During his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden announced that his country “will not move away” from the Middle East. “The United States will remain an active and engaged partner in the Middle East,” Biden assured Arab leaders at a summit in Jeddah.
US relations with key Arab countries like Saudi Arabia date back to the Cold War era. In 1945, the United States offered its security umbrella to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in exchange for oil. Washington also developed cordial ties with Egypt and Iraq in the 1980s due to regime change in those countries. The United Arab Emirates also enjoyed strong relations with the United States in the mid-1970s. Previously, however, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Jordan had taken a hard line towards Israel. since its creation in May 1948.
At the start of the Cold War, these Arab states fought militarily with Israel in 1948-49, 1967 and 1973. However, due to sophisticated military technology and weaponry, thanks to the United States, Israel prevailed over its rivals whose nationalist leaders failed to modernize their armies. They also failed to come to terms with the contours of regional geopolitics that Israel was backed by US-led allies as a counterweight to regional rivals, including the USSR and post-revolutionary Iran. . After concluding after the 1973 war that the Arabs had neither the will nor the ability to defeat Israel, Egypt chose to normalize relations. As a result, he became a major recipient of American military hardware and economic aid. Jordan did the same in the mid-1990s.
Egypt has also received loans and assistance from multilateral organizations like the IMF which have helped it achieve monetary stability and some measure of economic development. Importantly, Egypt also signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. However, Saudi Arabia and Iraq maintained their confrontational stance towards Tel Aviv for another 40 years. The UAE did not have diplomatic relations with Israel during the said period but remained in clandestine contact with Tel Aviv during the 1990s and 2000s. Covert interactions focused on security and intelligence. Israel opened “trade offices” in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in 1996, but following public backlash, these were closed.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States flourished during the last decades of the 20th century. Although the breadth of bilateral relations was disrupted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when 15 of the 19 terrorists were discovered to be from Saudi Arabia. However, the Kingdom has denied any role in this regard and US authorities have targeted terrorists while maintaining a stable relationship with Riyadh especially during the war in Iraq where Saudi military bases were used by the US military for its operations in Iraq. Moreover, oil-focused trade relations also remained on track. An irritant to bilateral relations came in the form of the US-led nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch rival in the region, in 2016, when the Obama administration attempted to reconfigure the geopolitics of the Middle East. However, the Democrats lost the presidential election and Donald Trump made a famous visit to the Kingdom in 2017 where bilateralism was championed even in trade and military terms. Riyadh is the largest buyer of American military equipment. The United States has relied on Saudi carbon resources for the past few decades. However, Washington has started buying more oil from Canada and Mexico and focusing on its shale reserves.
Another irritant in bilateral relations came from the US-led nuclear deal with Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s arch rival in the region, in 2016, when the Obama administration attempted to reconfigure the geopolitics of the Middle East. However, the Democrats lost the presidential election and Donald Trump made a famous visit to the Kingdom in 2017 where bilateralism was championed even in trade and military terms. Riyadh is the first buyer of American military equipment.
Above all, Saudi oil reserves are about to be exhausted. The Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salam (MBS) therefore initiated Vision 2030 to diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on carbon resources. Socio-economic concerns have also been a factor in Saudi and Emirati policies towards Israel, smaller in territorial terms than the old FATA but rich in technology. Israel is also Iran’s declared enemy. The logic of “enemy of enemy” has been key to relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia through informal contacts. Recent academic studies on the Middle East have shown that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020 as part of a strategic agreement with Saudi Arabia. However, the Kingdom itself has appeared reluctant to make a similar leap, perhaps due to its traditional anti-Israel rhetoric following which Saudi society generally views Israel in negative terms.
The way MBS goes against the conventional ethos by, for example, allowing women to drive cars, it seems that Saudi Arabia could also revise its foreign policy towards Israel. The contours of such a policy shift were made possible by Biden’s visit whereby, in a first move, Saudi authorities allowed Israeli flights through Saudi airspace. This development will help map popular perceptions about the possibility of formal Saudi-Israeli relations in the coming months. It may also create a soft corner for MBS in the Biden administration, if not in American society. Pro-Israel lobbies around the world see this as a positive development.
Biden’s visit was also aimed at urging Saudi officials to pump more oil for the United States so the latter can weather the deepening recession. However, the Saudis have made no formal commitment in this regard. The issue will probably be discussed again at the next GCC+ 3 summit (Iraq, Egypt and Jordan). Additionally, regional issues such as the future of the Palestinian state, the extension of the Yemeni truce and the demilitarization of the Red Sea islands were also discussed. However, lasting solutions to the conflicts in the Palatine and Yemen require more thought. Finally, the Biden-led United States warned its regional rivals. He said: “We will not leave to leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran. Will the United States have the will and the ability to counter China and Russia in the Middle East? Will Washington refocus on this region in the years to come? Currently, the United States seems more focused on the Indo-Pacific than any other part of the world.
The author holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Heidelberg and a post-doctorate from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Iqra University in Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]