The View From Riyadh

The View From Riyadh

Negotiations between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Saudi-Israeli normalization follow a simple principle: nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon.

During one of my talks, I heard the argument that Saudi Arabia could use these policies sequentially. Swing state policies would be used to gain leverage toward eventual entry into the U.S. alliance system. It is an interesting claim but one that, on balance, I do not think works. Using leverage on the United States over an extended period would yield specific policy benefits but undermine the degree of trust needed for formal security assurances. In addition, if the kingdom pursued a swing state policy for an extended period, success on specific goals and related bureaucratic path dependency would favor the continuation of an independent policy.

Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States should adhere to the concept that nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon. Both sides will be tempted to split the prospective deal into parts. But that would jeopardize perhaps the hardest prong: Saudi recognition of Israel and an Israeli commitment to a two-state solution.

When intensive talks resume, the United States should make clear that formal security guarantees in the form of a Senate-ratified treaty are not attainable—sixty-seven votes in the Senate is too high a bar. Washington should go to “Plan B” and offer Riyadh the next best defense relationship. That would involve executive action designating Saudi Arabia as both a major defense partner (MDP) and a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). 

MDP is the real sweetener for the kingdom. India is the only country that currently has the designation, which allows the recipient to obtain a broad array of license-free military and dual-use technologies. The sides can expand the program to include significantly strengthening defense-industrial cooperation and joint exercises. Currently, eighteen countries possess MNNA status, which would provide additional ways to bring the U.S. and Saudi militaries closer. Critically, these programs would not provide U.S. security guarantees to Saudi Arabia—an essential plank of the Saudi ask—somewhat lowering its leverage over other parts of the deal. 

The other key goal for the United States is an agreement to move toward a two-state solution. After the fighting stops, and when it is clear who will be the next Israeli prime minister, Biden must get out the megaphone, come forward with a peace plan, and lead an international coalition to work with Israel toward this goal. The next U.S. president would have to continue this initiative. The plan should include a roadmap of steps the Israelis and the Palestinians must take and a time frame. That type of initiative, if accepted by Israel, would enable a Saudi-U.S.-Israeli grand bargain.

A final though critical point for U.S. national interests is that this best possible outcome would leave Saudi Arabia outside the U.S. alliance system. In that respect, the kingdom’s status would be similar to India’s but short of Turkey’s formal security guarantees. The United States will need to continue to view Saudi Arabia as an unencumbered swing state in the international system. Especially given that the swing states have spoken decisively against U.S. policy in the Gaza war, Washington must once again up its game toward rising states in geopolitics.

This essay is adapted from a letter to Eurasia Group clients.

Cliff Kupchan is Eurasia Group’s chairman and a leader of the firm’s global macro coverage. Cliff has held high-level positions in the U.S. government and regularly meets top foreign leaders. He provides cutting-edge insights on political risk. Cliff has been a leading expert on international relations for more than two decades—in academia, as a U.S. official, and in the private sector—and speaks frequently to private and public sector audiences. He regularly briefs clients on macro developments and co-authors Eurasia Group’s annual Top Risks publication.