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Who Lost Saudi Arabia?

Posted on Wednesday, March 15, 2023
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by Daniel Berman
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AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

Saudi Arabia

In the 1950s, the battle cry of critics of American foreign policy was “Who lost China?” In 2023, we are in danger of being forced to reckon with the question “Who lost Saudi Arabia?”

The news late last week that Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose rivalry has driven Middle Eastern politics for over a decade, have set aside their differences enough to restore diplomatic relations shocked the world. Worse, from the perspective of the United States, the reconciliation was mediated by the People’s Republic of China.

A beaming Wang Yi, one of the most senior figures in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, stood between the Saudi and Iranian representatives in a Beijing ceremony which seemed designed to mimic the pageantry of the Abraham Accords.

It did not quite reach the level of its inspiration. Wang Yi is not the Chinese Foreign Minister, much less Xi Jinping, and neither the Saudi Crown Prince nor Iran’s President were present.

Instead, the countries were represented by their respective national security advisors. The importance the parties attached to the agreement, which after all was about restoring diplomatic ties, not about the mechanics of any specific cooperation, was inflated by a Washington media and foreign policy establishment more rattled by Beijing’s involvement than the actual substance of the agreement.

This does not mean, however, that the announcement should not concern Washington, or America’s allies in the region, especially Israel, where Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government traded accusations with his predecessor, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, over who was responsible for “losing” Saudi Arabia.

The answer is no one, at least not yet. The same day the deal was announced, the Saudi government announced its conditions for normalizing relations with Israel, an unthinkable prospect prior to the Abraham Accords and a sign that even with restored ties to Tehran, Riyadh would prefer a westward orientation.

Saudi Arabia requested explicit security guarantees from the United States, along with the delivery of promised support for its civilian nuclear program.

Geopolitically, these requests seem reasonable enough. The U.S. seems prepared to offer security guarantees to Ukraine when Russia poses a much more formidable threat than Iran, much less Yemen, and the integrity of the Saudi monarchy has been a core principle of U.S. policy in the region since the 1940s.

While hesitancy regarding any nuclear program is understandable, the U.S. is negotiating to help supply Iran with fuel for its “civilian” nuclear program, purportedly to prevent the development of a weapons program. It is unclear what basis exists for denying the Saudis the same – except for hostility toward Saudi Arabia itself.

That sentiment has grown strong among Democrats in Congress, who even called for sanctions last fall when the Saudis refused to back OPEC price cuts on oil before the midterm elections.

This attitude has not gone unnoticed by the Saudis, nor should it have. They live in a dangerous neighborhood, where the fate of those who lose the “game of thrones” has been amply demonstrated.

A significant portion of Democrats in the United States have made clear how happy they would be to see the Saudis displaced, perhaps even by Iran, as America’s ally in the region. As a result, the reliability of long-term U.S. support has been understandably called into question. From the perspective of the Saudis, it would be foolish indeed to burn their bridges with Moscow and Beijing when too many in Washington would like rid of them.

The proposed terms for normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel can be interpreted as a test of the American commitment to their bilateral relationship.

If the United States is willing to commit to Saudi Arabia as it has to Ukraine, and to trust the Saudi regime with a nuclear program, Saudi Arabia is willing to undertake the major step of normalization with Israel. If the United States is not willing to do so, the message will be that Washington does not trust Saudi Arabia with a nuclear program, nor is it willing to commit to a future partnership with Saudi Arabia.

At that point, Riyadh will have no choice but to pursue other options, and the recent agreement with Iran, as well as Xi Jinping’s visit to the Kingdom in December, make clear what one of those options will be.

The irrationality and temperamental immaturity is not coming from the Saudis, Iranians, or Chinese, but from the United States.

It would be one thing if the United States had an alternative to the Saudis that could play a similar role in regional security, global energy markets, and the Islamic world. But the United States does not.

Hopes that a moderating Iran might play such a role in reality died with the Shah’s regime in 1978, and should now be buried with Iran’s open cooperation with Russia in Ukraine and the violence with which the regime is suppressing internal opponents. Even the Biden team insists that restoring the deal is not a priority for the moment, though Iran says they have continued to receive backchannel proposals.

