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To offset China’s influence in the Gulf, Washington needs stronger ties to Saudi Arabia

Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, center, presides over a closed meeting between Iran, led by Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right, and Saudi Arabia, led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, in Beijing on March 11, 2023. Saudi Arabia and Iran reached agreement to restore diplomatic relations.

The Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian agreement of March 10 to exchange ambassadors in two months appeared to catch many in Washington and elsewhere by complete surprise. In reality, the two countries had been engaged in discussions for some time, reportedly with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personal involvement. 

That China is now working to assemble all the states on the Gulf littoral, including Iraq, demonstrates the extent to which Beijing seeks to fill a regional vacuum that it perceives America has created.  

During his recent visit to Iraq, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to reassure America’s regional friends that the United States was not abandoning them. His comments were well received in Baghdad, where he made them and where he met with senior Iraqi officials. 

There have been far too many comments to the contrary emanating from Washington, however. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has been especially uneasy ever since then-presidential candidate Joe Biden labeled it a pariah state. 

Saudi Arabia hardly sees itself as a pariah, of course. King Salman’s formal title is “Protector of the Two Holy Mosques” — Mecca and Medina — and his country sees itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world. 

Not surprisingly, therefore, Biden’s characterization especially rankled Riyadh, despite Biden’s reception as an honored guest during his July 2022 visit to the kingdom. That was nothing more than classic Arab hospitality. Although the Biden administration touted the various agreements that were reached during the visit, none of them dispelled the widespread impression that the visit achieved little of significance — most notably, failing to inspire a Saudi willingness to increase oil production. 

Even as they were in serious talks with Tehran, the Saudis also were reacting to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s urgent efforts to have them join the Abraham Accords. Riyadh did not reject the idea outright. Instead, the Saudis informed the Biden team of three conditions for joining the Accords: an American security guarantee, support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program, and removal of obstacles to their acquisition of major American weapons systems. At the same time, Riyadh entertained a host of American Jewish leaders, presumably to have them press the Biden administration to grant the kingdom’s three wishes. Indeed, one Jewish leader told me last week that he had just visited the kingdom, at Riyadh’s invitation, for the third time in six months. 

The Saudis clearly are hedging their bets in multiple directions. On the one hand, any Chinese-brokered agreement with Iran not only offers the prospect of an end to the kingdom’s costly and unpopular intervention in Yemen’s civil war. It also facilitates a much deeper engagement with America’s great rival, in the event that relations with Washington continue to sour. 

On the other hand, should Washington accede to Saudi demands, the kingdom would have ensured for itself a far more secure future if the new thaw with Tehran proves to be short-lived. 

Moreover, even if it were to prove impossible to reach an agreement with the Biden administration, due to congressional opposition, the Saudis no doubt would continue their sub rosa military and intelligence relationship with Israel. They thereby would maintain their current hedge against any future Iranian malfeasance. They likewise would be able to avoid any embarrassment from having official relations with Israel, should the Palestinians launch a new intifada, perhaps spearheaded by the radicalized young cohort that calls itself the “Lions’ Den.” The group has been at the center of current violence in the West Bank.

The Saudi-Iranian agreement, therefore, is a clear win for the kingdom, whatever the future trajectory of its ties with Washington — just as it is for Beijing, which is now a key political player in the region. 

The Biden administration has applauded the Saudi-Iranian arrangement, but has done so only as a bystander. If Washington is serious about demonstrating both its desire to expand the Abraham Accords and long-term commitment to Middle East stability, it should consider a viable counter to the Saudi request that Riyadh would find difficult to refuse. 

To begin with, Biden should invite King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the White House. The administration could then use the occasion to offer Riyadh both a security guarantee and a promise to accelerate arms sales, though it should withhold any offer to support a civilian nuclear program. The Saudis might find such an offer difficult to refuse, and the prospect of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords could mitigate bipartisan congressional hostility toward the kingdom. 

In any event, unless the Biden administration can formulate a new approach to the Saudis, it will cede even more regional ground to China. Surely that is a prospect that should be a source of deep concern even to the kingdom’s many critics on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Middle East Saudi Arabia-Iran agreement US-Saudi relations Xi Jinping

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