Difficulties Facing a US-Saudi Security Agreement

Few policy stances have undergone a greater turnaround in the Biden White House than the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. When President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he did so in the shadow of his November 2019 pledge to make the Saudi leadership “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are” for the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, as well as for the then-ongoing Saudi military operations in Yemen. Biden made the comments in a Democratic primary debate ahead of the 2020 presidential nomination, adding that he saw “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.” The former Vice President also indicated that he would halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and one of the first things his administration did was to declare that the United States would “end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen” and announce a pause on the approval of new arms sales to the kingdom as well as to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Four years later, as another presidential election approaches in which the only certainty is that either Biden or former President Donald Trump will win a second term, the search for a US-brokered Saudi-Israeli deal to normalize relations has assumed outsized significance in the administration’s approach to the Middle East. Multiple factors explain the shift in positioning away from a presidency that began with Biden signaling that he would not engage with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), deputizing that task to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III as MBS’s governmental counterpart in his (then) capacity as defense minister. One factor was simply a US recognition of the balance of political authority in Saudi Arabia that made it harder for Biden to deal directly with his own counterpart, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, especially as the aging king grew increasingly frail and as MBS was appointed prime minister in September 2022. Another factor was the fallout from the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which reinstated the centrality of Saudi Arabia and its leadership in the global energy landscape and led Biden to visit the kingdom that July.

American Unchanged Foreign Policy under Biden

Despite having come into office determined to draw a line under the Trump administration and do things differently in both domestic and foreign policy, the Biden administration has gradually coalesced around several key tenets that suggest a continuity of approach in the foreign policy domain. Thus, Biden implemented Trump’s February 2020 agreement  with the Taliban, and took significant political heat for its chaotic handling of the August 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, as his approval ratings slipped to 38 percent and never recovered. Less than six months later, the Russian military buildup along the Ukrainian border provided an opportunity for the Biden administration to coordinate closely with allies and partners like the Gulf states. Putin’s act of aggression thrust considerations of great power competition and strategic rivalry—which largely defined Trump’s approach to foreign policy—to center stage in ways that have since played out in the US-Saudi arena.

While Biden initially focused on strengthening bonds among democracies that had been frayed by the rise of Trump and other authoritarian populists around the world, since 2022 the Biden administration put greater emphasis on countering the perceived geostrategic threat from China and Russia to American interests worldwide. This has inevitably resulted in political tradeoffs that have muddied the democracy/autocracy binary, to the consternation of many in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A policy of “ruthless pragmatism” took hold as the administration recalibrated foreign policy positions, with the changes to its approach to the Middle East especially pronounced. These changes included a failure to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal that Trump abandoned in 2018, and a February 2022 recommitment of US support to defending Saudi Arabia against Houthi attacks from Yemen.

Countering China in Saudi Arabia?

The shadow of China and Russia and, on a regional level, Iran is evident in several prominent aspects of the delicate three-way geopolitical needle that the Biden administration is seeking to thread. Senior administration officials appear to have decided that the United States can offer security assurances to Saudi Arabia that would, in their view, exceed anything that Beijing is able to provide to the kingdom– hence the focus on specific US measures and guarantees reportedly in the deal being negotiated. Officials in Washington noticed the pomp and ceremony with which Saudi Arabia received Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh in December 2022, which stood in stark contrast to Biden’s low-key and almost apologetic visit to Jeddah five months earlier, and were taken by surprise when the Saudi leadership turned to China in early 2023 to finalize a diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. They, however, reasoned that Mohammed bin Salman’s transactional streak makes him amenable to negotiating a peace agreement with Israel that the Crown Prince himself has described as “the biggest historical [sic] deal since the Cold War.”

Adding Saudi Arabia to the Abraham Accords had become a priority for the administration’s Gulf and Middle East policy.

Members of the Biden administration were initially skeptical of the Trump-brokered 2020 Abraham Accords. But by the spring of 2023, a view had formed in and around the White House that brokering an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would not only be a signature foreign policy achievement in advance of the 2024 presidential election but also could re-center the US-Saudi relationship after a decade of considerable strain across multiple US administrations. By summer 2023, adding Saudi Arabia to the Abraham Accords had become a priority for the administration’s Gulf and Middle East policy, taking up a significant amount of high-level outreach and generating an interagency push to identify the measures that Washington would offer to the Saudis with American and Israeli political support. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, and National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk have led this push, each making multiple visits to Riyadh both before and after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

