While President Joe Biden termed the idea of Saudi-Israel normalization “a long way off” in a CNN interview in early July, his administration is seriously discussing with the Saudis the set of U.S.-provided incentives which they want as sweeteners for a potential deal. The primary requests from Riyadh are formal security guarantees from the United States, a U.S.-Saudi partnership to develop civilian nuclear energy, and the ability to access arms sales without Congressional review, as press reports in March indicated. While Israel obviously would like to see normalization with one of the most important Arab states, the influential Saudi commentator Ali Shihabi has laid out a “sales pitch” to Washington in a recent article for the Hoover Institution, arguing that the United States also would see profound benefits from such a deal. Shihabi holds out the prospect for what is essentially a reset of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, restoring diminished U.S. influence. In return for a “formal structure or agreement” which would “be perceived by adversaries as obligating the United States to come to the defense of the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] (in one form or another) if the latter is threatened,” Washington could “could expect a much closer and more influential relationship with Saudi Arabia, with all that such an alliance would entail.”
It is difficult to envision U.S. security guarantees taking the form of a Senate-ratified treaty, but there has been plenty of support in the U.S. Congress for the goal of promoting regional security integration between the United States, Israel, and Arab partner militaries, particularly on the development of joint regional air and missile defenses. While Shihabi does not explicitly make the argument that it would diminish Chinese influence in the kingdom in relative terms, that effect is clearly implied.
From a U.S. standpoint, though, Shihabi’s argument rings hollow. Offering security guarantees (even if less than a treaty) is a major concession that could tie our hands in a future crisis, and there are many reasons to doubt that it offers much incremental benefit to the United States. First, Saudi policymakers’ increasing shift to the East, and to China, is structural and economically driven. China is now by far the Saudis’ larger trading partner. While oil is still fungible, the United States’ need for imports from the Persian Gulf region has largely evaporated due to the increase in supply from domestic producers and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. It is, therefore, very difficult to see U.S. relative influence in the bilateral relationship going back to where it was during the “unipolar moment” of the 1990s, even if the Saudi side were no longer frustrated about what it considers a U.S. failure to use force against Iran after the September 2019 attacks against critical oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, as well as broader a perceived U.S. retreat from its regional security role. Second, the tradeoff articulated by Shihabi would involve very specific U.S. commitments on security in return for the relatively abstract and unenforceable notion of restored bilateral relations and relative influence.
The Abqaiq and Khurais attacks are often cited by Saudi observers as proof that the United States has abandoned its security role in the region, but while they demonstrated Iran’s new capabilities in a jarring manner, the attacks were calibrated to avoid a catastrophic oil market disruption—not to cause one. It is true that the facilities at Abqaiq in particular are uniquely important to Saudi export flows, and arguably a more important vulnerability than the Strait of Hormuz. However, the facility runs at well below its maximum capacity, and it was designed so that oil volumes can be routed around individual components of the facility which might be damaged in an attack. By targeting only a limited number of components at Abqaiq, Iran created a large outage—5.7 million barrels per day according to Saudi Aramco—but one which allowed for the kingdom’s full production level to be restored by the end of September 2019, about two weeks after the attack. This also was apparent to analysts, including me, looking at the commercial satellite photos available the day after the attack, limiting the impact on oil prices. It also was certainly clear to U.S. officials, and the intentionally limited impact on oil flows is likely a large part of the reason why President Donald Trump chose not to take military action against Iran as a result. Iran had shown that it could cause a catastrophic volume loss by hitting roughly triple the number of aim points at Abqaiq with accurate suicide drones, but it chose not to do so.
The Abqaiq episode has not demonstrated to Iran that the United States has abandoned its interest in protecting the free flow of oil from the region or would be unwilling to take military action if Iran caused damage at a higher threshold. If Saudi Arabia had a U.S. security guarantee, that probably would have prevented a demonstration attack like this, but if it had not the United States could have been locked into taking military action over something below the threshold of major damage to U.S. interests. Trying to decide exactly how the threshold for such a guarantee should be defined would be difficult in a region known for the widespread use of gray-zone provocations, but an unambiguous guarantee with a low threshold could easily entangle the United States in an escalating conflict over a relatively minor trigger. Abqaiq is a perfect example of how U.S. and Saudi views about these thresholds can differ.
In addition, the use of support for proxies and gray-zone provocations by both Saudi Arabia and Iran raises the issue of potential “moral hazards” stemming from a security guarantee. Would Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman feel emboldened in his regional actions? The converse of that seems to have arguably been operative in the years since Abqaiq, in which a sense of vulnerability produced a dialogue with Iran and the recent agreement to normalize relations and mutually curtail actions that had caused friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including support for proxies. The fact that China stepped in to midwife the agreement toward the end of the process made it a bit uncomfortable for the United States, but it still promotes the U.S. interest in regional stability.
The Saudis and Emiratis’ frequent complaints in the years since Biden took office that the United States is “withdrawing” from the Middle East are belied by the facts. The United States still maintains a robust naval presence in the Persian Gulf and has substantial land-based air assets in the region, along with pre-positioned equipment for ground forces. This is clearly a major reduction from the levels seen in the post-9/11 era. However, it compares to the levels seen in the 1990s following the first Gulf War of 1991 and is well above levels of in-theater CENTCOM assets that prevailed in the 1980s. The United States is not withdrawing from regional security but rather returning to a more normal level. What is different, though, is the challenge the United States faces from a rising China outside the region, which is an argument for not allowing commitments in the Middle East to tie up more U.S. military resources.
Even without a security guarantee, there is plenty the United States can and should do to help Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states secure themselves against the primary threat they face, which is Iran’s growing arsenal of precision-guided munitions (PGMs)—suicide drones and much more accurate ballistic missiles—which has sometimes been shared with proxies such as the Houthis in Yemen. Israel is a technology leader in this field, and the United States should facilitate cooperation to the extent possible. An integrated regional network would be ideal, but there are plenty of political obstacles unrelated to a U.S. security guarantee, especially the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as distrust among Gulf Arab states, including between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Regardless of any U.S. guarantees, it is difficult to envision sufficient trust between these states to do the sort of extensive integration of sensitive data and information technology systems, which is seen between the United States and Canada in NORAD or members of NATO in Europe. Even if not fully integrated or publicly acknowledged, though, such cooperation should be encouraged.
The U.S.-China rivalry is driving the Saudi’s strategy of emphasizing their options and trying to use that to extract concessions from the United States. But while the United States cannot hope to pry Saudi Arabia away from China due to their economic interests, there is little indication that the Saudis genuinely have the option of junking the U.S. security relationship. China has long sought to be a supplier of military systems the West would not sell to the kingdom, going back all the way to China’s sale of medium-range ballistic missiles to Riyadh in the mid-1980s, but it has shown no interest in providing fourth- or fifth-generation fighter aircraft to regional powers—where U.S. and British systems currently provide the Saudis with overwhelming air superiority in any conflict with Iran. The financial cost of converting its forces to different equipment also would be prohibitive during a period when the kingdom is focused on diversifying its economy away from dependence on oil, not to mention the chronological gap in capabilities during the transition if the United States were ever to withdraw support for its weapons systems. China also is clearly not interested in abandoning its extensive relationship with Iran.