As US drags out Israel normalization deal with Riyadh, Saudi Arabia drifts toward China

Nick Mehling

Informed Comment  / September 15, 2023

Cairo (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – With the announcement of the expansion of the BRICS bloc many were surprised to see traditional US allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE inducted as new members. Pundits were quick to exclaim the monumental shift, heralding the move as Saudi Arabia charting an independent path and the end to the petro-dollar relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia that defined relations since the Second World War.

However, it appears that Saudi Arabia is using its growing ties with China and Russia as a bargaining chip in relations with the US and Israel, and that it is not that Saudi is seeking an end to the petro-dollar relationship but its continuation, and that it is the USA that wants less of a commitment. As a result, a feigned move to the East might snowball into a real one if Gulf security and economic interests are not met in the West.

As the BRICS meeting was being celebrated, in the background Saudi Arabia and the US have been in intense discussions over a host of issues; recognition and normalization of relations with Israel on the US side and security assurances for the Kingdom and some assurances for the Palestinians that stop short of a Palestinian state.

The Saudis are mainly interested in a NATO style defense pact, obligating the US to defend the country in case it is attacked. In the interests of assuring security, the Kingdom has also been pushing for the ability to enrich uranium which would allow for the development of nuclear weapons.

The main sticking point has been the US’s unwillingness to provide these security guarantees. Promising to fight and die for the survival of Saudi Arabia is not a popular position in the US, from not wanting to get involved with another war, to the Kingdoms human rights violations, both domestically and abroad in Yemen, has made Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) unpopular in the US.

However, on the Saudi’s side there has been a long history of failure in the US fulfilling its side of the long and close relationship the two countries have shared, a relationship based on oil and security. Since the US pullout from Iraq leaving instability and an empowered Shia government with close ties to Iran, the support for the removal of long time Gulf allies in the Arab Spring, the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields in 2019 which knocked out 50% of oil production, and the pullout from Afghanistan Saudi Arabia has been deeply questioning US commitment in the region.

Since then Saudi Arabia has embarked on a diplomatic reset with its neighbors, particularly detente and a reopening of diplomatic relations with Iran. However, Saudi still seeks to ensure its security in the long term which Riyadh sees hinges on US NATO style commitments and/or nuclear weapons for normalization with Israel. So far the US has been reluctant to give either, but with Saudi Arabia reducing its ties to China as part of the normalization deal with Israel, the more Saudi Arabia warms to China, the more pressure the US is under to give into at least one of these demands.

On the nuclear issue, despite being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Saudi Arabia has publicly stated its desire to have the rights to build the full cycle of nuclear production, which would break Section 123 of the US Atomic Energy pact mandating an obligation on recipient countries to renounce their ability to enrich uranium along with a number of treaties. Beyond that, the US would have to consider what making an exception to the Saudis would indicate to the wider region. These are in line with comments the Crown Prince made, confirming that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons the kingdom would seek them in kind.

With the fact that the Senate showed bipartisan support for an explicit ban on Saudi Arabia’s ability to enrich uranium in any deal made with the kingdom, the US is unlikely to make any bold move like making an exception for the Saudis, especially not before the election, if ever.

In an op-ed for the WSJ, Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen encouraged the US to provide NATO style security guarantees so that Saudi Arabia does not feel the need to pursue nuclear weapons, this aligns with Israel’s interest as they have been pursuing a security alliance with the US as well, and seek to limit the spread of nuclear weapons in the region.

Still, beyond security, Saudi Arabia is increasingly being dominated by the interest to diversify its economy away from oil by using the revenue to fund megaprojects across the country. Currently more than a trillion dollars of real estate and infrastructure projects are ongoing, which requires high oil prices to maintain.

Hence, on the other side of the historic Saudi-US relationship, it is the US that sees its ally backsliding on its role in using its oil supply in the interests of the global economy.

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war the US has pleaded with Saudi Arabia for an increased production of oil, not just to offset Russia’s income source but also as a way to reduce inflation globally. Saudi Arabia has in fact went the other direction, making a deal with Russia to reduce production to increase the price of oil. Saudi Arabia needs this oil revenue now more than ever as the massive investments required for its new economy dictate. Furthermore, as China and India are increasingly the kingdom’s biggest oil purchaser, it is very likely Saudi Arabia will increasingly move towards the BRICS bloc, deepening its economic relations with these countries.

For the US and its interest in moving to potentially confront China over the Taiwan straits issue, disengage from the Middle East “forever wars,” as a result of the perceived lack of strategic importance, it seems that to not get a deal with Saudi Arabia will cost more economically, politically, and strategically now more than ever.

Nick Mehling is a freelance journalist based in Cairo