Advanced arms and technology for a monarchy with an appalling human rights record: the US-Saudi Arabia Security Pact

A security guarantee, assistance in developing a nuclear program, and more unrestricted arms sales in exchange for the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations is what the Biden administration proposes to Saudi Arabia in a bilateral agreement that is close to being finalized between the two countries. Long gone are Biden’s words in the 2019 Democratic primary elections declaring Saudi Arabia’s state as a “pariah” after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi intelligence officials in Turkey. According to the new Biden posture, the kingdom is now worthy of a security guarantee.

The supporters of the agreement assert that it would enhance regional security in the Middle East by reinforcing the U.S.-led alliance against Iran, containing the rising influence of China in the Arab world, and pushing for the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, as Foreign Policy noted, the potential harms of this deal seem to outweigh the overstated benefits it would bring for the Biden Administration and the international security order as a whole.

Concerning the alliance against Iran, the reality is that Saudi Arabia has, for quite a while now, benefited from both U.S. arms sales and military and diplomatic assistance. Thanks to that, the U.S. has already been placing relevant constraints on the Islamic Republic’s actions, and there is no pressing need to add more elements to this deterrence strategy. If anything, by strengthening security ties with the kingdom, Saudi Arabia might feel freer than before to make aggressive moves in regional policy, possibly drawing the U.S. into the subsequent region’s violence. Moreover, assisting Saudi Arabia in developing civilian nuclear power could initiate a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf by increasing Iran’s threat perception and supplying Saudi Arabia with essential components for nuclear weapons construction.

In regard to keeping China’s influence in the Middle East under control, it should be noted that the already existing Saudi-Chinese relations are rooted in both strong economic interests and interests of other nature. For example, China has been, for years, the largest export and import partner of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, it does not seem that this agreement will prevent both partners from actively engaging with one another in the future. In any case, when dealing with China in the pursuit of its national interests, the Saudis will continue to be attracted by the Asian country’s disregard for human rights deficiencies in partner countries.

As for the third objective of the agreement, truth be told, although the U.S. will try to take advantage of the Israeli desire to pursue the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia to force the country to moderate its calamitous offensive in Gaza or move toward a two-state solution, Israel’s opposition to both of these aims will render any Israeli-Saudi normalization remote. Even more so knowing that Riyadh has defended the need for Israel’s support of a Palestinian state as a key component of any Saudi recognition of Israel. As the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft asserts, if the Biden administration wants to really exert pressure on Israel, “the voluminous U.S. aid and diplomatic cover that the United States gives to Israel represent much larger and more direct sources of leverage than any indirect maneuver involving Saudi Arabia”. Biden would do well to keep this in mind, as the current U.S.’s stance in the war in Gaza risks losing his re-election.

However, the U.S.-Saudi Pact not only does not suit US strategic interests but also jeopardizes the numerous efforts to end human rights abuses in the country. It should not be forgotten that  Saudi citizens do not enjoy political rights and their civil liberties are severely restricted and continuously repressed. Also, abroad, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has assassinated and forced the disappearance of ideological opponents. In view of these facts, finalizing an agreement of any nature that contemplates no provisions whatsoever about the promotion and protection of human rights with such kind of a regime, is beyond reprehensible for the U.S. part. Not only that, but the double standards of U.S. foreign policy, with its uneven support for self-determination and human rights in the Middle East, but its full support for Ukraine, explain why so many people, in particular in the global south, “are reticent to join the U.S. in just causes such as aiding Ukraine”.

Additionally, this pact’s desirability is more difficult to understand if taking into account the fact that backing Riyadh is a losing topic in U.S. politics. In this respect, according to Foreign Policy, a majority of Americans have held an unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. Biden’s support of a U.S.-Saudi deal could thus raise significant opposition from Americans hostile toward Saudi Arabia for different reasons: the Yemen War, oil prices, human rights, and allegations surrounding the 9/11 terror attacks. Furthermore, Biden could lose the support of Arab, Muslim, left-leaning, and young American voters, who constitute an important part of Democrat voters, if the deal passes and it appears to benefit Israel at the expense of Palestinians. This assertion is not to be taken lightly, as in 2020, Biden won nearly 60 percent of the Arab American vote in the US presidential election against Trump.

The only clear winner of this pact is the authoritarian regime of Saudi Arabia. As the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft argues, the value the country places in this pact lies in the anomaly of having “an absolute hereditary monarchy ruling over a supposedly modernizing state in the twenty-first century” and realizing the inherent instability of such a combination. As a consequence, the U.S.-Saudi agreement, representing a diplomatic hug from a superpower, can be understood as a way to help Saudi Arabia extend this anomaly, along with the negative repercussions this may have on the struggle for human rights.

Rewarding the Saudi monarchy’s authoritarianism and militarism is not the right path to follow.  As several US congressional representatives stated in a 2022 letter to President Biden, even though the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been an important U.S. partner, it cannot be ignored that its leadership has repeatedly acted in ways at odds with U.S. policy and values.