US/Saudi Pact? Possibility and Prospects

The prospect of an historic pact between the United States and Saudi Arabia is gathering momentum with the carrot of access to the latest US military technology being dangled before the Arab dictatorship, writes Steve Bishop.

The deal could be part of a package to extend US influence in the Middle East by including a pathway to diplomatic ties with Israel.  The quid pro quo could be that the Israelis halt the genocide in Gaza.

Negotiations between Washington and Riyadh have accelerated recently, with some reports that a deal could be reached within weeks. 

An agreement would undoubtedly aim to reshape the Middle East in favour of the United States, reinforcing the ongoing support for its long-term regional proxy, Israel, while bolstering influence in the Arab world by increasing weapons sales to the Saudi dictatorship.  The US is keen to strengthen its position in the region, which it sees as being threatened by Iran and China.

The rumoured pact is thought to offer Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, access to advanced US weapons that were previously off-limits. The dictatorship would then agree to limit Chinese technology from the nation’s most sensitive networks in exchange for major US investments in artificial intelligence and quantum-computing, as well as getting American assistance to build its civilian nuclear programme.

The conclusion of a US and Saudi Arabia agreement would, it is suggested, be followed by forcing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a choice.  Netanyahu would be offered the opportunity to join the deal, which would entail formal diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia for the first time.  Israel would also be offered more investment and regional integration. The challenge for Netanyahu would be to end the slaughter in Gaza and agree to a pathway for Palestinian statehood.

In such a scenario Netanyahu would clearly face the ire of the right wing religious fundamentalists who currently prop up his government and are determined not to see an independent Palestine.  However, a pact with the US and Saudi Arabia could also be seen by Netanyahu as a counter to Iran’s growing influence in the region and a potential restraint on attacks by Iran backed militias such as Hezbollah.

The recent direct exchange of fire between Iran and Israel was an indicator of how any increase in tension could easily tip over into a more widespread regional conflict.  While the more hawkish in the Netanyahu government may welcome the chance to tackle Iran more directly, it is unlikely that such an approach would get US backing.  Given the relative strength of Iran’s military there is also every chance that significant economic damage and civilian fatalities would be inflicted upon Israel in such a conflict.

With a US election only months away President Joe Biden is desperate for a foreign policy breakthrough and the issue of Gaza has proven divisive amongst Democrats domestically.  Student protests on university campuses across the US have exposed a fault line between those calling for a harder line to be taken with the Israelis over the action in Gaza and those more inclined to back the apartheid regime at all costs.

The thousands killed by the Israelis in Gaza are widely seen as a disproportionate response to the attacks by Hamas on 7th October 2023 and the recent vote by the United Nations General Assembly, to increase the status of the Palestinian state, although dismissed by Israel, has added to the international pressure for a lasting ceasefire.

“We have done intense work together over the last months,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed recently, while in Saudi Arabia. “The work that Saudi Arabia and the United States have been doing together in terms of our own agreements, I think, is potentially very close to completion.”  Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan has also said that an agreement was “very, very close.”

However, while Blinken and Biden may be making positive noises about a deal there is scepticism, not only from the right wing in Israel, but also in the US.  While some express concern about the state assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018, many are also uneasy about the Saudi strategy of lowering oil production, along with other members of the OPEC+ cartel in order to keep prices high.

Republicans are unlikely to countenance a deal which does not give Israel sufficient guarantees, in particular Saudi recognition of Israel, even of it does mean an increase in arms sales to the Saudi dictatorship.

For their part the Saudis are keen to get as strong a deal with the US as possible, the aim being a formal defence pact which would bring the US military into play should the dictatorship be attacked.

While Saudi Arabia and Iran have been moving to normalise relations recently, with the signing of a deal in March 2023, the two Islamic dictatorships remain wary of one gaining more influence than the other in the region. For the Saudis, a defence deal with the United States needs to be sufficiently robust to send a message to Tehran without alienating the Iranians. For Riyadh to decide to openly bolster its security cooperation with Washington the reward would have to be worth the risk. In effect, Saudi Arabia seeks a defence pact with the United States that is credible enough in the eyes of both friends and foes.

The Saudi strategy of burying its appalling human rights record under an avalanche of sports and tourism initiatives under the banner Vision 2030, regarded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an ambitious economic, social and cultural programme, would not play well against a backdrop of regional war and instability.  The prospect of the FIFA World Cup 2034 being staged in Saudi Arabia will also be informing the Crown Prince’s thinking in this respect.

The escalating violence in Gaza and Israeli intransigence on the question of a two-state solution for Palestine is likely to undermine previous US diplomatic initiatives such as the Abraham Accords, signed in 2020, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. 

While hailed by the US as a means to encourage Israel to take positive steps toward ending its occupation and annexation of Palestinian territory, the real premise of the Accords was to prove that the Palestinian issue was no longer an obstacle for Israel’s relationships in the region, as Arab states dropped their demand for a Palestinian state as a condition to normalising ties with Israel. The pact promised regional security, despite allowing Israel to bypass the rights of 6 million Palestinians living under daily brutality and military occupation.

Far from curbing Israeli abuses the Accords have emboldened successive Israeli governments to further ignore Palestinian rights. In the first year after the Accords, settler violence dramatically increased in the West Bank. Following the election of Israel’s most right-wing government in history in 2022, cabinet ministers openly called for the annexation of the West Bank and announced massive settlement expansions. 

The United States does not have a great diplomatic track record in the Middle East, putting its own imperialist interests ahead of those of the people of the region.  There is little indication that current initiatives will see different results.

Steve Bishop is a member of Liberation

This article first appeared in Liberation journal

Photo: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III stands with Saudi Arabia Vice Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., July 6, 2021. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders) / Creative Commons

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