U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) in Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Jeddah Security and Development Summit (GCC+3) in Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022. MANDEL NGAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A defense treaty is not how Biden should fix the Saudi relationship

To fend off Iran, Riyadh must improve its military, not rely on U.S. protection.

The United States has likely reached a crossroads in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. President Joe Biden can reconcile with Riyadh and use its influence to reshape the Middle East to Washington’s liking and stabilize the global energy markets. Or else the Saudis most probably will tie their fortunes much closer to China, thus complicating America’s top foreign-policy priority.

The Biden administration is seeking a reset with Saudi Arabia through a dramatic U.S. policy turnaround. No more “pariah” labels for the kingdom. No more threats of “consequences” for its decreased oil production. Instead, Washington is considering extending a formal defense pact to Saudi Arabia—which only America’s closest treaty allies enjoy – if the latter normalizes its ties with Israel and drastically limits its security cooperation with China.

Biden himself is still unsure about this quid pro quo, saying in a recent CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria that this discussion is premature. In another interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman just two weeks ago, Biden remained cautious about such a deal with Saudi Arabia. But the fact that he dispatched Antony Blinken, his chief diplomat, and Jake Sullivan, his national security advisor, to the kingdom in recent weeks (Sullivan again last week) to explore the possibility of a deal suggests that he is seriously weighing his options. 

Biden’s instinct on reconciling with Saudi Arabia is spot on. He’s thinking outside the box because many of his predecessors have tried but failed to elevate the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But he has the wrong idea.

A Saudi-Israeli normalization deal has a lot of merit and should be pursued for its own sake. But it should not be predicated on a U.S.-Saudi defense pact that is unlikely to effectively upgrade U.S.-Saudi security ties and that will obligate the United States to commit more military resources to the Middle East when it should be focused on preventing China from seizing Taiwan and on countering Russia in Ukraine.  

I am against providing Saudi Arabia with formal security guarantees—and essentially elevating the bilateral partnership to a treaty alliance—because there are better ways to effectively address Riyadh’s core concern, which is stronger defenses against Iranian aggression.

I understand why Saudi Arabia (and the UAE before it) wants a security commitment from Washington to be formalized or institutionalized. In the eyes of Saudi leaders, the United States has been less than reliable and effective in deterring Iranian aggression and defending the kingdom. The September 2019 missile and drone attacks by Iran against Saudi oil infrastructure were an inflection point in Saudi national security thinking and assessment of the relationship with the United States. The Saudis believe one way they can regain their confidence in the U.S. security role is by obtaining a legal guarantee from Washington to respond to Iranian aggression whenever it reoccurs.

But a defense pact without more effective U.S.-Saudi security cooperation will make no practical difference. Indeed, a solely top-down approach to a more strategic U.S.-Saudi defense arrangement could serve as an excuse to delay or evade the hard but necessary defense reforms that both sides should make to genuinely elevate the security relationship.

The goal of Saudi national defense should no longer be Washington’s alone. The U.S.-Saudi oil-for-security covenant expired the moment Saddam Hussein was defeated by the U.S. military in the sands of the Kuwaiti desert in 1991. This should be a joint mission, in which Saudi Arabia has real ownership and to which it makes serious contributions. But to make those contributions, Saudi Arabia must develop dependable military capabilities, and for that, it needs the United States.

Ever since Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman rose to power in 2016, he has been trying to restructure not only his country’s economy but also its defense apparatus. He has made impressive strides in economics but has struggled in defense. Washington has contributed to MBS’s defense-transformation plan but only very modestly because the political environment has not been conducive.

What’s needed is not a defense pact that means little in tangible, joint combat power but a full-fledged U.S. involvement in the kingdom’s defense reform effort to attain a more coordinated approach to security that includes joint U.S.-Saudi contingency planning and investments in institutional capacity building. That’s what real security partners do. They collaborate on both the details and the big picture of joint defense.

Putting the U.S.-Saudi relationship on a more solid footing is a must. But there are no shortcuts to this objective. A defense pact is like putting the cart before the horse.