vision’ for the Middle East. After 7 October, a requirement that Israel make some concessions to the Palestinians was bolted on. The result was a proposed ‘mega deal’ consisting of a reformulated US-Saudi alliance, some face-saving in the form of Saudi-Israel diplomatic normalisation, and scraps for the Palestinians.

Sullivan has insisted that the US-Saudi deal is inextricable from Saudi Arabia normalising diplomatic ties with Israel, even as Gaza is flattened. But why tie independent strategic goals together in this way? The hope is to produce echoes of the US-brokered normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel in the 1970s: Camp David 2.0. But Saudi Arabia has never been a threat to Israel in the way that Egypt with an independent foreign policy was, and in any case Saudi leaders long ago made peace with Israel in practice.

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The emphasis on the mega deal is more reminiscent of Trump and the Abraham Accords. In September 2023, Stephanie Hallett, then interim chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Jerusalem (she’s now deputy chief of mission), described Saudi Arabia as the ‘pre-eminent target of the expansion of the Abraham Accords’.

The Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, has been briefing for weeks that Riyadh and Washington are ‘very close’ to an agreement. But there is no sign that Israel’s government will agree to anything meaningful for the Palestinians, let alone a Palestinian state.

In 1980, in a memorandum to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski described the Middle East as the missing piece in the ‘great architectural task’ undertaken by the US after the Second World War. Europe had Nato; military commitments in the Far East were clear; but the Middle East had no real ‘framework for regional security’. One of Brzezinksi’s suggestions was a ‘permanent US naval presence’. That now exists, in Bahrain. American officials have also played a quotidian role in managing political affairs in the Middle East. US forces shoot down Iranian missiles, whether fired from Iran or by the Houthis. But US diplomats also organise secret (and widely known about) back channel talks in Oman, usually through Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani. American envoys have also been trying to gin up local allies for a scheme to deploy a multinational force in Gaza.

The three most senior US foreign policy and national security figures –Sullivan, the CIA director, Bill Burns, and secretary of state, Anthony Blinken – are all working on this project in one form or another. On 28 April, Blinken visited Riyadh as part of the effort to move the normalisation talks forward. Little resulted. On 18 May, Sullivan travelled to Dhaharan to meet MBS. The Saudi government said they had worked on a ‘semi-final draft’ of the pact. The following day Sullivan flew to Israel to brief Benjamin Netanyahu.

Aside from diplomatic difficulties, there is the risk of catastrophic success. In 1980 Brzezinksi warned that a US-orchestrated alliance in the Middle East would have to avoid ‘excessive formality’. The Saudi monarchy was co-opted by American power several generations ago. Grand designs to commit the fact to writing were always liable to open the Saudi government up to internal threats. Perhaps the improbability of the scheme will save the parties from themselves.

Tom Stevenson is a contributing editor at the LRB. His collection of essays, Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony, many of which first appeared in the paper, was published in 2023.

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