Political resets between adversaries or friends who have drifted apart require political will and viable strategies on both sides. After years of strain, both U.S. and Saudi leaders have now stated that they want stronger relations. Washington and Riyadh also seem to have identified a path forward: If Saudi Arabia normalizes its ties with Israel, the United States would upgrade its military relations with the kingdom and consider Riyadh’s request for a formal U.S.-Saudi defense pact and support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program. The Biden administration reportedly will push for this deal, or parts of it, in the next six to seven months before things get incredibly busy with the presidential election campaign.
This would be a serious mistake. A treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia is neither politically realistic nor strategically wise for the United States.
First and foremost, it would be difficult for any president, Democrat or Republican, to convince his own administration, not to mention Congress and the American people, to enter into an alliance with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy for which Americans feel little affinity. In becoming a treaty ally, it would also be leapfrogging over critical partners like Taiwan, which are both democratic and more strategically important.
Beyond all this, a defense pact with the United States is not something Riyadh can afford, nor is it something it really needs. It is also not what the U.S.-Saudi security relationship requires to become stronger. Instead, more effective security cooperation between the two sides is what is really needed, one that is undergirded by a new and more centralized U.S. military posture in the kingdom that includes a security cooperation office and a base operating support-integrator.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.