Through the middle of last week, I spent five days in Saudi Arabia exploring Saudi policy toward the war in Gaza and the Saudi approach to a grand bargain with the United States. I met with government officials, think tank leaders, and members of the private sector. Sympathy and support for the Palestinian people were strong and ubiquitous.
But I also heard broad support for a grand bargain with Washington, which would provide Riyadh with protection. Enthusiasm for a deal seemed genuine, though it, in part, likely flowed from the fact that the pursuit of this goal is official policy. Saudi interlocutors recognized that the timing of a prospective deal had been set back significantly by the war in Gaza. If it happened, the deal would occur during a second Biden term or Trump presidency. I also heard that talks with the United States are continuing, if at a much slower pace. But backing for a deal was not universal, as I explain below.
The components of the deal are as follows: Saudi Arabia would establish diplomatic relations with Israel, pull back diplomatically from China, and sign a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. The United States would provide Saudi Arabia with security guarantees and reactors for civilian nuclear energy. Israel would commit to movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Many prongs of the prospective deal are fraught with challenges and uncertainty. The issue of the establishment of Saudi diplomatic relations with Israel was expectedly tense, given the war. Saudi interlocutors stressed that the demand on Israel had now gone up; it would have to commit to a two-state solution, and as a corollary, the United States would have to commit to leading international public opinion in support of this outcome. Several interlocutors stressed, correctly in my view, that deals between a Middle Eastern country and Israel are historically deals with the United States—and that this agreement would be no different.
My Saudi counterparts continued that this outcome would be impossible under a Netanyahu government, and most thought a Benny Gantz-led government would be a little better. There was a belief that agreement on the Palestinian issue was a long shot, even over the medium term.
The Saudis believe it would be difficult for the kingdom to pull back from relations with China. For the foreseeable future, China and India will remain the primary markets for Saudi oil. The political links that follow would become looser, in the view of one expert, once green technology begins to replace oil—as Saudi economic relationships on transition technologies would focus more on the United States and Europe. Other Saudis stated firmly that the United States would never have a veto over foreign policy toward China.
More broadly, though, I got the feeling, despite this resistance, that the kingdom could be willing to pull back from China in the context of a broad deal. Many of my counterparts emphasized that relations with the United States—military, education, investment—are much deeper than with China. I think Riyadh would likely agree to some limits on Chinese ownership of physical infrastructure and controlling stakes in strategic industries.
Regarding nuclear energy, Saudi Arabia has agreed to sign a Safeguards Agreement. But the kingdom insists it will develop and control a complete nuclear fuel cycle on its territory. Large deposits of natural uranium have been found in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis seek to retain the value added from developing a domestic fuel cycle. Possession of a cycle carries both commercial and strategic value—it gives a country a shorter breakout time for a bomb. The United States opposes Saudi possession of a fuel cycle because of this proliferation risk and has proposed a U.S.-run enrichment operation instead. Iran already has a robust fuel cycle, so this issue will entail tough negotiations with the kingdom.
Turning to U.S. commitments under a potential grand bargain, Riyadh seeks a binding commitment from Washington. Interlocutors said the kingdom seeks bilateral assurances like the American pacts with Japan and South Korea. Some counterparts stressed that Senate ratification is a requirement for the kingdom because it would impair the ability of a future U.S. president to reverse the deal. Saudi counterparts acknowledged that getting sixty-seven votes in the Senate would be difficult and time-consuming. Indeed, the provision of a binding guarantee to a country that is not a democracy and is located in a volatile region would be a political stretch for American politicians.
Regarding the U.S. provision of nuclear reactors for civilian use, many Saudis I spoke with recognized that the United States would insist on a “123” agreement governing the exported nuclear technologies and equipment. However, few knew that these agreements included a congressional review period, which meant that Congress would have to be on board with these sales. It is a close call, but with intense lobbying by the executive branch, the U.S. Congress would probably let the civilian nuclear reactor part of the deal go through.
In my view, given the challenges of Senate ratification of security assurances to Saudi and of the Israeli government moving toward a two-state solution, the prospect of this grand bargain becoming reality is very unlikely during this administration. The war will dominate the political conversation at least until late spring, which means that intensive talks on the grand bargain would occur at the soonest this summer. That is right in the middle of a presidential campaign—and the negotiation would likely become a political football. Further, given the abovementioned obstacles, a grand bargain will be a tall challenge for the successor administration. Judging from the views of my Saudi counterparts, I think they would agree with that assessment.
Saudi Arabia’s Choice
The Saudi leadership faces a choice between two good options. Either it continues the current policy and tries to enter the U.S. alliance system, or the Saudis pursue a path as a rising swing state without a security commitment from the U.S., which could also be a fallback option.
I presented this argument to several private forums while in Riyadh. It was greeted with strong interest, and in a few cases, I was told that these options were being quietly and unofficially debated. Others disagreed, stating that admission into the U.S. security system was far preferable. My argument was based on an article that appeared in Foreign Policy. I was told that the article had “gone viral” in Saudi Arabia, and indeed, most of my interlocutors had read the piece.
In brief, I argued that certain states in the Global South that were members of the G20 and had geopolitical heft were on the rise. This grouping included Saudi Arabia. These states have more agency than at any time since 1945. They benefit in an era of deglobalization from their status as regional powers, and they can promote their interests by playing the United States and China off against each other—hence the classification as swing states. The argument clearly struck a chord with Saudi thinkers pondering their country’s role in the world.
The clear advantage of pursuing a grand bargain is that it offers the prospect of U.S. protection. Saudi Arabia faces a continuous threat from Iran and its Houthi proxy and the general security risks inherent to a dangerous region. A credible security guarantee from the United States would likely allow the Saudi government to better focus on Vision 2030 and its domestic agenda.
Riyadh, in effect, seeks a version of the Turkish model of security relations with Washington—combining the status of a rising swing state with formal U.S. guarantees. Ankara is trying to stretch the model of U.S. alignment to carve out more autonomy—without losing Article 5. A version of this model may well be the kingdom’s best option. But it has drawbacks.
As a longstanding member of NATO, Turkey has sought to roll back its security dependence on the United States and secure a more autonomous defense posture over the past decade. Accordingly, Ankara has purchased Russian S-400 missiles and attacked U.S. partners in Syria. The moves have stoked tensions with Washington, triggered sanctions on Turkish entities, and eroded Ankara’s political capital in Washington. These dynamics highlight the risk of the Turkish model: it could backfire if perceived by an enemy as diminishing the credibility of U.S. guarantees. The Saudi version would operate differently; the gaps with Washington would be much more on the political side, such as the war in Gaza, than on military sales. However, the risk of deterrence failure would be similar.
More broadly, seeking a security pact involves going “all in” on the U.S. alliance system. Especially given the flip-flops on foreign policy between Democratic and Republican presidents, and more concretely, if Trump again takes office in 2025, Saudi Arabia could be making a questionable bet on the credibility of U.S. security assurances.
If the kingdom were eventually to eschew the above course, or if the grand bargain proves unobtainable, it would continue the current Saudi-first policy with far fewer constraints than if it signed a security pact. Saudi Arabia would still obtain military equipment primarily from the United States and benefit from the U.S.-based security system in the Gulf. But the kingdom would also be free to pursue greater economic and technology relations with China, advocate for the Palestinian cause, and push back on U.S. policy.