Approaching a Defense Agreement with Saudi Arabia

The components of the US-Saudi part of the negotiations on Saudi-Israeli normalization that have been widely reported relate to American security and defense assurances for the kingdom as well as for the Saudi civilian nuclear program. These were the issues around which most progress was supposedly made in the run-up to the October 7, 2023 Hamas attack as well as in the months since. The Wall Street Journal noted that US-Saudi negotiations have focused on a Defense Cooperation Agreement, which the Biden administration could enact by  executive order, bypassing Congress, and on a Strategic Alliance Agreement, which would require ratification by two-thirds of the US Senate. Such a binding defense treaty that would include a US commitment to defend Saudi Arabia if the kingdom were attacked appears designed to prevent a repeat of the US inaction in 2019 after Iran-linked missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure temporarily disabled half the kingdom’s production capacity. In demanding a binding, Senate-ratified agreement, officials in Riyadh also may have noted the slow US response to the 2022 Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi, which caused fury in the UAE, as well as the fate of the JCPOA, a non-binding political commitment that was reversed by the previous president.

From a political perspective, the Biden administration’s apparent willingness to seek Senate support for a binding security relationship with Saudi Arabia shows how far the White House is prepared to go to secure a foreign policy ‘win’ that would prove more durable than the Obama-era JCPOA. The administration’s original plans to wrap up the negotiations with the kingdom by early 2024 to allow time for Senate ratification ahead of the 2024 election were dashed by the Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli military response in Gaza. Whether or not the administration would have succeeded in gaining the approval of 67 senators may become a moot point given the evident linkage of the security assurances to the normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations. Were the Biden (or a second Trump) administration to put a standalone security agreement to the Senate, it would be extremely unlikely to gain sufficient bipartisan approval, which appears to be a red line unlikely to change regardless of which party controls the White House or Senate.

If US officials have played their hand on security assurances by demonstrating how far they are prepared to go, a similar dynamic seems to be present in the dialogue over the scope of US support for a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia. Precise details are sparse, but there are suggestions that US officials accept that the Saudi leadership will demand more than a conventional bilateral ‘123 agreement,’ which prohibits the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium and has been the standard US framework for peaceful nuclear cooperation, including with the UAE, whose fourth and final nuclear reactor began operating this year.

The US would like to ensure that a Saudi civilian nuclear program is developed using American rather than Russian or Chinese technology.

Here, again, the overhang of geopolitical interests is discernible in the American position. First, the United States would like to ensure that a Saudi civilian nuclear program—which US officials now see as inevitable after the kingdom decided to switch to full-blown safeguards demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency—is developed using American rather than Russian or Chinese technology. Second, Washington would like to integrate US input and involvement into every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, including its end-use. In May 2024, President Biden signed a law to ban imports of uranium from Russia, which in 2022 accounted for about 12 percent of US uranium purchases and 20 percent of enriched nuclear fuel. This means that the United States will have to source alternative supplies both at home and abroad in the years ahead—with Saudi Arabia as an important such source.

The fact that the Saudi-US negotiations are part of a broader package of normalization measures with Israel means that they may never see the light of day if the Israeli government does not agree to a ceasefire in Gaza and, in Secretary Blinken’s words, “a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.” Even before October 7, it was the extent of the concessions Israel would make with regard to the Palestinian component of normalization with Saudi Arabia that was the sticking point in the negotiations, even as the other elements began to fall into place. Since October 7 Saudi officials have hardened their language to describe developments in Gaza, and the bar for Saudi recognition of Israel is likely to have been raised from a pre-October 7 focus on economic incentives for Palestinians to securing a formal Israeli commitment to a two-state solution.

Aligning Israeli and Saudi interests is hard enough without having to balance them against the domestic political buy-in that the Biden (or Trump) administration would need for every element of a normalization agreement to move toward implementation. The lack of any significant support from the current Israeli government makes it harder still to imagine that the bilateral aspects of a US-Saudi deal could go forward, albeit that a civilian nuclear agreement might be reached without requiring congressional approval and could function as a sequential step in a longer and more-drawn-out process.

For the Saudis, the fact that the ball is in the Netanyahu government’s court may be no bad thing if the talks break down, as the Israeli leadership would be portrayed as uninterested in reciprocating Saudi interest in a historic deal. It is less clear what senior Biden administration officials have to gain from such a protracted exercise with so many moving parts and after the timetable to reap the political benefits from a deal has long passed. Having put their cards on the table, US officials have at least laid down a marker for all participants and for interested third parties, such as the UAE, which has already called for new “ironclad” American assurances of its own.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.