What, then, does antagonizing Saudi Arabia accomplish? It creates a situation in which the United States pays all the costs it otherwise would for a Saudi alliance, including the protection of Saudi interests in the region, but reaps fewer of the benefits due to forcing the Saudis to watch their back and pursue fallback options. This was the basic insight that Donald Trump’s administration brought to office – paving the way for the Abraham Accords.

Saudi Arabia has not been “lost” yet. But if the United States does not treat Saudi Arabia like an ally, then the Saudis will look to others who will. And if human rights and “the liberal international order” are obstacles to a close relationship with Washington, the Saudis will look to those who are less bothered by such scruples.

In such an event, it may not be only Saudi Arabia that is lost. Israel too is receiving its fair share of hostility from the Democratic Party, with some Democrats even describing America’s strongest Middle East ally as an “apartheid” state.

With one of the world’s leading hi-tech industries, Israel would be the greatest prize in the region for China, which is facing a U.S.-led blockade on technological imports. If the U.S. is not careful, China delivering Saudi-Iranian normalization might turn out to just be a warm-up act. Israeli-Saudi normalization, paired with a Sino-Israeli free trade deal next year, could turn out to be the real show for Chinese diplomacy in the region.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.

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Hal-
Hal-
1 year ago

Who lost Saudi Arabia? Any thing politically undesirable always seems to have the DemocRat Party attached to it somehow.

George Washington's Admirer
George Washington's Admirer
1 year ago

Right now, the question remains: “Why won’t Saudi Arabia bail out the World’s Banks?
God Bless & Protect These United States of America!

PaulE
PaulE
1 year ago

It’s not so much who lost Saudi Arabia, but rather who intentionally gave it and other Middle Eastern countries away. The answer to that is of course obviously Joe Biden and his team of merry socialists. From Day One in office, the Biden administration was determined to undo all the successes President Trump achieved with the Abraham Accords. Too much peace and cooperation was breaking out in the Middle East and that had to be reversed at all costs. You can’t have war and make a lot of money in arms sales to the various middle eastern countries, if everyone is getting along and Iran is effectively isolated and going broke. So, Team Biden not only began a campaign of alienate the Saudis, but also have done their best to do the same with every other American ally in the Middle East. The disastrously incompetent Afghanistan withdrawal just helped put an emphasis on the point that the United States was changing course under new leadership. All while ending the Iranian sanctions and crawling back to the Iranians in hopes of getting Obama’s ludicrous Iranian Nuclear Deal reinstated.

So, with most of our middle eastern allies realizing that the United States under Joe Biden was NOT going to have their backs or pursue any of the policies put forth by President Trump, they obviously began looking at the country that the United States has been deferring to since Biden was sworn in. That being China. Countries look to establish alliances with strong nations, not weak or declining ones. So, when the Saudis see the United States routinely defer to China, that sends a powerful message. We shouldn’t be surprised that China took advantage of our weakness under Joe Biden to persuade the Saudis to re-establish diplomatic relations with Iran.

David Millikan
David Millikan
1 year ago

biden lost Saudi Arabia and the Solomon Islands to Communist China.
Funny though that biden begged Saudi Arabia for Oil (Instead of leaving the United States #1 in Energy Independence Drilling Oil and Natural Gas with Coal Mining) and let Prince off for murder charges but continues to let Communist China break sanctions buying Oil from Iran.
Bottom line, Continuous FAILURE of foreign policies or enforcement of sanctions on Iran or any other foreign country for that matter.
Now, Saudi Arabia and Iran are buddies with Communist China reopening their embassies there thanks to biden.
And we LOST a strategic alliance with the Solomon Islands on top of it that the United States had since WWII.
Failure after failure is biden’s legacy.

Helen C
Helen C
1 year ago

Biden would rather beg Saudi’s for more oil for US than restart XL Keystone pipeline in US and more than 3 drilling pads in Alaska.

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