Under the headline, “U.S.-Saudi Deal Sets Path to Normalize Kingdom’s Ties with Israel,” on Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published a detailed report of the content of U.S.-Saudi discussions. The headline was accurate as far as that goes. But the content of the article made clear that Israel is not the real focus of the discussions.
Although the story paid homage to the media’s favored issue: Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, it acknowledged that the Palestinians are at best a tertiary issue for Saudi officials, who “have dwindling patience for uncompromising and divided Palestinian leaders with limited popular support.”
U.S. and Saudi negotiations are centered on two main issues: China and America’s strategic alignment in the Middle East.
China is the focus of U.S. demands from the Saudis. U.S. President Joe Biden’s advisers have presented economic, technological and military demands to the Saudis relating to their burgeoning ties with China. Economically, Biden’s advisers are seeking assurances from the Saudis that they will not replace the U.S. dollar as the currency of exchange in global energy markets. Over the past year and a half, the Saudis have agreed to sell their oil to the Chinese in yuan. The problem with the U.S. position is that it was the Biden administration itself that created the opening for a parallel market for energy sales not tied to the petrodollar.
The Biden administration responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 18 months ago by imposing unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia’s international trade. Among other things, it barred the purchase of Russian oil. But price increases in the global energy market as a consequence of the move made it unsustainable. Russia was quick to respond in cooperation with China, India and other key economies by setting up alternative, non-dollar-denominated energy markets. If the United States wants to restore the petrodollar’s position as the sole currency of exchange in the global energy markets, then it has to scale back its anti-Russian sanctions or massively increase its own oil production to increase supply in the international market.
Obviously, such policies require shifts both in the administration’s domestic energy policies and in its Russia policies. The likelihood of such moves on the eve of a presidential election, when Biden needs to keep progressive activists in his camp, is not high.
As for technology, the Journal reported the Biden administration is demanding that the Saudis limit their use of Chinese Huawei 5G technology.
The issue of Chinese 5G technology is similarly complicated and at least in part, driven by U.S. structural weaknesses. As Carice Witte, executive director of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership), explained on “The Caroline Glick Show” in early July, China is building Saudi Arabia’s new technology-based city, Neom. The United States, whose oil companies and contractors built Saudi Arabia’s oil industry and much of the country itself in the 20th century, is no longer in the business of building cities. As for technology, America offers its allies no real alternative to Huawei’s 5G communication infrastructure.
Israel is the only U.S. ally in the Middle East and one of just a few U.S. allies worldwide that have banned use of Huawei systems in their territories. Non-Chinese alternatives are available. In some cases, they are inferior. In some cases, they are more expensive. To convince the Saudis to embrace them, the administration will need to make significant changes in its strategic outlook and positioning in the region.
The Journal reported that the United States seeks assurances from the Saudis that they will not permit the Chinese to build and operate military bases on Saudi territory—as the United Arab Emirates has done.
This demand is eminently doable. But it draws us into the much more significant issue of credibility of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, and for that matter, the U.S.-Israel alliance.
The American demand that the Saudis not permit China to build military bases in the kingdom is directly related to the three security demands that the Saudis have presented to the United States as conditions for a U.S.-brokered peace deal with Israel. The Saudis seek U.S. cooperation in the development of peaceful nuclear-energy capabilities for the kingdom; recognition as a major non-NATO ally from the United States and an end to the limits the administration placed on weapons sales in Saudi Arabia in 2021.
Progressives in Congress are expected to oppose all three Saudi demands, and their opposition in part is aligned with the administration’s own positions. Biden and his advisers ran for office on a foreign-policy platform that was harshly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman specifically and the Saudis more generally, and openly supportive of the Islamic regime in Iran. On the face of things, the administration can easily undo what it has done. It can end the limitations on arms sales. And it can certainly give Saudi Arabia the status of major non-NATO ally. After all, Biden gave that status to Qatar in 2021 even as Qatar sponsors Hamas, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and remains Iran’s top ally in the Arab world.
As for the peaceful nuclear-energy demand, the administration can render the issue moot by blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal.
All of these actions are possible. But they all require a realignment of the administration’s strategic position in the region. For the administration to satisfy the Saudis’ demands, it needs to abandon its efforts to replace Saudi Arabia and Israel with Iran as the United States’ chief partners and allies in the region. This means the administration needs to end its nuclear diplomacy with Teheran, or fundamentally change its position from supporting Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, to active backing of Israeli-Saudi efforts to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state.
The Saudis are not blind. They understand that after America’s failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little to no public support in the United States for a significant build-up of military forces in the region, much less for active U.S. involvement in a major military push to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line. This is why a U.S. realignment away from Iran and towards Israel and Saudi Arabia becomes critical.
If Washington wishes to both maintain its position as the preeminent superpower in the region, scaling back China’s inroads and at a minimum, containing Russia, it needs to provide its currently spurned strategic regional allies—Israel and Saudi Arabia—with certain strategic and diplomatic guarantees. It needs to stand with them diplomatically against Iran, shielding both countries from assaults at the United Nations, among other things. It needs to provide them with the military materiel and logistical support through Central Command to enable them to take the necessary actions to block Iran’s efforts to build and maintain nuclear warheads.
If the Biden administration does these things, it will secure America’s position in the region. It will also see significant advances in its economic and technological demands from Saudi Arabia regarding China. It will likely receive significant responsiveness from other states in the region as well.
But to implement this policy, the administration must first abandon its efforts to embrace and appease Iran.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby responded on Wednesday afternoon to The Wall Street Journal report saying, “There is no agreed-to framework to codify normalization or any of the security considerations that we and our friends have in the region.”
In other words, as of Aug. 9, the White House remains unwilling to shift its strategic posture in the region.
The postscript of this state of affairs is the headline of the Journal article: Saudi-Israel ties. In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear the direction that those ties are moving.
“There is an economic corridor of energy transport and communications that naturally goes through our geography … from Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to Europe. We’re going to realize that,” said Netanyahu.
Crucially, he added: “By the way, my sense is that we’re going to realize that … whether we have formal peace or not.”
In previous statements, Netanyahu detailed that he foresees the construction of direct rail links between the UAE and Saudi Arabia through Jordan to the Mediterranean. Goods shipped this way will augment maritime travel through the Suez Canal, which is already operating at full capacity. It will also economically and technologically integrate Israel into the region. So from a practical perspective then, the only thing required to actually “normalize” Israeli-Saudi ties is the railroad—or even expanded highways for truck-based transport.
Such an infrastructure link between Israel and Saudi Arabia move won’t diminish Chinese influence in the region. It won’t diminish Russian influence or expand U.S. influence. And that is why the deal on the table isn’t so much about Israel-Saudi peace, but rather about the future role the United States wishes to play.
If Biden seeks to secure U.S. power in the region, he will abandon Obama’s failed policy of aligning with the U.S.’s most powerful regional enemy against its most powerful regional allies and embrace them, and the formal normalization of their relations.
If Biden fails to take this deal, the current regional dynamics will continue to play out. China will continue to rise. Russia will remain powerful. The United States will continue to bleed power and influence. America’s spurned allies will continue to make the required concessions to the changing superpower dynamics. They will also continue to integrate their economies to strengthen their national positions in the face of the rising threat from Iran and the shifting superpower balance in the region.